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Plants for shade gardens

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Editor’s note: We know we’ve been going a little heavy on gardens lately, but it’s that time of year! We’re excited.

Think that a shady area can’t have a garden? Think again! Shade gardens can be fantastic places to showcase foliage color, texture and flowers too.

The key to designing a shade garden is simple. Select plants that can grow in part-shade to full- shade conditions. For reference, a plant that likes part-shade prefers about four to six hours of direct sunlight a day. A plant that needs full-shade prefers less than four hours of direct sunlight a day.

This sun/shade preference can easily be found on plant tags at nurseries or online. There are many plants that appreciate shade, from annuals to perennials and even shrubs.

Annuals don’t have to be limited to pots. They can be strategically added to perennial gardens to fill in gaps or add pops of consistent color throughout the season. Shade-tolerant annuals like impatiens, fuchsia, begonia and lobelia come in a variety of foliage and flower colors and would give any garden an instant boost.

Sweet alyssum, an annual with masses of tiny white flowers, is a powerful plant that attracts beneficial insects that help protect your garden from unwanted pests. Sweet alyssum grows less than 10 inches tall and tolerates part-shade.

Many shade-loving perennials come in a wide range of foliage colors. Plants such as coral bells and foam flower have foliage with scalloped edges. They grow less than 12 inches tall and have delicate flower stems that emerge in early summer. Coral bells is known for its near-endless foliage colors, with varieties that stretch from lime green to orange, purple and red. If you’re interested in native plants, foam flower is a native perennial with more subtle foliage with sweet star-like flowers on its stems.

Heuchera or coral bells planted with light blue columbine and blue salvia are an ideal combination for a shade garden. Photos courtesy of Bonnie Kirn Donahue

Sensitive fern is a native perennial that likes medium to wet soils and part to full shade. The fern fronds are light green, which stand out from other darker green foliage. The lovely rusty-brown seed heads stand up through the winter, adding some interest to the winter landscape.

Many great native shrubs can tolerate at least partial shade. Red twig dogwood has brilliant red stems that are striking against the late winter landscape. Chokeberry has brilliant red foliage in autumn and can tolerate partial shade. Both shrubs boast flowers that attract pollinators in spring and berries that attract birds in autumn. Keep in mind that when planting shrubs with berries in partial to full shade, they may not flower or fruit as profusely as they would in full sun.

These plants are just a few of the many options out there. Check out Cooperative Extension or botanical garden resources online for more plant ideas or visit your local nursery or greenhouse.

Finally, while shade gardens get less sun, they still need occasional watering, weeding and other care, much like any other full-sun garden. Depending on your soil type, shade gardens may retain moisture for longer periods. Check the soil moisture about two to three inches down to see if it really needs to be watered.

by Bonnie Kirn Donahue, Extension Master Gardener, UVM

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