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Garden Perennials that Love Shade

Some garden perennials absolutely insist on shade. Others perennial plants don’t mind direct sunlight in varying degrees, depending on your climate and light intensity. You can plant many of them in full sun if you live in a region where summers are generally cool and overcast. You need to experiment a bit to discover what works in your garden.

Use these recommendations as guidelines, not hard and fast rules:

  • Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis): Lady’s mantle is perfectly content in full sun in cloudy, overcast climates, but intense sunlight badly scorches its leaves. The flowers, a froth of chartreuse yellow, bloom from spring through most of the summer and are outstanding when cut. Lady’s mantle thrives in woodland conditions with moist but not sopping wet soil. It’s more tolerant of dry soil in shade than in sun. This plant can be quite invasive, spreading into large patches and also seeding some distance away. Remove spent flowers to slow down spreading. Lady’s mantle does best in regions with cool overnight temperatures and can withstand extreme winter cold, but it isn’t tolerant of heat combined with humidity in subtropical regions.

  • Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’): This fern’s fronds are grayish green overlaid with silver. The mid-ribs are burgundy red. The foliage is filigreed for a delicate and graceful texture. More rugged than its appearance suggests, this fern grows easily in well-drained, humus-enriched soil in either shade or partial shade. Protect and preserve moisture with several inches of light organic mulch. It sends up new fronds throughout the summer, but its deciduous fronds die back to the ground in winter.

  • Heartleaf brunnera (Brunnera macrophylla): In early spring, dainty clusters of tiny blue forget-me-not flowers make their appearance above small, emerging leaves. This plant prefers moist, fertile woodland conditions. It withstands full sun in overcast climates and is somewhat drought tolerant in shade, especially in heavy clay soils. This plant self-sows but doesn’t make a pest of itself. To preserve moisture and keep the soil cool, use several inches of an organic mulch around the plants. Protect it from slugs.

  • Bleeding heart (Dicentra hybrids): The hybrid bleeding hearts bloom for six months, possesse beautiful foliage, and are long-lived, adaptable, and easy to grow. Clusters of charming, locket-shaped flowers hang over deeply cut, ferny foliage. All parts of bleeding hearts, if eaten, are toxic to both you and your pets.

  • Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis): Dramatic and elegant, they’re among the first nonbulb flowers to bloom in the spring. The flowers are open bells of cream to soft rose, often with purple freckles and a touch of the palest green. Lenten roses are long-lived and easy to grow in any climate with wintertime lows above –30° F (–34° C). Some years the foliage and first flowers are zapped by cold temperatures. Cut them off, and the plants readily bounce back. Mulch plants heavily.

  • Coral bells (Heuchera sanguinea): Varieties with attractive flowers come in shades of red, pink, coral, and white. The types chosen for outstanding foliage usually don’t offer much in the flower department. This plant is intolerant of wet soil in winter. Use an organic mulch year round and cover with pine boughs or other lightweight winter protection in bitterly cold regions.

  • Plantain lily (Hosta hybrids): Tough and reliable, the plantain lily is the ultimate shade perennial. They come in every shade of green, steely blues, and translucent yellows; in solid colors; and every conceivable pattern of variegation in cream, white, or chartreuse. Most varieties scorch and burn when exposed to strong sunlight or allowed to dry.

  • Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica): Virginia bluebells produce long-lived wildflowers that put up with neglect and mistreatment without complaint. The flowers are nodding clusters of tubular bells, opening pink and aging to lavender blue. Bluebells go dormant with the beginning of hot weather. After the yellowing foliage starts to brown, cut it off — the only care these low-maintenance flowers ever need. The plants slowly spread to fill all the empty spaces in the shade garden.

  • Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium caeruleum): This plant features loose clusters of five-petalled, soft blue flowers on spikes above ladder-shaped leaflets. The blossoms are ornamented with prominent yellow stamens. Jacob’s ladder is long-blooming. Where nights are cool and dry, this plant is dependable and easy to grow. For best results, water regularly.

  • Auricula primrose (Primula auricula): This neat and tidy plant is extremely cold-hardy and endures draught well. The species is yellow, but just about every color imaginable has been developed. This primrose grows in full sun in cool summer climates, but needs afternoon shade elsewhere. It’s not well adapted to hot, humid subtropical climates.

  • Foam flower (Tiarella cordifolia): A relative unknown, these plants produce delicate, starry flowers. These flowers are best in cool shade, but they can stand heat as long as you keep them well watered. Use an organic mulch to keep the soil cool and moist. Water before the soil dries out completely. It’s fast-growing and quickly forms good-sized colonies everywhere but the muggiest subtropical regions.

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