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A Garden for Shade: Fundamentally Foliage

Studio 5 Gardening Contributor Darin Engh shares his favorite plants that thrive in the shade.


Gardeners with limited sun often become frustrated because they can’t grow the wide variety of plants with showy flowers that is possible with more light. However, overtime you can readjust your expectations to appreciate the beautiful foliage, distinctive plant shapes, foliage colors, softly colored flowers, and textural differences among shade-tolerant plants.

For color in the shade that lasts all season long, concentrate on choosing plants that feature handsome foliage. Flowers are a bonus, of course, but plants with colorful variegated leaves contribute bright hues during the season, whether or not they’re in bloom. To create the most interesting plantings, look for leaves in a range of greens, too – from chartreuse through dark black-green, gray-green, and blue-green. Also, mix up leaf sizes and textures. Combine lacy ferns with bold-leaved hostas, for example.

Even if sunlight is in short supply, don’t despair. You can still have a flowerbed that really shines. Below are some excellent picks that thrive in partial to full shade, as long as they get ample moisture.

Heuchera, Coralbells – these were once grown only for their sprays of tiny, bell-shaped flowers, but new hybrids are planted for their colorful foliage. All heucheras bear clusters of tiny, sometime petal-less flowers over mounds of heart-shaped flowers. They are prized for their 1-foot-tall mounds of patterned leaves. Leaves come in many patterns, including green with silver blotches and veins, purple-brown with metallic mottling, rose-burgundy with silver overtones and purple veins, and green with purple-red mottling. Use heucheras as edging plants along a walkway, or arrange them in drifts at the front of shady beds and borders. Plants take a season or two to settle in, so be patient. Dolce Crème Brule Heuchera – Bronze foliage color with a mounded growing habit. Brown sugar highlights transform the foliage with cold temperatures.

Ajuga, Bugleweed – grown for their colorful leaves and showy spikes of colorful, spring to early-summer flowers, ajugas make a great addition to the shade garden. They are low growing plants forming ground-hugging clumps of spinach-like leaves. Plant ajuga as groundcover under trees and shrubs. Grow forms with colorful or variegated leaves in drifts as specimen plants toward the front of flowerbeds or around the edges of a sitting area. Mahogany Bugleweed– Deep, rich mahogany leaves and blue flowers in spring; tolerates deep shade and bad conditions.

Persian Shield – Iridescent, colorful leaves of purple, green and silver all season; heat tolerant.

Beyond Paradise Acalypha – This bold plant has spectacularly variegated and splotched leaves; loves heat and humidity.

Tradescantia, Spiderwort, Wandering Jew – all varieties bear three-petaled, saucer-shaped flowers that each last half a day. Because the flowers are carried in clusters, plants bloom over a long season. They bloom from early to mid-summer and come in shades of violet, lavender-blue, pink, rose-red, and white. Plant tradescantias in shady beds and borders. Their leaves make an attractive textural contrast with those of hostas. Wandering Jew ‘Zebrina’ This popular trailing plant has vibrant foliage tips that resemble flowers. Fabulous color and texture. Use alone in a hanging basket, as a ground cover, or add to a combination pot. Purple Heart Tradescantia A formidable trailing plant, purple heart’s leaves and stems turn a dark, rich purple, especially in full sun, and in summer, pairs of tiny, pink flowers appear at the stems ends. This plant is adaptable to cramped root conditions and drought.

Oxalis – these tender perennials have pretty foliage with four or more fingerlike leaflets and small flowers with rounded petals. Many species are easy to grow in containers. Charmed Wine Shamrock Violet, shamrock-shaped leaves; delicate blushed flowers; a great statement in shady areas. Dark plum-colored shamrocks the size of your palm. Slender, celery green stalks 12 to 18 inches tall. Clusters of blush pink, lily-shaped flowers. Charmed Jade Shamrock Silver sheened, shamrock-shaped leaves; delicate blushed flowers; a great statement in shady areas.

Lamium – These low-growing perennials bear small clusters of two-lipped flowers in summer, but their foliage is definitely their greatest attraction. Many cultivars feature attractive variegated leaves. Be aware that lamiums are spreaders, especially in rich, moist soil. Lamiums make excellent ground covers. Plant spotted lamiums in drifts with other perennials for foliage contrast. White Nancy Lamium Showy silver foliage with slender green edges complemented by hooded white flowers. Looks good from early spring through the autumn. Excellent choice for brightening dull, shaded areas. Lamium is one of the few plants which grows well in dry shade. Provides cover for those unsightly areas.

Hosta – Classic perennials for shade, hostas can add bold foliage color to the garden all summer long. Plants spread steadily to form large clumps, but some cultivars spread faster than others. The biggest hostas form clumps from 4 to 5 feet or even more across. Foliage ranges from enormous heat-shaped leaves that can exceed 1 foot in length down to tiny lance-shaped ones that stay under 2 inches. Many hostas bloom form early to late summer. Plant hostas in drifts, use them as edging plants, or arrange them as a ground cover. When selecting hostas, mix various leaf sizes, shapes, and variegation patterns for best effect.

Astilbe – These popular perennials are perfect foe decorating flower beds in a shady retreat, where their fernlike leaves and feathery plumes add lacy color and texture. Blooms come in white and shades of pink, ruby-red to crimson, and rosy purple. Astilbes are lovely in shady beds and borders, provided they have rich, moist soil that is well drained. A site with sun in the morning and shade in the afternoon is ideal for best bloom.


For more information, you can contact Darin at Engh Gardens in Sandy or online at www.enghgardens.com.

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