Do you have a shady spot in your garden? An old established tree might take up an entire corner of your yard or a neighbor’s tall house might create a big cool shadow. You might feel discouraged and unsure what to do. Well, don’t worry because you can still grow a lot of colorful plants. If you mix in some fresh compost in the area and occasionally water, you can make several perennials for shade very happy. Here are six of my favorites.
Georgia Peach Coral Bells
Heucheras are wonderful because they don’t just bloom with color but sport colored foliage all season long. And is the orangey-red color on Georgia Peach stunning or what? This evergreen perennial grows to about 12″ tall and puts out tall spikes of teeny flowers that hummingbirds love. To keep it happy, give it a few applications of fish fertilizer in spring and summer. I grow it beside ‘Merlin’ Hellebore (see below) whose dusky rose-colored blooms recall Georgia Peach’s rosy foliage. Hardy to zone 4.
Hadspen Cream Brunnera
With its light blue flowers in April and spade-shaped leaves, Hadspen Cream Brunnera brightens dim areas nicely. It practically glows! I also like Hadspen Cream because the variegation is yellower than other cultivars and therefore, softer in beauty. I’ve also found it’s easier to design with in terms of perennial pairings. It grows to about a foot tall and flowers in delicate blue forget-me-not-like blooms. This photo shows it emerging, not fully grown yet. Herbaceous. Hardy to zone 3.
Fragrant Blue Hosta
I love hostas. They come in so many colors and sizes. And they’re tough. Yes, slugs might chew little holes in their leaves but a bit of Sluggo or beer will solve that problem. I have many favorites but one I think should be used more is Fragrant Blue. The large-ish leaves beam in the shade with a creamy, greenish-blue color, creating bold impact. The white flowers are fragrant. Grows to about ten inches tall. Herbaceous. Hardy to zone 3.
Blue Lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis) cheers up a garden in early spring with delicate, two-toned flowers: pink and smokey blue. The white speckles on the foliage add even more interest, and once this plant takes off, you’ll have lots of babies to either cover your bare ground or pass on to friends. The foliage looks a little tired by late summer but you can cut down the leaves and they’ll grow back in a tight happy mat. Herbaceous. Hardy to zone 3.
Lime Rickey Coral Bells
Heuchera ‘Lime Rickey’ is worth growing just for that chartreuse foliage. It glows as if someone turned on a neon sign! This Coral Bells cultivar creates pretty scalloped leaves and delicate white flowers. Plant it beside a dark hellebore for a brilliant contrast. Works great in containers. It’s mostly evergreen but may be die back in some areas. Hardy to zone 4.
Merlin Lenten Rose
If you need a reliably handsome hellebore, consider Helleborus x ballardiae ‘Merlin.’ It grows unusual blue-green foliage with white veins for an almost variegated look. It also blooms for weeks with dusky rose-colored flowers that echo the Georgia Peach’s foliage nicely. Hellebores are classified as evergreen but their leaves often look brown and anemic after winter. You can remedy that by cutting them all off at the base in early spring. Fresh new growth will appear soon afterward. Grows to about ten inches tall, hardy to zone 4.
Last weekend, I opened my garden to the public. I’d agreed to share my large, albeit imperfect, sanctuary, because I’d wanted to help people be social again and get things back to “normal.” But that simple yes meant months of weeding, digging, transplanting, and all else. Lots of hauling. I also stressed every night about the garden looking tidy and cheery for visitors. All this while my back slowly tightened and my body created a fiery pain I’ve never experienced before.
In the end, the tour went well. Hundreds of visitors came through and I even sold a good number of my books, including my newest, Leaf Your Troubles Behind. I got to chat about gardening all day, helping people discover cool plants while meeting plant aficionados. It was lovely. I went to bed relieved and tired.
A couple friends who couldn’t make it asked me to post photos online. So here’s how the garden looked in June of 2022.
The 3B’s Island Bed
I have a flame-shaped island bed near the house that gets full sun. A long time ago, I planted a spine of shrubs down the middle for winter structure. Then I planted perennials and low shrubs along the spine.
Each plant I chose to attract bees, butterflies, or birds. These include butterfly bush (buddleia), blue-leaf rose (rosa glauca), smokebush (cotinus), escallonia, spiraea, weigela, false indigo (baptisia), coneflower (echinacea), sage (salvia), crocosmia, and more.
I also have a border that gets shade from an oak in the morning and a blast of hot afternoon sun. At first, this area plagued me as I tried plants that I thought would work but didn’t. It was either too sunny or too shady. So I tried hardy fuchsias. They thrived without much help from me at all.
Then, to play off those deep purple and magenta tones, I planted blue star junipers (juniperus) and blue surprise false cypress (chamaecyparis). I contrasted these with a purple-leafed hyndrangea (Hydrangea ‘Plum Passion’), purple coral bells (heuchera), and fringe flowers (loropetalum). Finally, I filled in with crocosmia, Japanese forest grasses, and hostas. A gold variegated dogwood (Cornus kousa ‘Summer Gold’), pictured above in background, anchors the whole thing.
My most prized plant is my Chilean fire tree (embothrium coccineum). It’s native to the mountains of Chile and blooms in bold orange flowers. Hummingbirds love them!
My front border is mostly shady and I’ve had decent success with it outside of when the deer find my one large hosta. It’s a mix of aucuba, hydrangea, fuchsia, heucheras, and rhododendrons.
Oftentimes, when people visit my yard, they ask about my favorite hosta in the whole world. It’s not only blue, gold, and chartreuse, it’s also slug-resistant since it has corrugated leaves. It’s hosta ‘June,’ a low-maintenance hosta that needs shade, water, and not much else to look stunning.
Now, that the tour is over, I’ve been relaxing on my patio and enjoying the tidy garden. I realized that sharing it inspired a lot of folks. Several people, with sparks in their eyes, told me they were ready to dig into a new design or seek out the unusual plants they’d seen. Their excitement makes my long hours of backbreaking work worth it.