I had been preparing for a workshop covering the possibilities for gardening in a little – or a lot – of shade and put together the gallery last year to illustrate some of the contenders that anyone tackling such a proposition might entertain. A perennial question, this, what to plant, planting combination and health – so worthy of a reprint. Damp shade and dry shade, dappled shade and beneath trees and hedges, on sunless walls and more open northerly aspects, covering the woodland floor or brightening up a summer container. The possibilities are endless!
A cheat coming up, on the typing out long latin names front at least, with a gallery of pictures taken from some of the more accessible books on the subject, though if shade is your lot, come winter or summer, more detailed reading would be recommended and I’ll put together a more comprehensive bibliography soon. Meanwhile there are plenty of other stories on my blog covering the subject, so please do explore.
In the meantime, I hope these snippets will help –
… and for the damper shady border…
and planting under trees …
and for ground cover …
Moving on to the more detailed listings coming from the RHS in their encyclopedic volume, which happily breaks plants down by season, size and colour …
and ground cover plants recommended for shade…
and plants for dry shade …
and plants for moist shade …
Roy Lancaster’s book meanwhile, What Plant Where, is an invaluable resource – here’s a snippet or two …
and Perennials for Dry Shade
and Bulbs for Shady positions
and Perennials for growing at the base of a hedge
and Climbers for sunless walls and fences
and Shrubs for sunless walls and fences
and Shrubs tolerant of shade
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 more 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.
See also –
I’ve been reading the very readable ‘Carpeting your woodland floor’ by John Richmond on Kindle too, and this I highly commend.
More book recommendations to follow but in the meantime, I’ve put together a few articles, mostly from the pages of the Telegraph, which merit further reading – the quality of both the horticultural advice and literary expression I find is usually faultless – enjoy
Ten ways to make shade cool
Space is at a premium in towns so gardens tend to be small and shady but there’s no reason for them to be boring. Be bold, says Anthony Noel
THERE is no urban retreat more appealing in the summer heat than a cool and private outside space. Town gardens that are both small and shady are often considered the ultimate green-fingered challenge but you would be amazed at just how attractive you can make them. I certainly was when I lived in Dulwich, south-east London.
The “problems” vary. Is your garden shady all day or does it get shafts of sunlight at certain times? Or perhaps it is only shady in the winter? Maybe it is in the lee of the house, or is the shade made by a tree that cannot or should not be removed? Whatever the conditions, there is always a solution. All you need is confidence and the most rudimentary knowledge of what will survive.
Here are 10 pointers that worked in my L-shaped, 37ft by 15ft town garden.
The low light-levels in shady gardens make things appear smaller. Boldness in everything from layout to planting and ornament redresses the balance. So, make borders deep, paved areas generous, and containers as big as space will allow – planted boldly with one or, at most, two varieties. In the ground, vary things a little, with one weird or wonderful plant occasionally taking the spotlight. Shady gardens, especially, need character as well as beauty.
If you have brick walls, power-jet or paint them (see no 4). Otherwise, consider covering fences with panels of split bamboo, woven reeds or the endlessly versatile trellis. Stylishly modern or grandly traditional, easy to install and inexpensive, trellis is the answer to an urban gardener’s prayer. I like to use the plain squared variety as exterior wallpaper, floor to ceiling, to disguise ugly walls and fences, and transform sunless places that the rain never reaches.
As a real boundary or a disguise, trellis gives a feeling of space beyond. Grey and cream marbled ivy, interspersed with different types of clematis (nearly all are shade-tolerant), soon creates a beautiful evergreen barrier. Top the supporting posts with ornamental balls, acorns or turned wooden pineapples.
3 Tree control
Never get rid of a tree unless absolutely necessary; once gone, all that beauty and maturity will take another 100 years to replace.
Under a deciduous tree, you can grow the choicest bulbs that thrive on spring sunshine and summer shade. Dry shade from a beech tree – the one really dense, deciduous tree – or an evergreen is more restrictive but there are still solutions. You could grow different varieties of wild cyclamen all year round or carpet the ground with variegated ivy. In the worst case, gravel the area and bring different pots to it to liven things up.
It is amazing how you can improve light levels by carefully pruning trees and shrubs that have grown too large or tangled into a more elegant, open shape. The great garden designer Russell Page called this “carving with air”.
I once turned a collapsed white willow into a huge bonsai tree by thinning out the branches. The tree did not seem to mind and underneath I created a raised bed, full of good soil, where smaller plants did not have to compete with the tree’s roots. If you do this, be sure not to bury the trunk.
4 Paint colour
Unless you live by the sea, white-washed walls look cold and gloomy – they seem to green up more quickly too. Instead, I find that Fowler Pink, a shell-pink/pale terracotta paint, manufactured by Farrow & Ball, brings the warmth and light of the Mediterranean to the gloomiest outlook.
In the man-made environment of a roof or courtyard, rich warm colours, like bright red, raspberry pink and Chinese yellow, can glow like embers on bonfire night if used boldly.
