The Shade Garden in Spring and Early Summer
Right Plant / Right Place
Here are my cobbled-together notes from a recent workshop on shade gardening, highlighting the planting possibilities for those folk who are lucky enough to have a shady spot in their garden. There is a wide, wide – wide – range of plants that will enjoy a cooler life and they can make for some exciting combinations. Embrace the Shade!
Here follows, well there are a lot of lists that I was able to expand upon in my talk, but for you, long lists, horticultural latin upon more latin but I’m sure you’ll be able to explore further with the aid of a reliable search engine!
Here goes then …
The critical part of the art of gardening is choosing the right plants for the right place – and that includes Shade. But when it comes to these cooler, darker spots in our garden, many people are unsure of what to plant. We think these areas are a great opportunity for the gardener to create year-round interest, and this continues as we move from Spring into Summer as I hope we will see in the course of our time together.
Shade isn’t just one thing and especially when you are looking at plant labels, it can be confusing – full shade/partial shade – bright, indirect light …. dry shade, under trees, north facing, in the lee of buildings, on walls and boundaries….
For your own space, it is worth taking some time to see exactly how much sun and shade your space will actually get and at what time of day. Apart from the aspect – which direction your garden faces – other factors such as nearby buildings, trees or high hedges, can also increase the shade in certain areas.
Shade also changes during the day, as the sun moves around your garden. It also changes throughout the year – when the sun is high in the sky in summer, the shadows cast are quite short but in winter the sun barely rises above the horizon and shadows are long. An east facing garden will get morning light but little in the afternoon for example. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
What do we mean by shade?
Deep shade – found under evergreen trees, on the north side of walls or in the shadow of buildings. These areas tend to be cold and dry. Choose shade-loving, not just shade-tolerant, plants such as ferns, hostas and ivy, or flowering plants such as daphnes and lily of the valley. Shade-loving plants will not stretch, searching for more light – they will grow quite normally.
Dappled Shade – this is common under deciduous trees. Dappled shade all day is equal to three hours of summer sun. In summer, when the leaf canopy is full, trees cast a patchwork of shade but from autumn to spring let in full sun. It is worth considering which trees you have and whether it is a heavy canopy letting little light through, or a lighter canopy – silver birch for example. Dappled shade is ideal for woodland plants, such as anemones and primulas that flower in the spring sunshine before the trees come into leaf.
Partial shade – most gardens have areas that get sun for only part of the day – between three and six hours in summer – depending on their aspect, as the sun moves across the sky.
Distinguishing between – North, South, East and West …
South facing gardens
You’ll have little shade and lots of sun shining onto the back of your house. The far boundary faces north, so will be pretty much in shade all day. If you stand with your back to the house, your right-hand boundary will be east facing and get morning sun, while your left hand one will face west and get afternoon and evening sun.
Climbers for the north-facing boundary includes Parthenocissus henryana, Hydrangea petiolaris and ivies of all kinds – or try shade-tolerant wall shrubs such as Chaenomeles or witch hazel. For foliage, add ferns and hostas, for flowers plant daphne, brunnera, shrubby hydrangeas and fragrant lily of the valley.
The garden will have areas of shade for much of the day, however even a north-facing surface, such as the back wall of the house, won’t always be in full shade – it’s surprising how much evening sun it will get between May and October. All but the most heat-loving plants will enjoy a bit of midday shelter from the sun, which also stops pale colours from burning out.
Woodland plants such as hellebores, snowdrops and pulmonarias, which flower early, before the tree canopy shades out the light, and put on growth through the summer despite the shade overhead. They are ideal for places that only get the morning sun.
An east-facing garden gets most of its sun during the morning. Plants that like partial shade and need shelter from strong sunlight will thrive in this garden. Afternoon shade protects plants from the sun at its hottest. Evening shade will enhance the impact of white flowers that attract pollinating moths, rather than butterflies, and are often exceptionally fragrant too.
White flowered Nicotiana sylvestris likes evening shade and adds scent to the garden. Plants that cope with morning sun and cool conditions include Clematis alpine, honeysuckle and Berberis.
