My theory of gardening is that we're all amateurs. As soon as we meet one challenge, a new one comes along requiring a different set of skills and knowldege. My last garden was small, flat, full of sun and the reflected heat off the adjacent blacktop driveway. So it is entirely fitting that this garden is half an acre with ups, downs and mostly shade. Deep, filtered, half-day, dry, damp — I've got shade. The sunniest spot in the garden is reserved for the pond so we can grow water lilies.
In more than a dozen years of shade gardening, here's what I've learned:
* SHADE AND FLOWERS ARE NOT MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE: My house is 50-years-old with silver and sugar maples, Arborvitae, Austrian pines, spruces and honey locusts of the same age on the property. All have flowers blooming beneath them.
This Chinese ginger (Saruma henryi) is on the north side of the house, under an ancient crabapple and at the edge of a row of big, old yews. Blooms for weeks, along with Geraniums, Hellebores, Lily-of-the-valley (with striped leaves) and toad lilies.
The front garden (above and below) has swaths of Geranium macrorrhizum so dense that no weeds invade the area. It includes the magenta species as well as pale pink 'Bevan's Variety' and almost white 'Ingwersen's Variety'. The deeper the shade, the more sporadic the flowers, however. These are at the front edge of the maple canopy. Also pictured are Hostas, a Spirea bush and Ladies Mantle (Alchemilla mollis).
* MID-SIZE TREES AND SHRUBS CAN GROW IN THE SHADE BENEATH THE BIG GUYS: That bit of information started us adding woodys to the garden at a steady rate from the beginning. We stopped counting at 200. Among our favorites are Pagoda Dogwoods (Cornus alternifolia), including this yellow-leaved variety called 'Golden Shadows.' It grows in a bed of sweet woodruff under a pair of spruce trees and gets some afternoon light.
* SHADE PLANTS CAN TAKE MORE SUN THAN YOU MIGHT EXPECT: They're never happy with hot, afternoon sun but can manage even that if they have adequate moisture. This Hosta 'Spritzer' lost its shade cover when the cherry tree that gave it some respite from the sun gave up the ghost last year. In the late afternoon, when it gets a dose of western sun, it does tend to wilt. But it's looking good a couple of hours later and I'm just letting it get acclimated to this new condition. Typically, yellow and bright green Hostas can take more sun than blue varieties.
As for the primrose, it's doing fine. So, it too will stay in place until it sends me a message suggesting that it can't cope with conditions.
FERNS ARE FABULOUS SHADE PLANTS: And the same one can often do well in a multitude of locations and situations. The fern below — Fishbone fern (Linearis Ploydactila) — is planted in areas with dry and moist shade, with little sun and with a strong dose of afternoon sun. All the plants are doing fine.
The same is true of Japanese painted fern; it can be happy in lots of locations. However, its coloration can change depending on light and moisture as these two photos (below) demonstrate. These two ferns grow across from each, separated by a path about a foot wide. The ferns on the side that gets a bit of sun are more yellow green, while silver predominates on the shadier plants.
Other ferns in this family seem less adaptable; 'Wildwood Twist,' for example, has been slow to increase in its rather dry spot.
* FLOWERS ARE FLEETING: Ultimately, it's the combinations of leaf shape, color and texture that create a successful shade garden. The two pictures below are of a small area at the top of the stream in my garden. The planting includes a Rodgersia henrici (pinnata), June Bride Heuchera (Heuchera sanguinea 'June Bride'), Heuchera 'Silver Veil,' and Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola').
To see how other gardeners cope with shade, check out "Made for the Shade," the May Garden Bloggers Design Workshop on Gardening Gone Wild.