5 Sparkle and glamour
White flowers and silver foliage bring a unique sparkle and glamour to a garden. Many such plants will thrive with little or no sun, as do variegated varieties – too much sun on their delicate leaves can burn, bleach or fade them.
Urban gardens, even shady ones, are always a few degrees warmer than their country cousins, so take advantage of this protected micro-climate. Quite a few exotic-looking, architectural plants will be perfectly happy in the shade: cordylines (Torbay Palms), Trachycarpus (Chusan Palm), and Fatsia japonica (castor-oil fig), to name but three.
More glamorous still are those with grey and silver leaves: stunning Melianthus major (cut it to the ground each Easter ), Astelia nervosa (soft, sword-like leaves, two or three-feet long), Santolina pinnata subsp. neapolitana (clip into huge globes each spring for a change in texture and shape).
All silvers need sharp drainage, so mix in a couple of generous spadefuls of grit or gravel with the soil at planting time.
Just as a checkerboard marble floor brings life to a Georgian hall, painting an aggregate one black and white will do the same for a roof. As it weathers, the texture of the slabs will show through, creating a delightfully ancient, seedy and exotic look.
Gravel also gives sparkle to a shady place. Pea shingle is kindest to shoes, but there is a coarser one called Cotswold buff. Paving stones laid by the door into the house will prevent half the gravel ending up on the kitchen or sitting-room floor.
The legendary American fashion editor Diana Vreeland suggested decorating a room in nothing but different shades of green. Try this in your garden by mixing different leaf textures and shapes with some opulent white flowers – perhaps hydrangeas or tobacco flowers – and chic touches of black, silver and lime.
Viola ‘Molly Sanderson’ has jet-black flowers, as does V. ‘Bowles’ Black’ which seeds freely but never becomes a nuisance. Giant mop-heads of bay look wonderful in squares of easy-going black ophiopogon, underplanted with baby pink and white cyclamen, set in old flag-stones. And glamorous hostas are never so happy as when they are grown in a shady place.
You will not do much better than H. sieboldiana var. elegans with its huge blue/green quilted leaves. Insist on elegans – the regular H. sieboldiana is not worth having. Hostas are very happy in pots and a ring of vaseline around the rim will protect them from their arch-enemies, slugs and snails.
Talking of hostas, which are moisture-lovers too, do have an outside tap fitted or install a watering system, as shady gardens tend to be on the dry side.
In my view, all houses should be softened with climbing plants, but avoid sun-lovers which strive upwards towards the light, leaving their feet bare. Instead, concentrate on varieties that are happy in shade, such as Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris, Akebia quinata, clematis and camellias.
Add height with trellis pyramids, wreathed in climbers. I also use large urns planted with low-maintenance architectural plants; often light levels are better six or seven feet up, and sometimes it is actually quite sunny. Another way of adding height, with space at a premium, is with large standards such as bay (Laurus nobilis).
Always go for the largest containers possible. They will need watering less often, besides looking good. Square, wooden, Versailles tubs with mirrored panels bring another dimension to a small area – the reflections make a strongly patterned floor appear to go on forever.
Not only do plants grow well in naturally porous terracotta, but this takes the patina of age well and adds warmth. Terracotta is also a particularly effective foil for architectural box-wood shapes – globes, squares, pyramids and mop-heads – and for yew, which is best trained as a cone or pyramid. Bay, box, holly and yew will all be happy in shade, as long as they are not underneath dripping branches.
Ban plastic containers unless they are black and shiny; if used with confidence, these make a sophisticated foil for plants. For spring, cram them with white hyacinths. For the summer, raspberry and black Pelargonium ‘Lord Bute’. And, for the autumn, pink, green and cream ornamental cabbages. Lilies look elegant in galvanized florist’s buckets.
With all garden containers, make sure you provide adequate drainage holes. Generally, John Innes No 2 is a safe bet for planting up. Do not economise by using garden soil: you will get worms, usually a gardener’s best friend but very disruptive in the confined space of a pot.
9 Ornament and vistas
The smaller the space, the more important it is to place things well.
In a shady garden, try to site benches, ornamental urns or wall-fountains in the light, so that they can be seen through the gloom. Think about the different views, not just from your window to the end of the garden, but also across the space and looking back at the house.
Nothing brings a garden to life like moving water: a wall-fountain opposite a bench, for instance, or at the far end of a vista. There are some excellent ready-made fountains, both traditional and ultra-modern, which run on a concealed re-circulating pump, so all they require is a safe electrical connection (do consult a qualified electrician over this). Or you could go for a white seat or pale-stone ornament surrounded by ferns, hellebores and moss.
Apart from weekends, you probably use your garden most at night – to relax after a busy day or to entertain friends.
Do not be afraid of lighting your outside space. Uplighting is as effective in the garden as it is inside, so keep everything low down, and many small sources of light are much more atmospheric than a few large ones. Consider flares, strings of fairy-lights and thick candles in hurricane jars. And white flowers and heady scents should be added for maximum evening romance.
The Sharp End: Tackling shaded garden areas
Stephen Lacey finds it takes just a few desirable plants to bring light and scent to shady areas of the late-season garden .
