Three good choices for where the sun doesn’t shine

  • By Steve Smith
  • Tuesday, March 22, 2016 3:37pm
  • Life

Let’s face it. Gardening in the shade can be challenging. It’s not only dark but often dry as well. And if it isn’t dry, it is probably damp and full of slugs.

While there are many shades of green that we can work into a shade garden, getting other brighter colors proves to be a little more difficult. Here are sure bets that I have worked into my shade beds that you should consider for yours. As a bonus, they are also blooming now.

Epimedium: It’s known by several colorful names, such as barrenwort, bishop’s hat, fairy wings, horny goat weed, rowdy lamb herb or randy beef grass (hey, I am not making this stuff up). This bulletproof perennial is actually a slow growing ground cover that prefers dry shade. It has attractive foliage that comes in several shades of green, often brushed with tints of red. The leaves look good all year long, however, it is best to cut them all off around February before the flowers emerge. This way the leaves won’t compete with the delicate flowers, which come in yellow, pink, purple or white. As the various names imply, the flowers can resemble a bishop’s hat, but to me most look like fairies dancing above the leaves. Epimedium is easy to grow and, once established, will even survive under the dry shade of a Douglas fir. Growing only about 12 inches tall, the early blooming flowers help to usher in spring. Considering it is both insect and slug proof, I see no reason why every gardener in the county shouldn’t have some planted in their garden. There are many varieties to choose from including “Red Beauty,” “Lilafee” and “Sulfureum.” Most are blooming as we speak. Be sure to see them for yourself.

Pulmonaria: Known as lungwort, this is a woefully under-used perennial. Like Epimedium, it is a harbinger of spring with its early blooms of pink, white or shades of blue. In fact, some varieties actually have both pink and blue flowers on the same plant. Pulmonaria leaves are deer and slug resistant and range from solid green to nearly pure silver. Pulmonaria cultivars rival hellebores to be the first flowering perennials in the late winter and early spring. Once the flowers start to fade, shear them down to the ground and then a very nice mound of spotted foliage will appear for the rest of the season. Occasionally, powdery mildew can be a problem. If that happens, just shear them back to the ground again and when they flush with new leaves, everything will be fine again. There are many new varieties to try, but two of my favorites are “Raspberry Splash” and “Silver Bouquet.” Like Epimedium, all Pulmonarias make an exquisite under-planting for ferns, hostas and bleeding hearts.

Kerria Japonica: Commonly called Japanese Rose, this is a very old-fashioned flowering shrub. It is making a comeback because very few hardy plants can produce such orange-gold flowers so early in the season. Plant it as a single specimen in the back of a shrub or perennial border. It will stand out while blooming and recede back the rest of the season. Growing 8 to 10 feet tall and almost as wide, the 1-inch double flowers will attract pollinators and can also be cut for bouquets. Fast growing and to easy care for, Kerria can function as a good screen between neighbors, instead of the traditional evergreens. They are blooming now, go check them out at your local nursery!

Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville. You can reach him at

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