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Don't Fight the Shade: Plants for Shady Areas

This article was originally published on March 2, 2007 and expired on May 1, 2007. It is provided here for archival purposes and may contain dated information.

One of the most potentially difficult challenges for a gardener is dealing with a shady area of the yard or garden. As a point of reference, the definition of "partial shade" is that the plant receives no more than a few hours of dappled shade with no direct sunlight. "Shade" means the complete absence of direct sunlight.

"I am frequently asked about what plants can be used in that type of environment," says Tony Kahtz, with University of Illinois Extension. "Hosta (Hosta spp.) is the first choice of many people, and rightfully so. They come in a wide variety of colors and sizes. However, there are other species that can also be used."

Kahtz offers these plant suggestions for a perennial shade garden.

Common Bugle Weed (Ajuga reptans) is a tough European plant that grows 3 to 6 inches in height with an indefinite spread. In other words, it can be aggressive. Do not plant it next to a lawn, unless you want it to mix with the grass. Flowers are typically violet blue and occur in late spring. Some cultivars have foliage that is variegated with bronze-red to reddish-pink-white markings. The less sun it receives, the more green the leaves will be. Common bugle weed prefers moist soils but manages in dry locations. It really prefers full sun, but does quite well in partial to full shade.

Astilbe (Astilbe x arendsii), from the Orient, is a mainstay for shade gardens. Flowers occur in late spring to mid-summer. Colors come in tones of pink, red, lavender and white. Depending upon the cultivar, the mature height may range from 1 to 4 feet with a spread of 1 to 2 feet. It prefers moist soil and partial to full shade for best growth.

Goat's beard (Aruncus dioicus) has creamy white flowers that visually pop in the shade. They are born in late spring and last until early summer. Goat's beard is a native plant that prefers full shade in the lower Midwest. It resembles astilbe. However, it is much larger and may be mistaken for a shrub. It grows 4 to 6 feet in height with a spread of 2 to 4 feet. Goat's beard requires consistently moist soil conditions.

Bleeding heart (Dicentra exima) is a native plant with bluish-green foliage that somewhat resembles a fern. It has heart-shaped flowers that are pink to purplish-red. The inner petals protrude and give the appearance of a drop of blood at the bottom of each flower, thus the common name. The blooms occur in summer, and under ideal conditions, can continue until fall. The plant grows 12 to 18 inches in height with a similar spread. It requires partial shade and consistently moist soils that are not overly wet. Be aware that Japanese bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis), which is not native, is a related species that goes dormant in the summer.

Barrenwort (Epimedium spp.) is a genus of plants that are native to Europe and Asia. The flowers are small and occur in mid-spring. Depending upon the species or cultivar, they are typically white, pink or red. Mature height will vary from 6 to 16 inches with a similar spread. Barrenwort prefers partial to full shade and evenly moist soil. However, it will tolerate dry sites. Some species' leaves attain red fall color.

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) are true harbingers of spring. Buds and the emerging funnel-shaped flowers are pink before turning bluish-lavender early in the season. The one disappointment is that by mid-summer, the foliage has turned yellow and died as the plant goes dormant. Plant this native among other plants that require the same conditions. It grows12 to 18 inches in height with a spread of 12 inches. Virginia bluebells require moist, well-drained soils and partial to full shade.

Bethlehem sage (Pulmonaria saccharata) has fuzzy foliage that has attractive white or silver spots, depending upon the cultivar. In early spring, this European native has pink flower buds that open into pink flowers before turning blue. The plant's mature height is 12 to 18 inches with a similar spread. It requires partial to full shade and well-drained soils that are rich in organic matter.

"Don't cower at the thought of shade. Think of the possibilities of a shade garden," says Kahtz. "Granted, the number of plants that can be grown in a shady area is fewer than in a sunny area. But with careful selection and a little planning, you can have a shade garden that rivals a sunny border."

Pull date: May 1, 2007

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