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Planting for Shade by Leonie Cornelius 

Leonie Cornelius Blog Image.jpg

Leonie Cornelius (image courtesy of Colin Gillen).

Planting for Shade


Most gardens I know have some areas of dappled or even deep shade in them. Especially with gardens getting smaller as cities grow, there is an increase in shade of trees and houses. This means that more and more people are having to deal with the challenge of creating planting compositions that suit shady areas. November is the time in the garden when most planting is dying down and preparing to go into hibernation so now is a great time to start thinking ahead for your shady corner or planning a scheme for the next growing season.


Shade has a profound effect on the growth pattern of a plant. Plants need sunlight to create the sugars they need to make energy for growing and if this is lacking then most plants will struggle to thrive. If you have very dense shade then you are pretty limited in what you can plant. Dappled or partial shade on the other hand is easier to deal with when choosing plants and there are plenty of options to choose from.


Most plants will thrive in full sun but there are degrees of shade that dictate what will grow in your garden. The first thing I would advise is to establish what type of shade you have in your space.


Types of shade in overview:


Light shade: this type of shade still gives adequate sunlight for many plants to thrive. This type of shade means the flowers are open to the sky but the direct sun is blocked by something like a wall. Most flowers will not be as floriferous in nature as they would in direct sunlight but shade loving plants will generally do very well here.


Partial/semi-shade: this type of shade means the location is in sun part of the day and in the shade at other times. Generally it is considered partial shade when the location has shade for half of the daylight hours. This could mean that for some of the day (3-6 hours approximately) the plants get full sun in mid Summer and other hours it has partial shade.


Dappled shade: this type of shade is generally created when a canopy of a loose leaved tree grows above the planting location. Trees such as Birches are good examples as they give a soft scattering of shade which filters the sunlight but still allows a certain amount through. Many plants can deal well with this type of shade.


Moderate shade

This location gets about two to three hours of direct sunlight in Mid summer and is in semi-shade the rest of the time.


Deep shade

The general rule here is that the site receives less than two hours of shade every day. This is the trickiest form of shade to deal with when planting as it is very dark. Generally this happens under dense canopies of trees such as Conifer hedges or Beech trees or even under buildings.


So what can I plant in my shady spot? Well, there are actually quite a few plants that will thrive in shade. In deep shade Ivy is a handy evergreen ground cover but admittedly not the most visually appealing one in most cases. Hellebores are one plant that give interest to a shady spot and are a wonderful plant for the Winter garden too developing large clusters of flowers in late Winter or early Spring. My specimens in the garden have actually bloomed from last December to late September this year and are now popping up again in November…that’s almost a full year of flowering!


When it comes to perennials there are plenty of choices that would work in partial shade such as Alchemilla mollis, some Anemone varieties and Dicentra varieties also known as the bleeding heart. One of my all time favourites though is the hardy little Cyclamen. The cyclamen is actually a tuberous perennial and is a wonderful plant for Winter or early Spring when there is really very little else out there. These flowers, also known as Sow Bread are great for naturalising under trees and I planted masses of these beautiful Cyclamen coum ‘Rubrum' under the dappled shade of a Japanese Maple.


These flowers which are native to Europe and all the way down to Iran and Somalia, are from the Primulaceae family and their common name ‘sow bread’ comes from the fact that pigs are said to enjoy these plants. Interestingly these flowers generally start to grow in Autumn, flower in Winter and go into their dormancy period over the dryer Summer months, making them a great solution for the shade garden.


Did you know?

Some varieties of the cyclamen flowers are actually endangered in the wild as they have often been collected illegally for the horticultural trade but most varieties are grown in nurseries such as this lovely variety here.


3 more flowers for shade:


Polystichum munitum

ferns by nature are a wonderful addition to the shade garden. Thriving in deep to dappled shade spots these graceful sword ferns are great evergreen additions to the shade garden. They grow to about 1 metre in height and spread to about 1.2metres so not for the tiny garden but the effect is wow!


Hosta sieboldiana var. elegans

Hostas, or plantain lilies are shade loving perennials with gorgeous textural heart shaped leaves. The shapes on the leaves of this plant are truly stunning, with deep lines all across the top of the foliage. The flowers, which emerge in July and August are lovely trumpet shaped pale lilac spires. These plants will need mulching and protection from slugs as they can destroy these plants overnight.


Liriope mascara

Blue lily turf, or Liriope muscari is a stunner of a plant for shade. I love the deep tree foliage as well as the lovely purple wands of flowers which rise above the plant. These plants thrive in shade and even thrive in dry shade making them a very handy plant for conditions where you are limited for choice. It’s a great plan for small spaces as it only grows to about 40cm in height and flowers from August to November when most plants are starting to die down.


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