Does your garden have a Cinderella spot? A part that doesn’t get the same love and attention as the rest? Chances are, says Mandy Bradshaw of The Chatty Gardener, it’s a shady area.
Sunny borders might seem more interesting and easy to fill, but Mandy’s tips for the best shade-loving plants will give your neglected corners a fairytale ending of their own. Here’s her pick of show-stopping specimens that positively thrive in the shade.
Before you start tackling a shady area, there are a few things to consider.
Firstly, work out what sort of shade you have. Is it unrelenting gloom or the type of dappled shade that’s found under deciduous trees and shrubs? Is the shade caused by buildings or walls that will lend themselves to climbers? Or is it cast by evergreen shrubs that take the light and compete for water?
The type of soil you’ll be planting into is also important. Some shady spots suffer from dark, damp conditions, while others have quite dry soil. Different plants will suit each scenario.
Ask yourself what you want to achieve. Is the patch of shade at the end of your drive where neat and tidy will do, or alongside a seating area that needs a bit more drama?
Finally, think about colour. Lighter colours, particularly white flowers, and variegated leaves stand out better in shade than those with dark or muted tones.
Preparation is key
Look carefully at the area before you start. Sometimes, raising ‘the skirts’ of trees or shrubs dramatically increases light levels beneath. In my garden I’ve removed the low-growing branches on my Parrotia persicaria, allowing cyclamen and snowdrops to naturalise underneath. Similarly, clearing the lower trunk of a holly bush has not only given it a better shape; I now also have an easier area to plant.
Preparing the soil thoroughly is never wasted work, particularly when it’s in shade. Add plenty of humus and fork it in. Well-rotted leaf mould is good as it mimics the sort of natural conditions many shade-loving woodland plants love.
After you’ve planted, mulch the ground thickly. This will help to conserve moisture and, if repeated regularly, will gradually improve dry soil.
Plants for damp shade
There are many plants that will revel in damp shade. Lamprocapnos spectabilis (bleeding heart) is lovely in gloomy spots, particularly the white form. Geranium phaeum is another good choice – the white flowers of ‘Album’ are particularly effective. Other possibilities include epimedium, with its dainty flowers held high over the leaves, Lily of the valley, and hostas – as long as you can guard against slugs and snails. For something a little different, try Podophyllum versipelle ‘Spotty Dotty’ for its beautiful marbled foliage.
Plants for dry shade
Dry shade is the hardest to deal with, as I know well from gardening on my own thin, sandy soil. Euphorbia amygdaloides var robbiae has lovely limey green bracts and growing it in poorer conditions keeps it in check. Iris foetidissima copes with deep shade and its orange seed pods are a welcome splash of winter colour, while a pretty ivy or Galium odoratum (sweet woodruff) are great for ground cover. Several ferns, including dryopteris and polystichum, also thrive in shade.
Plants for partial shade
The term ‘partial shade’ describes the way the sun moves across your garden, leaving it in shade for part of the day. But it can also refer to the sort of seasonal shade that deciduous trees and shrubs provide when in full leaf.
Alchemilla mollis, hardy geraniums and the elegant Polygonatum x hybridum (Solomon’s Seal) are all good for spots that are shady for part of the day. Under trees, choose woodlanders such as Anemone nemorosa, primroses, and foxgloves.
Ivy is the obvious choice for covering a shady fence or wall, but you can also brighten these areas with flowers. One of my favourites is Clematis ‘Guernsey Cream’, which I grew for many years in a sun-free courtyard. Its beautiful limey flowers gradually fade to white as they age. There are even climbing roses that will tolerate some shade, including ‘Graham Thomas’ and ‘The Generous Gardener’.
So, with a little thought and some careful soil preparation, even the most overlooked area of your garden can enjoy the spotlight.