Keeping the interest going in shady parts of the garden in late summer is a challenge. But walls and fences – and in my garden, a rather greedy accumulation of trees and shrubs – mean that this is a challenge that many of us have to face up to squarely. I am forever rummaging through nurseries for plants perky, polished, pulchritudinous and perfumed, for the gloomy understorey. Here is a little survey of my best finds, old and new.
There are not many late-season plants that will flower in almost total darkness, but the ivy-leaved cyclamen, C. hederifolium, will. It thrives for me on the dry, north side of hollies and conifers and under dense trees, where there is some light in winter but hardly any now. I have just been adding more of the pink forms to a revamped shady glade (light but sunless) by the front gate, and will also transplant some of my own self-sown seedlings there in the spring.
Colour scheming is out of fashion, but I still like a vague theme in each area. So, other pinkish plants I have been gathering in this same spot are Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Merveille Sanguine’, which has dark leaves and sumptuous blood-crimson mopheads; ‘Hadspen Abundance’, one of the richest hued of the saucer-flowered Japanese anemones, and a plant that gently seeds itself about; and a really useful, long-season knotweed for shade, Persicaria campanulata which, unlike its spiky relatives, has loose heads of palest pink flowers like cherry blossom on 3ft stems. All these are performing now.
White is a more arresting colour for springing out of the shadows, and many shade-lovers including Persicaria campanulata Alba Group have a pure white version. I was delighted to meet a white form of Geranium nodosum for the first time earlier this year, and promptly bought a couple. It is called ‘Silverwood’. Its parent is a maple-leaved hardy geranium that flowers non-stop all summer even in dry, north-facing beds, but its mauve flowers are pedestrian: white is a huge improvement.
White phloxes are good in moist shade – the larger-flowered ‘David’ is just taking over from ‘Mount Fuji’ behind my apple tree – and for drier spots there is a charming white-flowered aster that performs from August onwards called A. divaricatus. I have it flopping over hellebore leaves under the beech tree. Further along, winding through a rambler rose, green and white-flowered Clematis viticella ‘Alba Luxurians’ is also at its best now.
I try to get scent into as many corners of the garden as possible, and that includes shade. The easy-going, mid-sized shrub Clerodendrum trichotomum var. fargesii is delivering it in clouds at the moment – a heady jasmine-like perfume from small white flowers held above purple-flushed young leaves (which don’t smell quite so good: a sort of fetid peanut). The colours are echoed by Actaea (Cimicifuga) simplex Atropurpurea Group, which is now flaunting 6ft-tall white bottlebrushes, scented of bubblegum, above ferny purple foliage. I have them on the shady side of a tripod of sweet peas – damson-flecked ‘Wiltshire Ripple’ and claret ‘Beaujolais’ (from Kings Seeds, Essex).
Clumps of lords and ladies, Arum italicum ‘Pictum’, are adding patches of orange berries among the ferns and hellebores. In spring, I am going to move some to combine with the arching stems of Gentiana asclepiadea, which is the least demanding of all the gentians and now producing its blue trumpets in one of my north-facing beds. Self-seeded montbretias have also been giving flashes of orange on lightly shaded border fringes, but just starting to colonise is a better version called Crocosmia x crocosmioides ‘Castle Ward Late’, with rich rusty stars, less foliage, and a good long season. It would be good combined with the pale yellow shuttlecocks of Kirengeshoma palmata, another shade-loving September stalwart.
How to make a garden out of a woodland
Planting under mature trees is tricky, but not impossible. Follow our top tips
During his 25 years as head gardener at The Garden House in Devon, Keith Wiley evolved a gardening style based on modifying natural landscapes from around the world. Over the last 10 years Keith and his wife, Ros, have created a new garden from a bare field at Wildside, where they run their own nursery. He has written several books and lectures all over the world. This extract from his most recent book, Designing and Planting a Woodland Garden, tackles the subject of how to go about planting a garden under existing mature trees.
How shady is your site?
The first thing to consider in your garden is the density of any existing tree cover and any understorey plants. In general terms, the higher the canopy the better.
Because the vast majority of woodland plants, including their seedlings, make nearly all their growth in spring, this is when maximum light is required. For instance, most erythronium seeds germinate in early spring and have completed their annual above-ground life cycle by mid-spring before the leaf canopy closes over.
With most deciduous trees, including magnolias, this usually happens in late spring. If you have coniferous trees – or deciduous trees with large leaves that leaf out very early, such as horse chestnut – you will have to prune up the branches significantly to lessen the deep shade they cast.
The light beneath a deciduous canopy is constantly changing, not just through different seasons of the year but also through the hours of each day. As summer approaches, established woodland plants appreciate the shade of the leaf cover, but they still need good light and generally will flower much better with some direct light every day.
This has to be balanced with protection from direct midday sun, which can scorch the foliage of many woodlanders. Similarly in winter, if shoots or flowers have frozen overnight, the early morning sun shining directly on to them can cause damage. Dappled light and shafts of sunlight emphasise light and shade, and as any photographer will tell you, provide depth and contrast to pictures in a way that the glaring full sun cannot.
