Beyond green: Make the most of that shady area in your yard

Shade gardens can have a diverse mix of plants with a variety of color, texture and flowers.

Most of us, when thinking of a shady garden area, picture one that is mostly green.

Maybe it will have a few varieties of plants such as rhodies, a couple of ferns and a hosta or two. The thought of a diverse mix of plants with colorful foliage, contrasting textures and even some flowers is a reach. A monochromatic blend of plants is the most we can hope for.

Well, let me tell you, most of us are wrong about shade gardens. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Here are some prime examples to try out.

For vertical excitement, nothing beats some of the shade-loving Japanese maples. Or for that matter, our native vine maples will work, too. I have a hydrangea aspera just coming into bloom that has a strong vertical growth habit, very large lace-cap blooms, and peeling bark that also provides some winter interest. Mine is currently 10 to 12 feet tall. The sweet little Cornelian cherry and witch hazel are both small trees that will do just fine in the shade.

For shrubbery, nothing can beat the fragrance and attractive glossy evergreen foliage of both winter daphne or Sarcococca. If you want something a bit showier, try one of the varieties of aucuba or gold-dust plant with its large green leaves that have been splashed with bright yellow spots. Fatsia “Spider’s Web” has tropical-looking foliage that is an incredible blend of white and green leaves, or you can plant a “Sundance” Mexican orange with its golden leaves and spring blooming, fragrant white flowers. Many conifers in the hemlock and yew families are very shade-tolerant and provide a nice textural contrast to those above mentioned glossy-leaved shrubs. There are many other options just waiting to be discovered.

After you have placed the bones (shrubs and trees), you can start accessorizing with an amazing array of perennials like hostas, astilbes, ferns, bleeding hearts and Japanese anemones. For a bit more drama, try out a dark-leafed “Black Negligee” bugbane that blooms in August with a deliciously fragrant bottle brush-like flower on a 6 foot tall stock. Or to contrast your bugbane, plunge in a golden Aralia cordata “Sun King,” which will grow 6 feet tall in one season.

Don’t forget the ornamental grasses, which always liven up any planting, sun or shade. My favorite is Hakenochloa macra “All Gold,” but black mondo grass and a newer sedge called “Everillo” will also do the job. If you have any room left, try filling in with a low-growing groundcover like “London Pride,” a delightful spreader, or golden creeping Jenny. The absolute last thing I want to see in my garden is bare soil. It’s a wasted opportunity, as far as I am concerned.

Finally, don’t forget that there are shade-loving annuals that will bloom for us all summer long like impatiens, begonias, coleus and fuchsias. If your soil is riddled with tree roots, try setting out some colorful glazed containers and planting your seasonal color in them. The rich potting soil and consistent feeding will give you much better growth.

As you might suspect, I have barely scratched the surface when it comes to having a colorful and attractive shade garden. Don’t settle for boring green when you can have so much more. Check out your options at the local garden center and get started jazzing up that dark side of your yard.

Steve Smith is the owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and can be reached at

Hummers and butterflies

Attend a free class all about attracting hummingbirds and butterflies to your yard at 10 a.m. July 28 at Sunnyside Nursery, 3915 Sunnyside Blvd., Marysville. For more information or to sign up, visit

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