In shady gardens, foliage colors, shapes and textures are just as important as flowers. When the light is soft and the air is cool, these more subtle design elements are easier to see and appreciate.
There's another advantage to considering foliage as well as flowers. In most cases, you get a garden that looks as good in September as does in May.
Not all plants thrive in shade and some plants will take more shade than others. Generally, most shade-tolerant plants need only 4 to 6 hours of sunlight each day. Ideally, they should be protected from hot, midday sun. Morning or afternoon sun is best, or the dappled light beneath shade trees.
To learn more, read: Choosing Plants for Sun or Shade.
Plant breeders have had a field day with the genus Heuchera, also known as coral bells. There seems to be no end to the variations in leaf color: silvery, burgundy, purple-black, chartreuse, salmon and rusty orange. With Heuchera, it's the foliage that provides the visual excitement, though some varieties also have showy flowers on tall, slender stems. 8" to 15" tall.
Hostas are the go-to perennial for shady gardens-and for good reason. They are tough, hardy and will flourish for years with little or no attention. Hosta foliage colors range from creamy white through gold, lime green, medium green and blue-green. Many varieties have variegated leaves and most produce white or lavender flowers in summer. Heights range from 4" to 36" tall.
This attractive shade lover is also known as lungwort. Most varieties feature variegated leaves that are frosted with pale green, white silver. Pulmonaria grows 6" to 12" tall and produces clusters of blue, pink or white flowers in early summer. It is a great companion for Astilbe, Hostas and other shade lovers.
Most ferns grow best in areas that are cool, damp and shady. There are hundreds of different types to choose from - so many that you could create a beautiful garden with nothing but ferns. Choose small ferns like the Maidenhair Fern and Japanese Painted Fern or chest-high giants like the ostrich fern. Once established, they need no attention and return dependably year after year.
This perennial is also known by its common name, dead nettle. It's a low, spreading plant with fuzzy foliage that's often splashed with silver. The flowers can be purple, pink, red or white. In shady locations, Lamium spreads happily - but usually not invasively. If you wind up with too much of it, it's easy to lift out a section and pass it on to a friend.
Bleeding heart is a long-lived, trouble-free plant with fernlike foliage and dangling, heart-shaped flowers that may be white pink or red. Dicentra spectablis (old fashion bleeding heart) grows 3 feet tall and wide. After it flowers the foliage ties back until the following spring. All of the types of the Dicentra are shorter, flower in summer, and retain their foliage through the season.
Most perennial geraniums prefer full sun, but Geranium phaeum is a shade lover. The slow-growing mounting plant has fuzzy, maple-like leaves but often display burgundy markings. The wine-red, purple or white flowers are produced on and off all summer long. Geranium macrorrhizum also grows well in light shade. It has fragrant, lime green leaves and hot pink flowers. Height is 18" to 24".
The pleated leaves of Alchemilla, better known as Lay's mantle, are lime green with a fuzzy surface. When the leaves are we, water beads up into dazzling jewels. Alchemilla blooms in early summer. Its long-lasting flowers have a lacy texture and their yellow-green color is an excellent filler for bouquets. This low-growing,
perennial is ideal for the front of a border or along a path.
Hellebores have leathery, evergreen leaves and waxy, rose-like flowers in early spring. These long-lived, carefree plants gradually form large, attractive clumps that are happy to grow in moist or dry soil.
Known best for their brightly colored flower plumes, many Astilbe varieties also have bronze, pale green, blue-green, dark green, or wine red foliage. Planting an assortment of AStilbes with different foliage colors, flower colors, bloom times and heights, will help keep the shade garden interesting throughout the growing season. Astilbe foliage is typically 6" to 18" tall, with flower heights of 1 to 4 feet