These subtleties of light are matched by the understated charm of many woodland flowers, which often eschew flamboyance for more intricate detail and graceful form. Even those woodland plants renowned for flamboyant flowering, such as azaleas and rhododendrons, are toned down in this arboreal setting by the massed greenery of the canopy itself.
Clearly the key factor in any woodland garden, whether established or new, is to find the right balance of sunlight to shade. Trying to approximate the shade you have to that found in a native woodland is a good start, as it can suggest the relative density and diversity of the flora at ground level.
Many coniferous woods have thin vegetation below them unless the trees are widely spaced. Walk through such a forest and the reasons become obvious – the environment is dark, dry and nutrient poor thanks to the thick carpet of dead needles. In an ideal woodland, sunlight should reach the ground in most of the site for two to three hours per day, more in spring.
Evidently, deciduous tree cover allows you more planting options than evergreens. Ideal trees will cast light shade or hold their branches very high, allowing light to penetrate, such as oaks.
Keith Wiley in his sublime garden (Christopher Jones)
There are two major challenges when you start to build a garden where there are already established mature trees. One is getting sufficient light to reach the ground and the second is the nature of the soil, especially the degree of tree root infestation. There are steps you can take to improve both of these issues.
In a densely packed wood, you will have to consider whether you should thin the trees. This is not a job for the faint-hearted, involving hard graft, hard cash or both, as ideally the stump and roots should be removed as well, especially if you intend to grow any understorey trees and shrubs which could be subject to fungal attack from rotting stumps.
The easy decision is to first remove dead, dying and weak trees or branches. Then it becomes either more exciting or challenging, depending on your outlook, so give the next stage a lot of thought.
Do you thin the trees evenly throughout the wood, leaving just the best specimens? Or leave groups of closely spaced trunks and open up glades between them – or some combination of both?
Lift the canopy
In more open woods, or if you have just a few mature trees, you can still increase light levels by removing the lower branches on some or all of the trees.
How high you go depends to a certain extent on the size of the trees. As a general rule, the taller the tree, the higher the branches that can be removed. However, you must always remember to keep the symmetry of the tree; too high and the finished effect can look like a small lollipop on a long stick. Because conifers generally have a greater light-blocking canopy, they are likely to need pruning higher than deciduous trees — but there is no limit to how high “skirting up” can be taken. Provided the tree is strong and healthy and the branches are cut when the sap is not rising (that is, when the tree is dormant) no harm should be done. Clearly there can be some cost involved, as you may need the help of a tree surgeon. I do not feel comfortable removing branches above about 15ft (4.5 m) without calling in expert help.
Autumn’s foliage provides nutrients for spring’s flowers ( GAP Photos//Pernilla Bergdahl)
Prepare the soil
I used to believe that woodlanders were pretty easy-going with regards to soil fertility given that they are able to cope with thin soils and tree roots, but in recent years I have come to the conclusion that the opposite is true and actually they are quite greedy feeders. To maintain good growth and healthy plants, an annual mulch is, if not a necessity, then highly desirable. Even wood anemones (Anemone nemorosa) that in the wild revel in seemingly inhospitable sites, are transformed when given a nourishing annual mulch of organic matter.
In their natural ideal conditions of deciduous trees, all the plants that grow in woods are treated to an autumnal mulch of fallen leaves. Spring-flowering bulbs and perennials get first option each year to exploit this bounty before the trees suck it dry of nutrients through late spring and summer. Without this annual injection of organic matter, the health and vigour of the woodland flora would quite quickly deteriorate. As in nature, so too in the garden.
As long as you can reasonably push a spade or fork part way into most of the ground beneath your trees to turn the soil, you don’t need to do much more than clear the ground of weeds. Ground clearance is best carried out in winter, after which you can spread a thick layer of organic matter then plant in early spring. From then on, apply a feeding mulch when the plants show signs of diminishing vigour or on a regular basis through the winter.
If you have trees with shallow, aggressive roots, one way of preparing the ground for planting is to raise the soil level above the existing roots. This is risky, though, and I would not attempt it around an especially valuable tree (like a magnolia), nor would I pile any soil up around the tree trunks.
I would restrict myself to adding soil to a depth no greater than 1ft (30cm) around the outer fringes of the tree’s spread, petering out to nothing around the trunk. The tree roots will eventually grow up into this added soil, so at best you are only gaining a few years of breathing space in which to be able to plant. However, it offers the benefit of being able to support a wider range of species (including some woody plants) than would be possible by mere seed scattering alone and allows more control over the finished plant combinations.
If you have established trees that make underplanting impossible, you still have options, provided light can reach the soil. I have successfully established carpets of erythroniums by regularly scattering their seeds in situ. Virtually any woodlander that naturally spreads by self-seeding could be tried. For instance, I have often grown primroses and chionodoxa among the roots of established magnolias.
There’s a strict hierarchy of shade. The damp, dappled shade of a deciduous tree with a thick layer of leaf mould is nirvana; the dry, parched shade of a building shadow or a monster leylandii quite the opposite.