These gardens are in shade in the morning and get sun during the afternoon and evening. In winter, morning shade is a protective shroud for plants such as Camellias. If their petals get frosted overnight, bright morning sun can thaw them out too fast, bursting their cells and causing the flowers to turn brown. Plants in a west-facing garden or area must also be able to withstand the heat of the afternoon sun over the summer months.
Magnolias and Camellias enjoy morning shade.
Creating a garden
All of a garden’s shady habitats appear in nature. In woodland, many plants live in the shade of deciduous trees, completing their life cycle before the leaves appear, becoming dormant in the summer. Some flower before the tree leaves appear, while other flourish in the dappled shade in summer, or grow on north-facing hillsides where the sun shines for only part of the day.
In small, narrow spaces or courtyards bounded by fencing and walls and obscured by the boughs of trees, plants receive little direct sunshine, just diffused light from above, just like in a natural woodland, where there are several layers of plants; the tree canopy, an understory of shrubs and taller perennials, then bulbs and herbaceous perennials as ground cover. Replicating the planting in a garden creates tiers of interest.
Areas with reliable moisture are much easier to contemplate than areas of dry shade – though there are things we can do to help the plants become established – and there are plants that can conquer even the toughest of environments.
A few clues as to which plants might enjoy the shade.
There is colour to be had in the cooler parts of the garden but contrasting form, leaf colour, texture and shape play a great part in creating a successful planting scheme.
In the melee of a bright summer garden border, we have a choice of plants with extravagant colourful flowers that help them stand out in the beauty parade they hold for the benefit of pollinating insects. They have to shout to stand out.
By contrast in the shade, even strong flower forms and colours have much less of an impact. White and pale colour stand out the most, and often later into the evening – moths may become the dominant pollinating force in this case – and fragrance becomes especially important. In winter and early Spring when pollinators are few and far between, the siren call of a well-scented plant is a necessary investment for many plants though the flowers themselves need not be at all showy.
On this account do we have the deliciously scented Daphnes and Sarcococca, as well as the Viburnums that continue to flower, one variety after another, through late winter into Spring (V x bodnantense, V. carlesii, V carlecephalum) and other shrubs such as Hamamelis (Witch Hazel), Lonicera x purpusii Winter beauty (Winter Honeysuckle), Skimmias and Osmanthus.
Plants have evolved strategies to make the most of the lower light levels – they may have a thin surface layer and large, flat leaves, allowing maximum light to reach the largest surface. Their leaves are often smooth (though I can think of many that are not), so there is nothing to impeded the light penetrating the leaf surface (by contrast many sun lovers have leaves that reflect the light with silvers and greys and tiny hairs to shade the leaf surface).
As a general rule (though one that is broken from time to time) plants that thrive in the shadows hold their leaves at right angles to the stem, held radially out one staggered above the other – so that the maximum amount of light falls on them. By contrast sun worshipers like Yucca and Phormium – or Lavender and Rosemary – keep their leaves pointing upwards to limit their exposure to the sun. Many do away with the traditional idea of a flat leaf – once again Lavender and Rosemary spring to mind. Aromatic leaves are another tool used by sun-loving but sensible plants – to conserve moisture (and fend off grazing animals), so we can probably discard any plants – the traditionally thought of Mediterranean Herbs such as Thyme, Sage, Bay – as natural shade-lovers. Grey leaved plants such as Santolina, Lavender, Cistus, Olive – again these are adaptations for a sunny position in life.
Darker coloured leaves help many shade-lovers absorb the suns energy more efficiently – paler coloured leaves reflect some of the light. Thinking about these factors can start to give us an idea of what conditions a plant might naturally prefer, even if we haven’t come across it before.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Often there are things we can do to improve the lot of our garden plants and make the inhospitable spot you’re thinking off a little better for any new introduction.
What can we do to improve the situation
- Soil improvement
- Crown lifting/pruning of trees and shrubs – carving with air to reduce the shade falling on the ground and to create interesting shapes and architectural features of the bare branches
- Using containers
- Use of pale/light materials – pale stone, gravel for example – and the use of mirrors to bounce light around and give impression of greater space.
