Garden talk: Show-stopping plants can be planted in shade gardens

Special to the Ledger-EnquirerMay 29, 2011 

@BR BodyRR dropcap GRAY50:Heading to Callaway Gardens last Friday, I took the back roads and had a chance to enjoy the wealth of early summer wildflowers along the roadsides.

I saw lots and lots of graceful, creamy white Queen Anne’s lace, drifts of white ox-eye daisies intermingled with bright yellow coreopsis, and pretty pink primrose poppies. I also glimpsed large clumps of tawny orange daylilies growing in ditches beside the highway and shrubby elderberry standing taller than 4 feet, showing off its clusters of white blossoms.

All of these wildflowers love wide open, sunny locales and will last for several more weeks until mid-summer brings a totally different crop of bloomers. Keep your eyes open as you begin your summer travels.

A delightful shade garden

When several of you asked me to recommend plants for your shady garden spots, I was reminded of a visit I made to a friend’s home recently. As I approached the house, I noticed an elegant, purple, Japanese maple tree, and under that tree was a near perfect mix of green, shade-loving plants. An important aspect of an all-green garden should be the combination of textures and shades of green, and this garden met all of the criteria. It is a tiny plot, bordered with a concrete walkway, and you can’t see a grain of soil, for the plants overlap and drape over each other in wild abandon.

Several clumps of aspidistra (cast iron plant), the tallest plants in the little garden, send up dark green, spiky leaves that have yellow streaks of variegation. There are two types of ferns -- autumn, which has feathery, yellow-green foliage with burnished red tips; and holly, which has bold, dark green foliage. In the center of the bed a pair of spreading yews produces sprays of dark, needle-like foliage, and creeping gardenias with tiny, dark leaves and bright white blossoms decorate the edges.

In the medium green range, some ardisias, my very favorite groundcover shade plants, have glossy foliage and will send up insignificant blooms in a few weeks and then shiny red berries. Patches of strawberry begonia with its silvery-veined leaves are blooming right now with tiny, white, star-shaped blossoms. And, last but not least, several huge hostas with blue-green foliage and tall stalks of white flowers add their sturdy presence.

Color for shade gardens

Many gardeners bemoan the fact that most of their property lies in shade and they hate missing out on all of the colorful annuals, perennials, and shrubs that thrive only in sun. But, if you think about it, there is a pretty good palette of color for shade. Consider impatiens in its many hues of pink, red, purple, coral, and white, and some of the newer shades of New Guinea impatiens that venture into yellow and cream.

A small plant called torenia or wishbone plant makes a wonderful addition to a shady spot with its azure blue, white, or pink blossoms; and begonias, which produce pink, red, or white blooms also love shade. You can choose begonias with either bronze or pale green foliage, however, the green ones will do best in shade. Foxgloves, with stalks of pink or white flowers can take shade, as can red-flowered lobelia and ajuga, which comes in either variegated or all green and produces blue-purple flower spikes.

A whole range of wildflowers that bloom in early spring can be grown in shade, as they flower before the trees leaf out. You can make a lovely planting with blue phlox, creamy solomon’s seal, spiderwort in blues and pinks, pink wild geranium, and white foamflower.

A foliage plant that takes shade, caladium comes with leaves veined in pink, red, or white, and it can be a real showstopper when grown in large drifts. Another plant, well-known for its attractive foliage, is hakone grass, which can brighten even the darkest corners with its bright yellow, striped leaves. Also, some varieties of coleus with their myriad colors grow well in shade.

Hydrangeas top the list of shrubs for shade. We all remember the old-fashioned mop head varieties that produce huge, round balls of blooms in either blue or pink, depending on the ph of the soil – the more acid, the bluer; the more alkaline, the pinker. But the hybridizers have worked with different species of hydrangeas and now we have lime green ones called ‘Limelight’, and white ones called ‘Blushing Bride’ and ‘Tardiva’. Also, instead of blooming just once as the oldies did, lots of the new ones bloom all during the summer and into fall.

A few other shade-loving shrubs to mention, all of which have cream-colored blossoms, are bottlebrush buckeye, itea, and clethra. The one I like best, the bottlebrush buckeye, displays long, feathery blooms that resemble the brushes used to clean baby bottles. It has a light fragrance and the butterflies love it.

Barrie Bain is an independent correspondent who writes about gardening.

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