There are a few plants prepared to take on the challenges of dry shade. Geranium phaeum, known as the mourning widow, will grow in the dry, shallow soils of tree roots, though her name alone tells you she’s a doleful sort. The more cheery, white-flowered G. phaeum ‘Album’ will bring light to dark corners. Likewise, Liriope muscari, with its spires of purple beaded flowers, tolerates hot, dry sites. So will Vinca minor, the lesser periwinkle, slightly less of a thug than its cousin, V. major, the greater periwinkle. These are the safe choices beloved of office plantings, but if you work at your soil, there are other options.
Add a mixture of homemade compost and leaf mould. Gather grass cuttings from neighbours, sweep up leaves on the street, shred bills and collect scraps: your compost bin will convert dry shade into rich soil suited to woodland flowers. Spread on a thick layer in early spring, and add a handful or two of well-rotted compost to every planting hole.
As for plants, stick to the true woodlanders, starting with a layer of bulbs such as snowdrops or Anemone nemorosa. Both are adapted for the deep summer shade of trees, making the most of the light in spring. They will do equally well in the shade of a building.
Next, establish some ground cover, because exposed soil dries out quickly. Duchesnea indica, the false strawberry, is an evergreen perennial with jolly yellow flowers and edible berries (see my 27 July column on edible ground cover for more). Add a few epimediums, easygoing plants with tiny lemon yellow or red flowers peeping over evergreen heart-shaped leaves. Next try bleeding hearts, (Lamprocapnos, formerly Dicentra spectabilis), plus Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) and sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata) for a soft green theme. For height, plant Thalictrum delavayi with its ethereal white flowers, and Anemone sylvestris for late summer colour.
Finally, add as many foxgloves as you see fit. The common foxglove Digitalis purpurea (in purple or the pure white ‘Alba’) or the dusky pink Digitalis x mertonensis will tolerate dry or damp shade and lift your eye while the early spring plants are dying back.
Aucuba japonica ‘Rozannie’
To enjoy the scarlet berries on most Japanese laurels, you need a female plant and a male plant to pollinate its flowers. Not so with ‘Rozannie’, which doesn’t need a male. And it’s also a tough evergreen that, at around 2m tall, never gets too large.
Grow it As a screen or background, especially in a small garden.
Digitalis purpurea f. albiflora
Foxgloves have the benefit of leafy rosettes to grab every glimmer of winter light, followed by slightly arching stems up to 1.2m lined with white flowers – with or without spots. Start with young plants rather than seed, but they should self-sow.
Grow it May need some support if the stems lean towards the light.
Dryopteris affinis ‘Cristata’
With bright golden croziers in spring, the 1.2m-tall fronds of evergreen male ferns retain their fresh, green colouring all summer and are intriguingly crested at the tips of their main divisions.
Grow it Cut back ragged fronds in late winter to reveal new growth.
Epimedium perralchicum ‘Fröhnleiten’
A resilient, evergreen perennial that makes a dense cover of leaves held on wiry stems up to 38cm tall. New growth is red with green veins, and the dainty, yellow flowers open in spring. Clip back the old foliage just before the flowers emerge.
Grow it Will grow in poor soil once established.
Euonymus fortunei ‘Silver Queen’
White stems carry white-edged leaves to brighten the darkest corners. Greenish flowers are followed by pink and orange fruits. Valuable as evergreen ground cover under trees and shrubs, and as a self-clinging climber up to 2m tall.
Grow it May need taping to its support to get climbing started.
Geranium x cantabrigiense ‘Biokovo’
There’s a hardy geranium for most situations, and for dry shade G. x cantabrigiense has the tolerance we need. Paler forms show up best: try the pink-tinted ‘Biokovo’ with its exceptional, reddish-orange autumn leaf colour. Height 25cm.
Grow it Spreads steadily; detach runners and replant to expand the clump.
Lamium maculatum ‘Ghost’
A larger, more vigorous form of this old favourite, its sharply toothed, silvery-white leaves have a neat, green edge. Encourage rooting by putting stones on the spreading stems; height 30cm.
Grow it As ground cover, or tumbling over the edge of a raised bed.
Mahonia aquifolium ‘Apollo’
A glossy-leaved, 60cm-tall evergreen shrub that spreads slowly but relentlessly by suckers. The red-stemmed leaves turn purplish in autumn; clusters of yellow flowers in spring followed by berries.
Grow it Good around tree trunks, falling over a retaining wall or as a sprawling specimen.
Narcissus ‘Jack Snipe’
Shorter daffodils are excellent dry shade bulbs, especially those with smaller flowers and strong stems. ‘Jack Snipe’ has long-lasting flowers, and increases well.
Grow it Plant in groups in pockets of improved soil.
Schizophragma hydrangeoides ‘Moonlight’
This climber clings to rough surfaces like an ivy. It features flower heads like a white lacecap hydrangea and silvered, heart-shaped leaves that turn buttery in autumn. Can be a slow starter, but then grows strongly to 8m tall.
Grow it Ideal on a tree trunk; make a planting hole between tree roots.