We’ve passed, pretty much, the time for these highlights in the garden but it is worth mentioning these valuable perennials and shrubs.
Vinca – periwinkle (but the minor, not necessarily the major)
Ajuga reptans (Bugle)
Eranthis hyemalis (Winter aconite)
Galanthus nivalis (snowdrops)
Chionodoxa (Glory of the Snow)
Iris histroides Katharine Hodgkin
Anemone nemerosa (Wood anemone)
Viburnum x bodnatense Dawn / Charles Lamont
Hamamelis (Witch Hazel)
Omphalodes (see Cherry Ingram)
Euphorbia – E amgydalloides / E griffithii
Dicentra (Bleeding Heart)
Hesperis matronalis (Dame’s Violet)
Brunnera (a perennial forget-me-not with often amazingly beautiful leaves)
Myosotis (annual forget-me-not)
Hyacinthoides non-scripta (Bluebells)
Erythronum (Dog’s Tooth Violet)
Arum italicum Marmoratum
Euonymus japonica (Emerald Gaiety, Emerald N Gold Harlequin)
Magnolias (M stellate, M x loebneri Leonard Messel)
Viburnum – (V. plicatum Mariesii, V opulus sterile)
Spring into Summer
With trees and shrubs in coming into full leaf, shade often becomes more dense from spring into summer, so your plants need to enjoy the challenge. Choose those that earn their keep by flowering over a long period, such as hardy Geraneums, Fuchsias and busy lizzies, or that offer attractive foliage for months. A vibrant multitude of greens and textures will lift any border out of the gloom.
Some suggestions below ….
P – Perennial
ES – Evergreen Shrub
DS – Deciduous Shrub
G – Grass
T – Tree
Clg – Climbing plants
Astrantias (P) – clump forming perennials that produce pretty pincushion-like flowers in a range of colours from white through dusky-pinks to rich ruby reds. Keep well-watered in summer.
Euphorbia amygdaloides var robbiae (P) – Producing lots of vivid lime flowers in late Spring, this is a tough fast-growing plant perfect for dry areas under trees and shrubs. It is compact and evergreen, so has a long period of interest.
Liriope(P) – also known as lilyturf, this is a useful and resilient perennial and survives even in the darkest and driest of conditions. Its purple flower spikes are a valuable asset in the autumn, rising above a fountain of grass-like evergreen leaves.
Fatsia (ES) With its glossy, exotic-looking evergreen leaves, Fatsia japonica is one of the most dramatic shrubs for shade. Yet despite its tropical appearance, it is completely hardy outdoors. It produces white flowers followed by black fruits in the autumn.
Mahonia (ES) – An attractive evergreen shrub with whorls of prickly dark green leaves topped with spikes of golden yellow, often very fragrant flowers followed by blue/black fruits. Mahonia aquifolium can be used as ground cover. Cultivars like Charity (3m) are well known but smaller varieties like Lionel Fortesque may suit the smaller garden. Can be gaunt, with a network of bare lower branches. These can be hard pruned after flowering to stimulate growth from dormant buds lower down the stems.
Anemantheles lessoniana (Pheasant tail Grass) – a beautiful and graceful evergreen grass with a play of colours from green and gold through to russet. Simply comb through with your fingers at the start of spring to remove any dead thatch.
Japanese Anemones (P) Such a useful group of plants, though their time is late summer and we’ll cover them in our next workshop in June.
Sarcococca (ES) – a dense evergreen shrub, or group of shrubs, valued for their tough shiny leaves and incredibly fragrant, thread-like flowers that pump out a sweet scent in January through to March. Different varieties will grow to varying heights and there are cultivars with purple stems and flushes to the usually white flowers, and tough names like Sarcococca ruscifolia that can cope with very difficult ground conditions, dry, and even lower light levels. The flowers are followed by shiny blue-black berries.
