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I Love Shade Gardening

Do you have a dark side? You know, that part of your world where the light is slight, the shimmer is dimmer, and where nothing seems of interest?

I cannot tell you how often I hear people say that they would love to have a beautiful garden but all they have is shade. My suggestion is always the same – add height, texture, movement, and stronger variations of leaf color. Trust me, with a few new additions, you will never see shade as a dark, lifeless place again.

Heucheras ‘Marmalade’ and ‘Citronelle’

To spice up the predominantly green hues typically found in shade gardens, add a spot or two of intense color. If you have a bit of dappled sunlight during parts of the day, you could easily throw a few brightly colored Heucheras into the mix. The greatest rewards come from the most vibrant colors – more bang for your buck, you might say. Some of the brightest are: ‘Citronelle,’ ‘Georgia Peach,’ ‘Lime Rickey,’ ‘Lime Marmalade,’ and just plain ‘Marmalade’ with its fantastic bi-colored leaves – a surface of light orange with purple undersides.

Another great color option is the St. John’s wort (Hypericum moserianum), ‘Tricolor.’ It boldly offers small leaves of green, edged in cream and pink and eventually gives you a yellow flower at the end of each sprig. In addition, it has a beautiful, fountain-like growth habit that make it truly unforgettable.

Jacob's Ladder
Jacob’s Ladder

For movement, leaf color, and delicate texture, consider a variegated Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium reptans, a native) like ‘Stairway to Heaven’ or ‘Touch of Class.’ The clusters of small leaves seem to move in the tiniest breath and their variegation catch your eye immediately.

Grasses are another good source of movement and texture. Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) is not only native to this area, but is shade tolerant. There is also a breathtaking variegated variety, ‘River Mist,’ that I consider a must-have for anyone looking for an instant knock out.

Japanese Forest Grass

Another rewarding choice is Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa). If their graceful blade shape and vibrant range of greens aren’t enough, Japanese forest grasses move in such a way as to make them appear as fluid as water rolling over rocks in a stream. There is nothing more mesmerizing.


Enough cannot be said about the importance of height, which adds form and visual interest to your site. There are cultivars of Black Bugbane (Actaea simplex) that have a wonderful, reddish-black, deeply-cut leaf, and eventually a tall stalk of white flowers, that grows strikingly large. Cultivars include: ‘Brunette,’ ‘Hillside Black Beauty,’ and ‘Black Negligee.’ On average these plants can range from 4 to 7 feet, depending on whether they are in flower. Another tall beauty is Goat’s Beard (Aruncus). Goat’s Beard is a wonderful native alternative to Astilbe and is much more captivating due to its size. Its clusters of fine, white flowers brighten up any shady spot effortlessly.

Don’t ignore your light-deprived spots, hopelessly filling the spaces with fern and hosta. Embrace the shade and explore your options. Look for the shade cloth in our Perennials section at either store, and in Beltsville, make your way back to the covered area in Woody Plants for our native plant section for shade. Just a few bright choices will make a world of difference in how you manage your dark side.

Editor’s Note: Availability of perennials varies seasonally, with the best availability in late spring. Not all of the recommendations of the author are available at all times.

By: Constance Cleveland, Behnke Nurseries’ Perennial Department

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Thanks for this blog entry! I went from having a full sun front entry to having a full shade entry since the trees have grown up! Where I could plant nearly anything for summer color, now I have shade — and I am learning it is mostly DRY shade, to boot.

    I put in a few hosta a couple of years ago, but they aren’t thriving. Yes, there are slugs out there, and I’m not anxious to battle them week after week. I loved the Foamflower but the crickets seem to have eradicated it :-(. I brought a pulmonaria and a fern home a couple of days ago from the sale, and I’m going to see if I can nudge them along. Oh, the Vinca is doing great! But it would be nice to have a little variation from Vinca everywhere!

    I have done some container gardening here, so I could move a pot of impatiens into the sun for a day or so, then back by the door. I used to be able to grow a couple pots of geranium there, when it was a SUNNY dooryard. I really do miss the geraniums.

    I didn’t realize how shade-loving most hydrangea are either! I love them, but only have one where I live now. As a child, I remember my parents had this great big old plant and I loved those big soccer-ball size blooms. I’m planning to put more in.

    I wish I had put in a raised bed for herbs and vegetables this year! Well, I’m starting early for next year.

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