But before throwing in the towel, it’s worth considering how nature deals with similar circumstances. There are numerous plants that not only cope with dry shade but even revel in it. Top of the list are epimediums, making it difficult to understand why this is such an underused family. All are amenable to shade and most are impervious to dry conditions, while some have the extra attraction of retaining their foliage throughout winter – and very striking it is, too: each leaflet is large, with its own wiry stem.
As winter progresses, the leaves of hybrids such as Epimedium x rubrum and E. x versicolor become burnished and more highly polished. In early spring, I have to steel myself to cut down the stems to ground level; they are still beautiful, but if left alone the new flowers already formed at their bases will have to fight their way through and lots of patience will be needed to extract the old leaves. Flowers in April are swiftly followed by new foliage, which is a delight – so thin as to be almost translucent, with all the tenderness and freshness associated with spring.
Epimediums are the ground-dwelling members of the mahonia and berberis family. Mahonia aquifolium is one of the best taller ground-covering plants for really dry shade, being pukka throughout the year with lustrous, purple-tinted foliage in winter and spikes of cheery yellow flowers followed by dark berries with a blue bloom.
Another subject for dry shade is the periwinkle, vinca. Vinca major is big and buxom, V. minor slightly more sedate. Both will extend stems, taking root as they go. In the early part of the year, until April, they are spangled with soft blue flowers, and these evergreens can be relied on to put on a good show all year round, even in the most inauspicious circumstances – close to my Devon home, a north-facing bank that’s 5m high and 10m across is currently smothered in its luxuriant growth. Vinca thrives in country or city and is almost totally self-reliant, so is perfect for gardeners with little time to spare.
In a small urban setting, you’ll want a non-stop show, but how do you achieve this if it’s shady and you have so little space? Again, look to nature for inspiration, particularly wild woodland. There are two main displays in wild shade. Snowdrops, celandines and wood anemones exploit the spring period, when there are no leaves on the trees, so some light and moisture are available to them. Then, before the canopy fills in overhead, ransoms (wild garlic) and bluebells take over; primroses, too, thrive in dappled shade, providing there is adequate moisture in the soil.
Sweet woodruff, asperula, is another winner, and pretty much indestructible; its stems run and root as they go, sending up short stalks with whorls of bright green leaves topped with tiny white flowers. It makes a dense carpet but does not interfere with other taller plants. Lily of the valley and Solomon’s seal, both natives, are close relations and adore life in dry shade, too.
At the other end of the summer, leaves begin to thin out and another range of woodlanders exploit the extra daylight, many of them able to cope brilliantly with the sort of shade cast by buildings. One of the best examples is the group of Asiatic anemones, usually known as Japanese anemones. Their elegant, chalice-shaped blooms in shades of pink and white are prolific and reliable without any attention. Another Asiatic plant, Kirengeshoma palmata, has drooping, soft yellow bells on tall stems. This is a class act and proves that, far from shady places presenting insurmountable problems, they offer a marvellous opportunity.
Steps to success
Ameliorate the soil, not by digging, which will destroy tree roots and compound water loss, but by mulching the surface of the soil with lashings of compost and/or leaf mould. This will conserve moisture and keep down competitive weeds.
Plant carefully among tree roots, probing the soil gently to identify pockets of soil and extracting just enough to get the new plant off to a flying start. Use small, young plants that will establish quickly.
Eventually plants will spread and colonise, so from time to time divide and replant, preferably when dormant.
Hostas are often recommended for urban shade, but walls harbour snails and slugs, so they may be quickly decimated. Instead, choose tougher plants such as Brunnera macrophylla, whose heart-shaped leaves may not be quite so big and bold, but they will last. B. macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ has silver foliage and sprays of brilliant blue forget-me-not flowers.
Many bulbs are in their element in dry shade: underplant perennials with chionodoxa, scilla and snowdrops to add texture and depth.
If you asked a gardener to describe their dream space, it’s unlikely they would suggest a damp, north-facing plot that is heavily shaded. The lack of sunlight means you can’t kick back and relax on a deckchair, grow cottage-garden perennials or fill pots with sun-loving plants from the Mediterranean – but does it rule out having a beautiful garden? No, of course it doesn’t. For proof, look no farther than this tranquil garden owned by Julia Dear and Michael Kennet, in Holland Park, west London. The couple’s 16m x 9m, north-east-facing garden receives very little sunlight, but is a lush city oasis of towering exotics, architectural shrubs and perennials.
“It looks stunning today,” says Kennet, who bought the house with Dear in 2001, “but when we moved in, it was a nightmare – the garden was completely overgrown and largely shaded by four-storey houses and neighbouring trees. We really didn’t think a lot could be done with it.”
After paying someone to hack back the tangle of shrubs, the couple decided they would need some help to transform their unpromising plot. The answer: to call in Declan Buckley, a garden designer who has tackled many similar small gardens across the capital.
Buckley’s plan was to divide the space into three visually defined areas that link together. A patio would be built at the back of the house, leading to a lawn. In the area farthest from the house, he decided to build a deck – although the garden gets no direct sunlight for about five months of the year, this part does get midday sun in summer.
