Shady Behavior: 20 Great Plants for the Shade Garden

As a child, I was always drawn to shady nooks. In my mind, a deep green space spoke of mystery and enclosure with its long shadows and dappled play of light. This fascination has continued into my adulthood. Only now, these same sensations inspire my designs, particularly when it comes to creating a shade garden.

SHADE GARDENS ARE ALL ABOUT CONTRASTING TONES

It’s a funny thing. In garden design, we often use hedges, fences and walls to provide a sense of enclosure. Yet, a shade garden needs none of these devices to evoke exactly the same thing. How is this so? It’s the plants themselves that create the feeling of sanctuary. They do this through their shapes, sizes, textures and most importantly, their contrasting tones.

A grouping of contrasting tones

Indeed, a great shade garden relies on contrasting light and dark tones to create a sense of depth in the landscape. Dark toned plants appear to recede into the garden, while light toned plants seem to move forward. The successful combination of the two is what gives shade gardens their irresistible allure.

There are so many great shade-loving plants with beautiful flowers. But, if you’re looking to create that feeling of mystery and enclosure, start with the foliage. Below are six different types of foliage and the role each plays in enhancing a shade garden. 

VARIEGATED FOLIAGE

Variegated leaf of Solomon’s Seal

In a shade border, plants with variegated foliage act as beacons, lighting up shadowy spaces and helping to create a feeling of expanse. Choose plants with cream, white or lime margins (or spots) and plant them at intervals among drifts of solid green foliage to create a ‘dappled’ look. The effect is a lot like the reflection of moonlight on water.

Variegated Dogwood, Cornus alba argenteo-marginata

Hosta ‘Francee’ and Hosta sieboldiana ‘Frances Williams’

Pulmonaria ‘Trevi Fountain’

Broad leafed sedge, Carex siderosticha ‘Variegata’

Iris pallida ‘Variegata’

Candidum caladium

Solomon’s Seal

DARK FOLIAGE

Dark green foliage of Japanese yew

In painting, artists use dark tones to create the illusion of depth and to make lighter colors ‘pop’. The same goes for the shade garden. Dark foliage tends to recede, leading the eye deeper into the garden. It also creates a nice backdrop for lighter-toned plants. And, if you edge the inner curves of your border with small, dark-leaved plants, it will make the curves look more profound.

Japanese yew, Taxus cuspidata 

Heuchera ‘Obsidian’

Rhododendron (any)

‘Illustris’, Elephant’s EarColocasia esculenta

BLUE FOLIAGE

Blue hosta

Blue injects the perfect note of calm into a shade garden. The cool tone provides a tranquil contrast to dark or variegated foliage. It’s not an easy color to find, however, as most blues tend towards purple, which produces an altogether different effect.

Hosta ‘Blue Angel’

Hosta ‘Fragrant Blue’

Hosta ‘Hadspen Blue’

Fothergilla x intermedia ‘Blue Shadow’

SILVER FOLIAGE 

Silver-toned leaves of Brunnera macrophylla

A little touch of silver foliage in the shade garden acts as a foil to other plants. It also shimmers in the moonlight. Don’t overdo it, though. This tone brings things visually forward. If you add too much silver, you risk losing that sense of depth.

Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’

Japanese Painted Fern

LIME GREEN FOLIAGE

Chartreuse flowers of bright green Lady’s Mantle

There’s nothing like a splash of lime green to lighten up the shade border. Lime calls attention to itself in a different way than white. More cooling, it brightens softly, like a light bulb on a dimmer.

Hosta ‘Twist of Lime’

Lady’s Mantle, Alchemilla mollis

Heuchera ‘Key Lime Pie’

Creeping Jenny, Lysimachia

BIG-LEAVED PLANTS 

Giant leaves of Hardy Begonia, Begonia grandis

If you really want to make an impact, go big with big leaves. Big-leaved plants placed in the back of the garden attract the eye and increase the sense of depth.

Indian Rhubarb, Darmera Peltata

Giant Leopard Plant, Ligularia tussilaginea ‘Gigantea’

Begonia grandis ‘Alba’

 

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