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There are Many Shade-loving Perennials

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photo by Deborah J. Benoit
Hostas, a perennial favorite of gardeners, are a shade-loving foliage plant with a round, mounding form; plain or striped foliage in various shades of green and white to lavender flowers in summer.

by Deborah J. Benoit, Extension Master Gardener, University of Vermont

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. – What do you do when there’s more shade and shadow than sunshine in your garden? While your plant selections will likely differ from those chosen for a sunny spot, there are still plenty of beautiful, flowering plants from which to choose.

When selecting plants for a shady spot, first determine how much light it receives. Even beds that are primarily in full sun can contain areas that are part sun/part shade when larger plants shade smaller ones.

“Full sun” means the area receives at least six hours of direct sunlight a day. A “part sun/part shade” garden will receive between three and six hours of sun. On the other hand, an area in “full shade” receives little or no direct sunlight (less than three hours) each day. The tags on perennial plants will indicate the amount of light that plant prefers.

Hosta (Hosta) just might be the most-familiar shade-loving plant. Its round, mounding form is popular in home landscapes. Sizes range from less than a foot in diameter (“Blue Mouse Ears”) to over five feet in diameter and three feet high (“Sum and Substance”).

Hostas are available with plain or striped foliage in various shades of green, with white to lavender flowers blooming in summer. During spring, emerging leaf shoots are edible (they taste like asparagus).

Unfortunately, hosta leaves are a favorite of deer throughout the growing season. Hostas are hardy in U. S. Department of Agriculture Plant Hardiness Zones 3-9. If you’re not sure of your zone, see planthardiness.ars.usda.gov.

Like hostas, coral bells (Heuchera) are easy to grow. The scalloped leaves come in shades of green, amber, peach, red and purple. Heuchera will add color to a shady area even when the flowers aren’t in bloom.

Delicate, bell-shaped flowers appear in late spring to mid-summer on stems rising above the leaves. Heuchera are hardy in Zones 4-9 and grow best when they receive at least four to six hours of direct sun, making them a good choice for a part sun/part shade location.

Bleeding Heart (Dicentra), which does well in Zones 3-9, will grow in part to full shade. This spring-blooming perennial is a favorite of hummingbirds with its red, heart-shaped flowers suspended from an arching stem. Some varieties have neon green or fern-like foliage. Once it flowers, the plant will die back, returning the following spring.

If you like interesting-shaped flowers or want to discourage deer, Astilbe (Astilbe), Zones 3-8, may be the plant for you. Feathery plumes in shades of pink, red, lavender and white rise above fern-like foliage. Growing between 12 to 48 inches tall and 18 to 30 inches wide, astilbe does well in part to full shade.

Ferns are a great choice for shaded areas. While ferns don’t produce flowers, their delicate fringe of foliage adds a peaceful, woodland feel to the garden. Depending on the variety, ferns are hardy in Zones 2-8.

Consider the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), a native to the woodlands of Vermont. It grows two to three feet tall and three to six feet wide. As an added bonus, you can harvest fiddleheads in the spring from the ostrich fern (but not other varieties).

For a more colorful alternative, there’s the Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum). Its silver-colored fronds will grow to about 18 inches tall and wide.

If you like delicate foliage, check out Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium caeruleum). Hardy in Zones 4-8, it grows in partial to full shade. Its blue or white bell-shaped flowers attract pollinators, and some varieties have variegated foliage. It will reach between one to three feet high and one to two feet in diameter.

These and many more perennials grow well in areas without bright sunlight. There’s really no need to avoid the shade when planning your garden.

[Deborah J. Benoit is a UVM Extension Master Gardener from North Adams, Massachusetts, who is part of the Bennington County Chapter.]

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