As the couple are both busy professionals, Buckley decided to use low-maintenance evergreens and lots of leafy exotics that thrive in the special microclimate found in many London plots. The result is a garden that looks green and lush all year round.
Surrounding the patio, which lies in the shade of next door’s towering eucalyptus tree, are many plants that thrive in low light. A hardy Japanese banana (Musa basjoo), tree fern (Dicksonia antarctica) and false castor-oil plant (Fatsia japonica) are under-planted with ferns, hellebores and euphorbias. To help brighten the patio, Buckley has used a light shade of Indian sandstone for paving and planted several arum lilies (Zantedeschia aethopica), whose white waxy flowers last from May until June.
Garden furniture has been placed on the patio for the couple to enjoy alfresco meals. Is it a good idea to make a dining area in the shade? “Many people put their eating area in the sunniest part of the garden, but there’s nothing worse than frying in the sun when you’re eating. Putting it in the shade gives you a nice, calm retreat as the weather gets hotter and hotter,” Buckley says.
A horizontal band of planting separates the patio from the lawn. Huge clumps of lily turf (Liriope muscari) romp away in the semi-shade and boast spikes of pale pink flowers during autumn, while two large specimens of Astelia chathamica ‘Silver Spear’, with their long, arching leaves, partially obscure a pair of granite elephant sculptures.
“You often see astelia planted in full sun,” Buckley says, “but they do really well in light shade and I find their silvery foliage helps to brighten up shady gardens.”
The centre of the garden is dominated by a lawn. “I tried to talk Michael out of having this because it’s not the ideal place for one – you only have to look at the others in the street to see how they suffer because of buildings and trees,” says Buckley, who got round the problem by using a shade-tolerant seed mix.
The planting round the lawn gives the garden a jungly feel and helps to provide privacy from neighbouring windows. Large shrubs, such as heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica), honey spurge (Euphorbia mellifera) and stag’s horn sumach (Rhus typhina ‘Dissecta’), knit together with bamboos, while lower down Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’ and Eucomis bicolor provide striking, white blooms in summer.
Like many shady gardens, this has a sunny spot. Buckley has made the most of it by building a deck, encircled by plants that like it hot and dry: Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’, agapanthus, fig and Convolvulus cneorum, whose silvery leaves echo those of the astelia. A band of white arum lilies in front of the deck divides the back of the garden from the lawn – even when they are not in flower, their arrow-shaped leaves earn their keep by adding a verdant feel to the garden.
By skilfully combining plants and materials, Buckley has created a garden where the lack of light is soon forgotten. “There’s a tendency to think you can’t do anything in a shady space,” he says, “but that point of view is very far from reality. You might not be able to have big, blousy borders, but I really do think you can relax more in a cool, shady space. Walking into this garden is like entering a fernery – I find it so peaceful.”
· Declan Buckley (020-7226 3697, buckleydesignassociates.com)
Creating a lawn in shade
Establishing a lawn in shade is hard, but by no means impossible. Generally, the grass varieties found in domestic lawns need about four hours of light a day to thrive. Any less will result in poor growth and a lawn that is vulnerable to weeds and moss.
Choose turf specifically for shade or a seed mix containing grasses that do well in low light. These contain a high percentage of fine-leaved grasses, among them creeping red fescue and smooth-stalked meadow grass.
Turf manufacturer Rolawn (0845 604 6050, rolawn.co.uk) has several products for shade; or, if you fancy doing it yourself, try the Shaded Lawn Grass Seed Mixture, £57.50 for a 10kg bag, from Nicky’s Seeds (01843 600972, nickys-nursery.co.uk).
When caring for a shady lawn, mow it less often and let the grass grow longer – also, avoid scalping the surface by raising the cutting height to 50mm.
Six top shade perennials
Pulmonaria ‘Blue Ensign’
Originally found at the RHS garden at Wisley, this is of the best blue pulmonarias, with large blue, disc-shaped flowers. Height 30cm, and when the dark green, unspotted foliage is fully expanded it has a spread of 45cm.
Erythronium californicum ‘White Beauty’
This tall (to 35cm, S: 10cm), vigorous plant has large, white flowers with a yellow centre. Easy to grow, it blooms early, before the leaves come on the trees, then dies down in summer, leaving the stage free for summer-flowering plants, such as hardy geraniums.
Helleborus x hybridus ‘Ushba Strain’
This is an easy garden plant, with pure white, bowl-shaped flowers, that brings much to the spring garden. Far more reliable and free-flowering than H. niger. H: 40cm, S: 45cm.
Sweet violets are native to this country, and flower in early spring. A bunch will bring scent to a whole room; H: 15cm, S: 60cm.
This lovely member of the rose family hails from the woodlands of North America. Growing up to 1m tall with a spread of 40cm, in June to early July it produces sprays of large white flowers with a red, petal-like calyx.
Cyclamen hederifolium ‘Silver Cloud’
An easy plant – perfect for dry conditions – with silver foliage that looks good all winter before dying down in late spring. Pink flowers appear in late August, heralding a change in the season; a flush of new leaves soon follows. H: 15cm, S: 30cm.
