Mass Planting in Shady Areas

Pat Ferguson
Adams County Master Gardener

Before beginning to plant anything in the shadier areas of your property, consider several things first. How "deep" is the shade? Does the area get any direct sunlight at all? Roughly how many hours of sun will the space receive? Is the area heavily treed? Trees cast very different types of shade. For example, a honey locust or young white birch, a willow or a palm will cast a light, dappled-type shade while magnolias, beeches, pears and many of the evergreens cast a dense shade.

In a partially shaded garden, which would receive a very short time of sun in the morning and perhaps again in the late afternoon, you could mass plant with perennials such as astilbe for its textured leaves and plume-like blooms, heuchera (coral bells), hosta, bleeding heart, artemisia, and interplant them with some shade-tolerant annuals. For example, you could plant artemisia for its attractive, fine-textured gray-green foliage, with tuberous begonia in any of its stronger colors and then take the begonia inside for the winter as a houseplant. Planting artemisia with heuchera is also good, especially if you use the purple-leafed variety of the heuchera. Or try planting heuchera with their white or pink spiky blooms with a light color impatiens. Also for a partially shaded garden, try the purple leafed variety of heuchera as a backdrop for one of the shorter varieties of artemisia or an annual like dwarf dusty miller. Another idea would be to use dicentra (bleeding heart) with its lacy leaves, mounding habit and gracefully arching stems of pink to rose blooms (and now, there is a white blooming variety that would be excellent for deep shade conditions). Dicentra looks wonderful when planted with ferns. Finally, the perennial lamb's ears will grow 6 to 14 inches tall, the texture is marvelous and the color is a silvery gray. Plant with flowers that have dark green foliage such as periwinkle (vinca plant) or New Guinea impatiens. Pleasing contrasts is the idea, using a light color to call the eye's attention to the total planting.

There are several plantings you can use for a mostly shady spot. A mass planting of caladiums can be breathtaking if the planting is not too sparse. You can purchase tubers in the spring but wait until the ground temperature reaches at least 60 degrees before planting the tubers - this usually occurs three to four weeks after the last killing frost. If your area is deeply shaded, mass plant lots of the white leaf variety to attract the eye. A good combination plant would be the groundcover, lamium, with its silver-white leaves and green edges. You could also use holly fern or maidenhair fern (an airy looking and delicate variety with black stems) as a companion to caladiums. Dig up your caladium tubers before the first frost and overwinter them in the house until next spring.

One of the most versatile plants for partly or fully shaded gardens is the hosta. In the summer the plants produce showy white or lavender blossoms that have a light fragrance and draw hummingbirds. Leaves vary including light green, dark green, blue-green, chartreuse and mixtures with white and cream color. Their size varies both in height and width from 1-2 feet by 2-3 feet! There are, of course, smaller varieties, too. In deep shade, plant hosta varieties with white leaf margins or white leaves with green margins. An alternative is to plant hosta with chartreuse leaves which is also excellent for bringing your attention to a darkly shaded place. Plant white or light color impatiens between hosta to bring some additional color to your deep shady area. Ferns are another good choice for planting with hosta. If you want to see a lovely ground cover with hosta, plant some of the perennial ajuga.

Coleus immediately comes to mind when thinking of choices for a shady garden. Coleus is an annual with some of the most interesting leaf patterns imaginable. If you want a companion plant, use ferns, impatiens, lenten rose or lobelia. Coleus may not be light enough in color to draw the eye to a densly shaded planting so keep in mind that you may need to use some white or yellow blooming plants for this purpose. When planting coleus, be sure to pinch back the top of the main stem to encourage the lower branches to grow. Don't worry - it will happen! Also, as summer progresses the coleus will grow pale blue flower stalks at the top. Pinch these off or the plant will produce fewer new leaves.

There are many other annuals you can choose to plant in the partial shade. Some of these include ivy geranium, cleome, ageratum, wax begonia, torenia, nasturtium, pansy, snapdragon, lobelia, and the often under-rated browallia. Be sure to pay attention to the moisture requirements of your selections. Plantings located under the eaves or near your house foundation or on a southwest or west exposure will need to be watered more frequently.

You can have enormous fun laying out a mass planted garden in your mind's eye, then again when you look over the plants you have chosen Their purchase will feel good and when you get them into the ground you will enjoy it all over again. But the real payoff is to your spirit when several weeks down the road your mass planting blooms or shines and you begin that slow smile of happy accomplishment!

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