When it came to gardens, my father showed no favorites. He tended his shade gardens with as much attention as he did his sun-filled gardens. Comparisons are odious, he liked to say! Why not see if there is a spot where you can tuck in a shade garden this summer?
Before you plant
Determine how much shade your garden gets, and if it is moist or dry. Is the shade dappled or deep? Is the area shady all day, or only in the morning or the afternoon? Remember not all shade comes from trees! Roof lines and nearby structures also create shade.
What to plant
Shade gardeners have plenty of choices, and they aren’t only green foliage. Plan a garden that incorporates native shade-loving plants with showy blooms to create a stunning garden from early spring through the first frost.
Hostas (Hosta spp.) come in a wide variety of sizes, shapes, and colors. Because there are so many to choose from, they are perfect for shade gardens. Their flowers provide stalks of color beginning in mid-summer that are beautiful in floral arrangements. Beware that these plants are a favorite deer snack.
Astilbe (Astilbe x arendsii)—sometimes called false goatbeard or false spirea—have fern-like foliage and elegant plume-like flowers that create fountains of color ranging from white to pinks and reds. Astilbes do best in loamy, moist soil.
Of hellebores (Helleborus spp.), David Colle wrote in Fine Gardening magazine: “You simply have to love a plant that braves what nature throws at it and can still show off from February through May.” Often referred to as the Lenten Rose, these evergreen perennials can tolerate dry shade and require little attention. They are a favorite of aphids, though, so be sure they are well-spaced with plenty of air circulation.
In September and October, the long-blooming freckled blossoms of the toad lily (Tricyrtis spp.) appear, providing a spot of color until frost. “Some, such as Tricyrtis formosana, have their blooms clustered at the top of the stalk, like daylilies. Others, such as Tricyrtis ‘Lightning Strike’, have their flowers marching down an arched stem,” according to the Chicago Botanical Garden. These plants like moist soil rich in organic matter. Toad lilies are another plant that deer love.
Be sure to purchase these native plants from trusted nurseries that do not collect them from the wild!
Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum), named for the Old Testament’s wise King Solomon, is lovely from spring through the fall. In April, look for creamy, bell-like flowers hanging from arching stems (1 to 6 feet tall). In the fall, the plants sport blueish-black fruits that are favorites of birds. Solomon’s seal grows moderately in clumps.
Miniature blue (sometimes lavender or white) crested iris (Iris cristata) put on a show in the spring. They are deer resistant and can thrive in partial to full shade.
Masses of trillium (Trillium spp.) bloom in the forest understory along the Blue Ridge Parkway in the spring. Known as the trinity flower, because of its three leaves, the flowers range in color from white and yellow to pink and burgundy.
They come in all sizes, shapes, and textures—from lush, tall Christmas and cinnamon ferns, to low-growing, gray-shaded Japanese ferns, and delicate maidenhair ferns. Many are native to our mountains, hardy and—in most cases—deer-resistant.
New York fern (Thelypteris noveboracensis) has fronds that grow up to two feet and makes a lovely addition to any woodland garden. It spreads easily in acidic, organic-rich soil.
Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris)—named for its fronds that resemble feathers—is a hardy, deciduous fern that produces “fiddleheads.” It prefers heavy, moist soil and plenty of shade, although it can tolerate some light.
Fossil evidence puts the royal fern family (Osmunda regalis) in the Triassic period. They like wet, rich soil and plenty of shade. Their feathery fronds often resemble flowers, hence its other name—flowering fern.
Maidenhair spleenwort’s (Asplenium trichomanes) name doesn’t do it justice. This petite evergreen fern (just 4 to 7 inches) favors moist, but well-drained rock crevices, making it perfect for rock gardens.
Japanese painted ferns (Athyrium nipponicum) really do look as if an artist’s brush decorated them in subtle tones of maroon, green, and silver gray. They are an excellent choice in shade gardens when you want to add a touch of low-growing color.
Naturalized daffodils (Narcissus) make for beautiful spring sightings in a forest understory. You can create the same effect in your shade garden using a variety of bulbs from very small to big and bold. Unlike tulips, hyacinths, and crocus, deer and rodents typically don’t eat daffodil bulbs because they are poisonous.
What hidden beauty does your shade possess? The possibilities are endless.
Article written by Janet Moore, Extension Master GardenerSM Volunteer.
For more information on each of these plants, go to
https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu and search by plant name.