· Plants chosen by Nigel and Michelle Roland, of Long Acre Plants, Somerset (01963 32802; plantsforshade.co.uk), which specialises in shade-loving plants.
I am stretching out to the sun now, craving the light. I am not quite at the point of whipping off my kit and dancing in adoration of its rays and my body does not have the lovely rounded maturity of that woman on the beach (who must be nearly 80 by now). I’d be white and embarrassed and probably wearing socks. At almost any time of the year I adore sun, and for the next few months seek out every scrap of it. I might get skin cancer, but it is a trade-off I am prepared to go with. I am sure, in these censorious and constrained times, some apparatchik with a clipboard will try to stop me ‘for my own good’, but I’ll take the full glare while I can.
Like me, almost all plants do better with a good dose of sunshine, especially at this time of year. All the spring-flowering plants have evolved to make the most of the thin, brief sunlight that falls unfiltered by deciduous leaves, take advantage of the comparative lack of competition for pollinators, and then go dormant in the full glare of summer. Ironically, for woodland plants high, blazing summer is the period of deepest shade because the shrub and tree canopy fills out. I know that my own spring garden is a dark ravine between mid-June and September and very little is going on in there.
So much for using the sun in an evolutionary way (and I will be writing about the early perennials in a week or two), but one of the most common misconceptions that I come across in gardening is that shade is somehow less good than sun or that it is a problem to be solved. Not so. Dry shade can be limiting, but as a rule shade adds depth and quality to both the range of plants you can grow and the aesthetic pleasure for the gardener. There are exceptions to this – one immediately thinks of Derek Jarman’s garden at Dungeness, but even that had plants growing in the lee of other plants. On the whole, shade equals shelter and substance, and both plants and humans like it.
Most green looks better in shade, and flowers that tolerate shade draw the eye to linger. And once you go south of about Lyon, shade is the point of any garden. Cool shade with the murmur of water is the equivalent of a long, deliciously cold drink on a boiling summer’s day.
Then there is shade and shade. The dappled shade of woodland in spring is a benign affair, spangling the light rather than obscuring it. Within the umbrella of trees you can have layers of shade working down from the canopy, past tall shrubs and perennials to smaller ones, to low-growing ground cover and plants that spill out from shade, like primroses, wood anemones or snowdrops. Remember, shade is shelter and shelter is usually the most important thing for any plant in a garden.
Our Damp Garden is bounded by high hornbeam hedges (but not as high as they were – I took three foot off them the other day, which involved chainsaws, ladders and high anxiety) and they cast a deep shadow across exactly half of it. So the plants on one side of the narrow path through it live in a much more shadowy world than the other half, which has brilliant sunshine in the middle of the day. The garden is planted in a unified way with hostas, ligularias, regal ferns, primulas, cardoons, lysimachia, quinces and other damp-loving plants, but those that have midday shade tend to fare much better than those in the sun. Last year I noticed that the slugs went for the sunny hostas before the shady ones, even though they were only separated by a foot or two. I think this was because the sunny side got damaged by the frosts that we had in May, whereas the shaded ones remained unblemished and therefore less slugtastic. Hostas will grow perfectly well in full sun and cope with surprisingly dry conditions – but are much happier and healthier in damp shade.
We also have corners of almost permanent deep shade and the problem here is often one of drought. The only answer is to beef up the moisture retentiveness of the soil as much as possible with leaf mould, garden compost or whatever you have available, and then choose your plants from a limited range. The result is often lovely but always very green. Anyway, here are some plants for different types of shade.
Ferns are usually the first plant that people reach for to ‘solve’ shade. They are often lovely, but they are most useful when it comes to dry shade, where Dryopteris filix-mas will grow utterly untroubled by lack of moisture or light. Polystichum setiferum is also particularly drought-resistant and most of the Adiantum and Polypodium ferns will do fine . Even so, leaf mould should be used to enrich the soil before planting and as a regular mulch.
There are too many perennials that will grow well in shade to list here (as long as the soil is good and there is enough moisture), but here are a few reliably successful ones for dry shade. We grow both Acanthus mollis and A spinosus in deep shade and both seem to thrive. Alchemilla mollis is well known for its tolerance of dry shade and Euphorbia amygdaloides robbiae will do well too. Lamium maculatum is an excellent groundcover, but will spread if left unchecked. The same applies to both Vinca major and minor, but they are easy to control, so don’t be put off. All hellebores like shade but H foetidus is best adapted for the dry version of it. Foxgloves are a biennial, but I will cheat and slip them in.
Ivy, of course, is your main climber for any kind of shade. It has a destructive reputation, which is unwarranted, and it can be lovely. Hydrangea anomala petiolaris is happiest against a north wall, and winter jasmine will be comfortable there, too. Almost all clematis will grow in light shade and some, like C montana and all named hybrids will grow in quite deep shade as long as there is a light source that they can climb up towards. It is a mistake to give any clematis flowering before June full sun. Save that for plants that need it. Honeysuckle grows well in shade and the two climbing roses I recommend for a shady wall are the pink ‘Madame Alfred Carriere’ and the rich burgundy ‘Souvenir Du Dr Jamain.’ Both are superb.