Box (ES) Buxus. The common box can thrive in low-light situations and treated as a topiary form, can provide a formal touch to the garden and a contrast to the looser perennials and climbers that you might consider using. The box-leaved Holly, Ilex crenata, can be used in a similar fashion and is not threatened by wither box blight or the box leaf caterpillar, which are quite ravenous at the moment. There are variegated forms but like many variegated leaves, they may lose this distinction in shadier spots, reverting to green.
Geranium Ann Folkard (P) Most hardy geraneums do well in a shady border and this variety produces vivid magenta flowers on long stems for months on end starting in early summer. Cut back after flowering for fresh foliage and a second flush.
Geraneum phaeum (P) –Look out in particular for Samobar with attractively marked foliage and dark, tiny flowers that deserve closer inspection. White forms show up well in shady spots and there are dusky pinks and pale lavenders and lilac forms too. Excellent in dry shade.
If you have a particularly dry space, under shrubs or trees, look out for the more vigorous forms of G. nodosum (for the driest position), G. endressii (evergreen) and G. macorrhizum. You may not want these in a border with good soil and moisture as they can be a bit thuggish, but they can do a great job in these difficult spots, with a long period of flower, interesting seed heads and varied leaf forms.
Ivy – don’t discount this invaluable plant ….
Skimmia japonica reevesiana (ES) A compact evergreen shrub with bright berries that remain intact throughout winter into early Spring. Clusters of white flowers appear in the Spring. Skimmia japonica Kew Green has subtle green-shaded white flowers above long polished leaves while Skimmia japonica Rubella brings a rich russet and pink to the floral parade. It can take months for the tiny bobbles of flowers to open and then, honey-scented, a long time for them to fade. These latter two are ‘male’ plants so there’s no fruit; there are hermaphrodite plants that will have fruit and berry – look out for Obsession for example but plant in a brighter spot.
Cyclamen coum (P) – Flowering in the depths of winter when little else dares, this delightful hardy cyclamen is invaluable. The flower colour can vary from white to purple and the leaves are often attractively patterned. Cyclamen hederifolium flowers in the Autumn.
Arum italicum (P) The beautifully patterned, arrow-shaped leaves of Arum italicum last right through winter and spring. Its small white flowers are followed by showy spires of glossy red berries in autumn.
Bergenia cordifolia (P) With large leathery leaves, it thrives in semi-shade and sends up tall stems of deep magenta flowers in early Spring.
Leucojum (P) Tall stems emerge in Spring hung with large white bells (tipped with green) above narrow glossy foliage. A bulb that multiples freely. Gravetye Giant is a superior form.
Digitalis (Foxgloves) (P/Biennial) – sun or partial shade
Vinca (ES) – the Perrywinkle will continue to flower into early summer with star-shaped blooms in white, china blue, purple and double forms too. Mostly green leaved, the cultivar Ralph Shugart has a flash of silver to the leaf edge. A superb ground cover plant whose admirable vigour is reduced by poorer, dryer soils but still a success.
Lamium (P) – silver leaved deadnettle is a successful ground cover plant.
Luzula G) – a real toughie. I’ve grown this in deep shade, in thin dry soils and it has loved it. Green, leafy and a little rough, it forms a lush clump in the most unpromising situation.
Viola labradorica (P) Another plant that looks oh-so-delicate with tiny flowers and short, lush foliage.
Euonymus fortunei (ES) – a reliable stalwart for difficult, shaded spots and often, once established, in dry soils too – with glossy leaves and a great variety of variegation – Emerald N Gold, Emerald Gaiety, Harlequin
Hellebores – many may still be in flower – I have Anna’s Red full of dull ruby flowers (they were bright and richly coloured in February) and others from the breeder, Rodney Davey – such as Penny’s Pink and Molly’s White are worth seeking out, for their floral display and beautiful mottled foliage. The Hellebore Gold Series (hybrids of Hellebore niger / nigercors) will be forming seeds now on flowers that gently change over many weeks from white to dusky pink, or pink to green, white to green and all routes in between. These are no shy things, like the oriental hybrids, forming substantial floriferous plants that can be spotted from across the garden.
Somewhere between dry and damp … some of the above – and some of the selection from the damp border ….
