University of Illinois Extension

Gardening in Shady Places

“Shade has always posed a challenge for gardeners. Trying to find something unique and different, let alone being able to tolerate and perform well in the shade, often led to the old stand-bys of hosta, fern, and lily-of-the-valley,” said Greg Stack, University of Illinois Extension horticulturist. “Well, fear the shade no longer. Hybridizers and plant hunters are constantly coming up with new offerings for those shaded locations.

“Shade perennials can provide a striking contrast in texture, flower form, fall color, and bloom time. This allows even the shadiest of sites to become attractively landscaped areas.”

Stack recommends a few shade perennials that “love the dark side of gardening.”

Photo of monkshoodAconitum or monkshood (top) is a stately garden plant for the shade garden. Growing to 24 inches tall, these plants prefer an area where soil moisture is constant but not soggy wet. The violet blue flowers look similar to snapdragons and are produced in August and September.

Bergania or pigsqueak gives a wonderful textural difference to the shaded garden. The large, glossy green foliage looks similar to wax begonia foliage only much larger. The plant likes a well-drained, moist site in light shade. Pink flowers are produced in April. Growing to 12 to 15 inches tall, these plants offer an orange/yellow background for tall spikes of white flowers in August and September. It does best in a moist soil.

Two types of bleeding heart can be used in the shade garden.

Photo of bleeding heartDicentra spectabilis (bottom) is the old-fashioned bleeding heart,” said Stack. “Growing to three feet in height, it produces pink, locket-shaped flowers on long stems during May and June. It has a habit, however, of going dormant during the summer so prepare for yellowing foliage and a bare spot. It is a good idea to plant something in the vicinity to help cover over the bare area left behind.

“The other bleeding heart, Dicentra formosa ‘Luxuriant’, is a short plant at 12 inches. It produces fine, blue-green fern-like foliage and flowers from May to August with small red flowers. However, unlike its relative, it does not go dormant during the summer and continues to provide color all season.”

Dry shade like that under trees is a very difficult environment for growing plants. If you are in this situation, look to Epimedium.

“This perennial competes well with tree roots and will, over time, provide a complete ground cover in these areas,” said Stack. “The plant grows to 12 inches in height, has heart-shaped leaves, and blooms with yellow/red flowers in May. An added bonus is its outstanding burgundy/crimson fall foliage color.”

The perennial geranium Geranium endressi ‘Wargrave Pink’, does well in shaded areas. Growing to 15 inches tall, it produces salmon pink blooms in May and June and then sporadically through the season.

Polemonium or Jacob’s Ladder produces plants that are 15 to 18 inches tall with fine, fern-like foliage. Depending on the cultivar, the foliage can be green or variegated green and white. As an added bonus, it has stalks of lavender blue flowers in May. This makes a useful accompaniment to the broader-leaved favorites in the shade garden.

Pulmonaria or lungwort is an outstanding plant for the moist, well-drained shaded garden,” he noted. “These plants form neat mounds of strap-like leaves and are distinctive for the white markings on the leaves that look like paint splatters.

“This plant blooms in April and May with flowers ranging from pink to lavender blue. After flowering, remove the old flower stalks and take full benefit of the lovely, variegated foliage.”

Stack recommends one last unique perennial for light shade – Tricyrtis or toad lily. “This plant is valued for its late season of bloom around September and October,” he said. “Flowers resemble tiny orchids. Toad lily prefers soil that is constantly moist but will grow in regular garden areas so long as it doesn’t have to endure long periods of drought. Toad lily will spread and form large colonies but is not considered invasive.”

If shade has been your garden nemesis, Stack said, look to these and the many other perennials that can make your shade garden the envy of other gardens basking in the sun.