Plants Made for the Shade

My garden is about eighty percent shady. This despite the fact that my back yard has a southern exposure. Shade happens when you live in a neighborhood of huge mature oaks and beeches, and your neighbor to the rear has about 15 of them in her back yard. So when I became an avid gardener, I quickly learned to look for and use planting combinations that work well in non-sunny sites.

Japanese painted fern, Athryium nipponicum 'Pictum', skimmia

A Japanese painted fern nestles between Skimmia and vinca next to a stone pillar in my front yard

This combination caught my eye the other morning as I headed down my front steps to fetch the morning paper.  The front yard faces north and slopes steeply. The Skimmia japonica I planted in 2001 has spread to act as a groundcover of sorts (the ONLY site where I have seen it be so successful!) and is encroaching on my Japanese painted ferns (Athyrium nipponicum ‘Pictum’). Every year I debate moving the ferns but I love their delicacy and the color and textural contrast they provide between the skimmia and the vinca.

This fern is versatile and sophisticated. Here it is in Sally Boasberg’s shade garden in DC, paired with astilbe underneath a dissected Japanese maple.

Athyrium niponicum 'Pictum,' astilbe, shade, plant combinations

Here the painted fern's fronds contrast beautifully with the darker green leaves of the astilbe.

Another favorite combination from my own garden is variegated Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum odoratum ‘Variegatum’) with Northern maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum). They are both much tougher than they appear; the Solomon’s seal is a favorite choice of mine for dry shade. Although you need to be patient, over time a single quart-sized plant will made a sizeable clump, not unlike hellebores.

Solomon's seal, maidenhair fern, shade plant combinations

Variegated Solomon's seal arches over whorled maidenhair fern foliage.

Speaking of hellebores, they are at the top of my go-to list for shade groundcovers. Drought-tolerant, deer-resistant, self seeding (but slowly), they provide flowers at a time of year when almost nothing else except the earliest bulbs are awake. Here is a clump from Brookside Gardens (in Wheaton, MD), combined with epimediums blooming in early spring. Pure magic.

Hellebores, epimedium, shade plant combinations

Dainty epimedium blooms are set off nicely against a hellebore's coarser foliage in an early spring vignette at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, MD

I can hear the colorists whispering restlessly in the background. OK, here’s a shot of screaming color that will brighten any shade garden. Although I show it alone (and apologize for the quality of the photo, as the colors are hard to capture accurately), Spigelia marilandica (Indian pink) plays nicely with more boldy-foliaged plants and some of the larger ferns, such as Christmas fern. It will grow in sun OR shade. Mine are in filtered shade and have self-seeded a bit over the years. They are a little late to emerge in spring, so be patient and don’t give up on them if you don’t see the foliage emerging right away. Great for hummingbirds!

Spigelia marilandica, Indian pink

The blooms of Spigelia marilandica, even in shade, are a vivid red and chartreuse.

I’ll close with one of my absolutely favorite shade plants – variegated Hakone grass (Hackonechloa macra ‘Aurea’). It is slow to establish but once it’s happy, it will spread almost indefinitely. I like mine planted with a blue-hued hosta or two, comme ca.

Hosta Halcyon, Hakonechloa macra 'Aurea'

Variegated Hakone grass brightens up a shady corner of my yard near Hosta 'Halcyon'

I’ve only begun to scratch the shady surface of my yard (and others’). I could – and will – do posts solely on my favorite hostas and hydrangeas. In the meantime, I would love to hear from any of you about your experiences with these or other shady beauties.

Explore posts in the same categories: landscape, Landscape design solutions

Tags: , , , ,

You can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.

3 Comments on “Plants Made for the Shade”

  1. Jean Says:

    Melissa, This post came at a great time for me, because I’m just starting to work on the design of a new woodland flower bed under some big pine trees. Thanks for the great suggestions and inspiration.

  2. Liz Reed Says:


    Finally! a chance to catch up on your posts. These shade combos are wonderful. The astilbe with jap painted fern is such a great idea! Wish we could grow
    skimmia here. I think it would be serious zone denial to try, but maybe i will…..again. (I’ve only killed it twice)
    One of my favorite shade combinations is a combination of your combinations: hakanachloa macra aurea, backed up with hellebore, with variegated solomons seal behind that. Later in the summer yellow thalictrum towered above it all. Right behind that is a fence with a trellis, where also later, (midsummer), a pale yellow clematis blooms-whose name I’ve forgotten. Though we don’t consider clematis to be shade tolerant, some of the softer colors seem to last longer without getting bleached out by the sun. They are not as prolific in shade, but as they climb, they find a bit more light, and of course love their feet shaded.
    Trying to get to DC for Open Gardens, but crazy! busy

    Elizabeth Reed Garden Design

  3. Liz Reed Says:

    oh oh oh, and speaking of hostas, a little bright green one called ‘golden tiara’ is one of my favorites, its only about 5 inches tall and spreads like a ground cover so nicely.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: