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Top 10 Shade Plants


As gardeners, we're used to experiencing jewel-tone blossoms - borders and beds in bright light are the norm. Shady borders and beds, on the other hand, are more of a rarity and can send even seasoned gardeners screaming for help.

However, a well-done shade border can be every bit as captivating as - if not more than - its sunny counterpart. These 10 perennials will help create a bed that's worth its weight in gold.

1. Hellebore
In many gardens, hellebores are the first perennials to bloom. They bear leathery dark-green evergreen foliage and attractive cup-shape blooms in shades of green, white, cream, pink, and red. The blooms appear in winter or early spring and may last several weeks. Even after the petals fade, the sepals give them a blooming appearance.

Growing: Hellebores (Helleborus spp.) vary in hardiness by variety. The hardiest species are H. niger and H. orientalis - both grow in Zones 4-8. H. argutifolius offers pale green blooms and is hardy in Zones 6-9. Hellebores typically grow about 1 to 2 feet tall. The plants appreciate soils rich in organic matter.

Tip: Site hellebores where you can see the blooms from indoors; not too many gardeners are out in the snow enjoying their gardens!


2. Coralbells
Today there are myriad varieties of coralbells - virtually all of them are worthy of the shady garden. Some varieties have colorful foliage that's marked with silver, bronze, or purple. Others have flowers of bright pink, red, or white.

A few varieties offer the best of both foliar and floral interest. 'Pewter Veil' has reddish-purple foliage overlaid with silver. ' Amber Waves' has striking golden foliage that's slightly tinted with pink. Pink-flowering 'Champagne Bubbles' is one of the most floriferous varieties.

Growing: Most coralbells (Heuchera spp.) are hardy in Zones 4-8. Dwarf varieties may stay about 1 foot tall when in bloom; taller varieties can top out around 3 feet.

Tip: Use several different, but similar, varieties of coralbells in the garden to give a sense of cohesiveness while offering an intriguing contrast.


3. Corydalis
One of the most indispensable plants in the shade garden is Corydalis lutea. This plant has delightful ferny foliage and produces clusters of yellow flowers from spring all the way to autumn. It has a tendency to self-seed in the garden, but rarely to the point of becoming a pest. A similar variety is white-flowering Corydalis ochroleuca.

Growing: Corydalis lutea, C. ochroleuca, C. flexuosa, and C. elata are all hardy in Zones 5-8 and grow about 1 foot tall. C. lutea tolerates relatively dry conditions, but the other species need moist, but well-drained soil.

Tip: Corydalis lutea grows well in between pavers, between stones, and in cracks in stone walls. Most other Corydalis species look perfect in woodland settings. Site them where you can enjoy their foliage even when the plants are not in bloom.


4. Bugbane
Bugbane is a valuable shade plant because it offers a couple of features most shade plants don't: good height and a late bloom season. It produces dense spikes of white flowers in summer and autumn. The only drawback is the blooms of some species and varieties have an unpleasant scent.

'Brunette' and 'Hillside Black Beauty' are two relatively new, outstanding selections that offer purple foliage and white flowers. They grow 2 to 4 feet tall and help add drama to a shade garden even when not in bloom.

Growing: Most of the commonly available bugbanes (Cimicifuga spp.) are hardy in Zones 4-8. Height differs by variety. Some reach only 3 feet tall, but others can grow as tall as 7 feet.

Tip: Plant taller bugbane varieties around the edges of your shade garden to help the garden feel more intimate.

Japanese painted fern

5. Japanese painted fern
One of the loveliest hardy garden ferns, Japanese painted fern is stunning because its fronds mix tones of purple, red, silver, gray, and green. Japanese painted fern is deciduous, so it dies to the ground each winter but looks fabulous when planted with an evergreen fern. A number of selections have recently become available, including 'Ghost', 'Silver Falls', and 'Branford Beauty.'

Growing: Japanese painted ferns (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum) are hardy in Zones 5-8, though they usually survive well in colder climates when mulched well for winter. The plants like soil that's rich in organic matter. Japanese painted fern varieties grow about 12 inches tall.

Tip: Plant Japanese painted fern near other plants that have burgundy or red tones to help accentuate those shades in its fronds.


6. Lungwort
Most types of lungwort offer green foliage pleasantly streaked or spotted in silver. Lungworts bloom in early spring and produce blue, pink, or white flowers as new foliage emerges. 'Mrs. Moon' is one of the most well-known varieties; it offers pinkish buds that open to blue flowers.

Growing: Most lungworts (Pulmonaria spp.) are hardy in Zones 5-8; in warmer areas they're evergreen. Lungworts typically grow about 1 foot tall.

Tip: Plant varieties with spotted foliage among plants with plain-green leaves to create a whimsical contrast of colors. Lungworts with spotted leaves pair especially well with plants that have fine-textured foliage, too.


7. Masterwort
Masterwort bears its flowers in summer. The blooms appear in shades of white, pink, and red and make for good cut flowers. One of the best varieties is 'Hadspen Blood,' which produces deep red blooms.

Growing: Masterworts (Astrantia major), hardy in Zones 4-7, grow 1 to 3 feet tall, depending on the variety.

Tip: Pair masterwort with Ligularia or another plant with large leaves for an intriguing contrast in texture.


8. Foamflower
Ask for a list of great groundcovers for shade and you'll find foamflower near the top. It delights gardeners with plumes of white or pink flowers in spring and early summer. Foamflower has fun foliage, too.

Growing: Most foamflowers (Tiarella spp.) are hardy in Zones 4-8. They grow about 12 inches tall in bloom and can spread to form large colonies.

Tip:Grow foamflower varieties with purple-marked foliage near paths or the front of a border where their darker coloring won't cause them to fade into the background.

Toad lily

9. Toad lily
Toad lily produces some of the most exotic flowers in the shade garden. It blooms in late summer and autumn and bears white or purple flowers that are often spotted with purple. A few less-hardy varieties produce sunny yellow blooms. The foliage is somewhat hairy and fun to touch.

Growing: Toad lily (Tricyrtis hirta) is hardy in Zones 4-9, and most of its varieties grow about 3 feet tall.

Tip: Plant toad lilies with spring-blooming bulbs or groundcovers to extend the season of color in a particular area of your shade garden.


10. Bugleweed
Bugleweed offers spikes of blue flowers in early summer and a mat of foliage all season long. One of the best cultivars is 'Burgundy Glow,' which offers silvery-green foliage splashed with shades of pink and burgundy.

Growing: Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans) is hardy in Zones 3-9, though it often doesn't do well in areas that have wet winters. It grows about 6 inches tall and can form large colonies.

Tip: If you choose to grow a variegated form, plant some of it in the back of your shade garden where its lighter coloring will stand out and pull your eye toward it. This will help make the garden seem larger.

Make the most of shade Create more drama and interest in your shade garden by taking advantage of these suggestions.

Don't limit color to blooms. A cobalt blue pot filled with a chartreuse-leaf hosta can provide just as much interest as a blooming plant in a plain pot.

Mix textures. Combining plants that have finely textured leaves with those that have larger leaves creates visual excitement.

Use variegated foliage. Plants that have silvery, white, red, pink, or yellow markings on their leaves add another level of interest to the shade garden. And because foliage doesn't fade as flowers do, they'll look good all season long.

Plant in groups. Many shade plants have something of a dainty look, so planting them in groups of more than three or four plants will help them look more dramatic.

Use spring-blooming bulbs. If trees that lose their leaves shade your garden, you can grow most spring-blooming bulbs as they go dormant by the time many trees leaf out.

Make the most of light colors. Light colors - of both foliage and flowers - show up better in the shade garden than deep, rich colors.

Combine different heights. Many shade plants have a small stature, so include taller varieties to draw the eye up.

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