Shade Gardening – My Reluctant Specialty

By Mary Ellen Ellis | June 24, 2021
Image by PaulMaguire
by Mary Ellen Ellis
June 24, 2021

When I was a kid I loved gardening. We had a big, sunny backyard with plenty of room to grow flowers and vegetables. Then, we moved to a street that was more like a forest than a neighborhood. Learning to love and excel at shade gardening has become my specialty.

An Early Love for Gardening

I was an odd child. My favorite foods were veggies, especially cucumbers, tomatoes, and sugar snap peas. This is probably what got me excited about gardening. My parents started a vegetable patch, and I loved to “help,” especially with the harvesting when one pea pod went into my mouth for every one that went in the basket. 

A Transition to Forest Gardening

At around ten years old we moved to a new city and neighborhood and lost our sunny, open space. A vegetable garden simply wasn’t an option, nor were the gorgeous zinnias we used to grow. 

The new street was a literal forest with huge, old oak trees shading most of the yard. It was really lovely but presented a gardening challenge my mom hadn’t faced previously. We had to figure out what to grow in so much shade. 

Today, I Specialize in Shade

That early experience, disappointing though it was at the time, helped me become better at gardening. It expanded my horizons. Today I live in a house with a yard well balanced between sun and shade. I get the best of both worlds, but I embrace the shady corners. Here are some of my tips based on what I’ve learned over the years: 

Try a variety of ferns. I love ferns. They are so pretty and provide a unique texture for the shadiest spots in the garden. I use tall ostrich ferns to anchor shady corners and fill in other spaces with smaller varieties and those with more color, like lady fern and Japanese painted fern

Try all the hostas too. Another popular shade plant, hostas, also comes in more varieties than you may imagine. There are big ones, tiny ones, groundcover style hostas, and various patterns and shades of green. They add real visual interest if you use several types. 

Add spikes of color with astilbe. It’s sometimes hard to get enough color in shade, but astilbe thrives in these spots. The plants produce colorful spikes of small flowers in pink, purple, red, and white. 

Don’t forge annuals. Many annuals are sun-loving, but you can get some great color and wow-factor out of a few types of shady annuals. My favorites for ease of maintenance and color are impatiens and coleus. 

Mix color, texture, and height. It’s easy, and certainly nothing wrong with, simply filling in a shady space with one groundcover. However, you can get much more out of the space using a variety of plants. Use tall ferns for height in the back of a shady bed and front it with some astilbes, a few lower hostas, and a wave of impatiens around the edge.

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