Designing a Shade Garden

Mary Ann Ryan
Adams County Master Gardener

At my house, I have a small shady area, which I have been piecing together for a few years. Iím almost ashamed to admit it, but it has always been sort of a dump for perennials that I donít know where else to plant, but no longer. This year I have resolved to design an organized shade garden.

I have never been a great fan of hostas; however after a visit to see a hosta collection owned by a Master Gardener friend and his wife, I discovered just how beautiful hostas can be. The combination of different colors and textures is a site to behold. One I am going to try is a combination of varieties like Kabitan, a small leafed light green and yellow combination, backed by Hosta Blue Moon with its large blue-green leaves.

A small collection of coral bells resides in my present shade garden. The different leaf colors contrast nicely. However, because of the deep shade, they havenít been blooming quite as they should. Such varieties as Heuchera Amber Waves, a ruffled gold foliage plant with leaves that turn to a burnt orange as they age, Heuchera Stormy Seas, a coral bells that has silver, lavender and gray markings on the leaves, and Heuchera Ruby Ruffles, that sports a ruffled leaf with silver highlights will need to find a sunnier home in my garden.

I truly enjoy the coral bells, and Iím sure I will not be able to turn down the many new, colorful leafed varieties that are being introduced into the market. However, this collection will need to be housed someplace else.

The coral bells that I relocated to another area will be replaced by a group of fernleaf bleeding hearts. The fernleaf bleeding heart, Dicentra digitalis Luxuriant is a shade lover that will bloom all summer, unlike the old fashioned bleeding heart, Dicentra digitalis, which dies back and disappears in the heat of the summer. Just as the name indicates, fernleaf bleeding heart has fern-like foliage and is blue green in color.

The old fashioned bleeding heart has already found a home in my shade garden for many years. I must admit that this is my second favorite plant in the spring, and I am considering giving it a roommate, the old fashioned white bleeding heart, Dicentra digitalis alba. The old fashioned bleeding hearts will be the background of my shade garden in the spring; and when the bleeding hearts die back, the hostas will be at their peak to take the bleeding heartsí dominant position in the garden.

Massed in the foreground of my new shade garden will be Brunnera macrophylla Dawson white. This perennial is also called false forget-me-nots. Their medium sized, variegated white and green foliage with heart shaped leaves will contrast nicely with the blue hosta and variegated, crinkled small leafed Kabitan hosta. The dainty blue flowers are beautiful as well.

Corydalis lutea, commonly known as yellow bleeding heart, will be mixed in the foreground with the Brunnera. The Corydalis is a shade perennial that is hardy to zone 6. This will be a trial plant for me, as in my garden zone 6 plants struggle to overwinter. But the beauty of the plant, with the yellow flowers that will bloom throughout the summer, is a chance worth taking. This perennial will bloom at the same time as the fernleaf bleeding heart, which will be located behind the Corydalis and will certainly provide a nice combination of yellow and pink flowers.


Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)

Off to the side of my shade garden, where it will get slightly more sunlight, will be columbine. Columbine, or Aquilegia, is my favorite perennial. The uniqueness of the flower has always enchanted me. I have a small collection of these plants already, so adding a few shouldnít break the bank. They come in many colors: yellow, blue, red, and combinations of these colors. My experience with these plants is they do best in part shade, which is how I have them sited in my garden, but will do fine in full sun as well. However, in full sun, the plants may go into dormancy in the heat of the summer.

Now that I have my shade garden planned out, at least on paper, all I need are the plants. I hope you too are getting geared up for spring. I imagine the local garden centers are anxious to get their perennials out for us to look at and purchase. I donít know about you, but I know I can hardly wait!

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