Actaea (P) AKA Cimcifuga (Brunette)
Campanula latifolia (P) Campanula lactiflora (Loddon Anna / Pritchard’s Variety)
Hakonechloa macra (G)
Tricyrtis hirta (P)
Viburnums (ES and DS)
Milium effusum aureum (G)
Hart’s Tongue Fern (Asplenium)
Asarum europaeum (P)
Carex – Evergold (grass),
Gallium odoratum / woodruff (P)
Symphytum (Comfrey) (P)
Tiarella – Foamflower (P)
Epimedium Frohnleiten (P)
Hakonechloa macra (grass)
Passion flower (Clg)
Clematis viticella (Clg)
Clematis alpine (Clg)
Clematis montana (Clg)
Clematis armandii (Clg)
Chinese Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus henryana) (Clg)
Winter Jasmine (Clg)
Akebia quintata (Clg)
Hydrangea anomola petiolaris (Clg)
Hydrangea aspera (Villosa Group) (DS)
Viburnum (ES and DS)
Summer bulbs –
Lilies – Lilium martagon (the most shade tolerant of all lilies)
Leafy Crops, red and white currants, many herbs such as parsley, tarragon, sorrel and chervil, vigorous mints too – Sour Morello Cherries, kale, chard and pak choi.
For a shady wall, Clematis can often fit the bill very comfortably and there are many to choose from – I’d recommend the book by Ruth Gooch, Clematis: An essential guide…. as well as the excellent reference on the rose and clematis as partners by John Howells.
The spring-flowering macropetalas and alpinas are beautiful and useful with little pruning required. In shades of pink, purple and blue, with chiffon skirts and excellent seedheads following on. Willy, Pamela Jackman, Pauline, Francis Rives, Helsingborg are all names to look out for. The boisterous montanas, scrambling through shrubs and trees, are also tolerant of some shade.
The viticellas, flowering at the end of the season in the autumn, are also to be looked at for suitable plants for a shadier wall – these are often deep, jewel colours that can fade in strong sunlight – but can also do well in a brighter spot. Look out for Royal Velours, Minuet, Polish Spirit, Madam Julia Correvon.
In between these two – early and late – are the summer flowering clematis, larger starry flowers – Andromeda and Bees Jubilee, Carnaby, Corona Fireworks and Mrs N Thompson and of course Nelly Moser are striped and prefer a cooler location where these markings don’t fade.
White flowers look well on a shady wall – Claire de Lune, Chantilly, Gillian Blades, Marie Boisselot, Prince George,
- and some of the doubles, which need reliable moisture, prefer the cooler environment and are saved from powdery mildew. Proteus, Piilu for example.
One of the best blues, Fujumisume, is an excellent candidate for a North wall. HF Young is a good blue, too.
Many roses are tolerant of a spot that doesn’t get sun all day long, though most prefer it. Rambler roses are used to scrambling through trees and fighting amongst their roots and so are tough creatures. Most flower just the once, an exuberant display in June or July and so have a plenty of time to build up their reserves for this annual display. Many of these are big roses, growing 4,5,6 – 9 – meters so be careful what you choose. Some new rambling roses repeat-flower, the best of both worlds – Lady of the Lake, The Albrighton Rambler, Snowgoose and Malvern Hills are ones to look out for.
The range of David Austin Roses called the Fragrant English Climbers are mostly tolerant of some shade – by which I mean 4-5 hours of sun – and their colours range from pure white through pink to deep red, and golden yellows too. Claire Austin, St. Swithun, The Generous Gardener, James Galway, Golden Celebration, Wollerton Old Hall are worth a look.
Other suggestions for a north wall include Madame Alfred Carriere, a vigorous Noisette, Gloire de Dijon, New Dawn.
Of the shrub roses, the wilder the rose the more tolerant of difficult situations they are generally. The Rugosa roses are tough, with large flowers in white and pinks though to near red, with wrinkled leaves, amazing scents and many having a good show of rose hips. Wild Edric is a rose created by David Austin with very large single flowers in a deep pink with a great Old Rose fragrance; Harlow Carr has huge trusses of smaller semi-double flowers in a mid-pink with a powerful fragrance and has rugosas in its parentage.
Rosa glauca is a large shrub with small deep pink flowers in summer, followed by numerous bright red hips. The foliage is delicate with a blue, glaucous bloom and deep purple twigs. A favourite of flower arrangers!
I am minded by Peter Beales comments in his book Classic Roses however in that while some roses are tolerant of a north-facing aspect, they don’t necessarily like it.
I’m minded to recommend a book by Paul Vertrees on the subject, which is beautifully illustrated and written by one of the best. A cool site is a must since the thin leaves are easily ‘burnt’ both by sun and wind.
BAMBOO – something to consider for moist rich soil in shelter and partial shade. Keeping young plants moist until well-established is a must and become a difficult feat if you are considering growing them permanently in containers. Many bamboos will have to have new growth contained to avoid them taking over your garden!
A topic I’ll return to in my next workshop in June – for they are invaluable garden shrubs as well as offering tender floral fireworks for containers and hanging baskets.
Most ferns will grow in most soils, though if your soil is very alkaline, avoid Osmunda regalis (Regal fern), Onoclea sensibilis (Sensitive fern), Matteucia struthiopteris (Ostritch fern) and Athyrium felix-femina (lady fern).
Although very few ferns need constant moist conditions and nearly all dislike waterlogged soil – most appreciate an occasional watering during a prolonged dry spell. Mulching is essential for most ferns.
Asplenium scolopendrium – a lovely clump-forming evergreen fern with glossy, paddle-shaped bright green fronds with wavy margins. It like’s an alkaline soil so it is useful in borders strewn with rubble next to new-build houses. Height 70 cm by 60cm spread.
Athryium felix-femina (Lady fern) A deciduous clump-forming fern with finely cut, bright green arching fronds on reddish green stems. Height 1.2m by spread of 90cm.
Athyrium nipponicum- Japanese Painted fern – Dapper yet elegant, a deciduous clump forming fern with deeply cut, beautifully marked fronds marked with silver and red. 20cm tall by 50cm spread.
Dryopteris affinis – Golden male fern. A native fern naturalized in wetter parts of the UK. Handsome shuttlecock form with near-evergreen fronds. Young fronds emerge greenish-gold. Height and spread, 90cm
Dryopteris erythrosora – Buckler fern – the triangular-shaped fronds of this splendid deciduous shuttlecock fern are a lovely copper red when young, they turn yellow before maturing to a rich dark green. Height and Spread 60cm by 40cm.
Drypteris felix-mas – Male fern. A large, eye catching deciduous shuttlecock fern with feathery green fronds. Hardy, but prefers a spot sheltered from strong winds. Height and spread 1m
Matteuccia – pale-green, lacy fronds unfurl in spring and mature to distinctive shuttlecock shape and remain a feature in winter. Looks superb next to water. Height 1.5m by a spread of 1m.
Osmunda regalis – the Royal fern. A large and handsome water-side fern – deciduous, producing bright-green, lacy-edged fronds that turn bronze in autumn. Height and spread2m x 4m.
Polypodium vulgare – wall fern. A robust, compact evergreen fern with deeply cut, triangular shaped dark green leathery fronds. It does well in any shady situation including containers and copes well with dry soil. Height and spread 30cm x 80cm.
Polystichum setiferum – soft shield fern. A large, evergreen shuttlecock-shaped fern with dark green fronds and a liking for partial shade – or deep shade with deep rich moist soil. Height and spread 1.2m x 90cm.
See www.teddingtongardener.com for shady stories and pictures …. I particularly enjoy the woodland landscapes at RHS Wisley and Kew – here’s one of my articles from Kew in 2015
2 thoughts on “Throwing some light on shade”
Thank you for this excellent article.
Would you kindly add a “shade garden” tag to your
list of tags?
Hi there, of course I can, though a search of ‘shade’ will bring some of the more obvious articles up front. Shade is a hugely important part of my gardening life and a perennial question/problem faced by the good folk I meet every day. Now I have rather more time on my hands, I can get some of this ‘admin’ and organisation sorted on the site. Best wishes, Martin