How to Create an Herb Garden in the Shade - Brooklyn Botanic Garden
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How to Create an Herb Garden in the Shade

Though it is true that most herbs prefer full sun, there are some that thrive in shade or require at least some shade for their best performance. Gardening with herbs in the shade can be an excellent retreat from the sun. The exact amount of shade a particular herb needs or tolerates depends on the intensity of the summer sun and varies depending on the region. Numerous herbs can grow in the sun in the North but need protection from the intense light in southern areas in the summer.

To assess the intensity and duration of shade, horticulturists have come up with a few simple terms to qualify it. An area is in partial shade or light shade when it receives a minimum of six hours of direct sunlight, but at least four of them are in the morning when the sun is less intense. In filtered or dappled shade some sunlight is blocked by overhead trees or structures such as lattices. In full or dense shade, there is no direct sunlight. With the exception of wildflowers that bloom before leaves fully develop on overhead trees, few plants can thrive in dense shade unless they receive ambient or reflected sunlight.

More: Learn about mountain laurel, a beautiful, shade-tolerant native shrub.

To encourage plant growth in the shade of trees, consider pruning some lower branches to let in light and improve air circulation. Be sure not to destroy the elegance and grace of the trees while opening up the garden for layers of underplanting.

The trees' roots may also compete with those of the herbaceous plants for nutrients and water. Many plants cannot thrive around shallow-rooted trees such as beeches (Fagus), red maple (Acer rubrum), sugar maple (A. saccharum), and birches (Betula) because the trees' abundant root systems take up most of the surface water. Herbaceous plants may grow more easily around trees such as oaks (Quercus), which typically send most of their roots downward rather than out to take up water. In any case, you can carefully prune some of the trees' fine hair roots with a sharp spade or a pruning saw. This will give your herbs room to grow for several years until the trees have grown new roots and you have to prune again.

Designing a Shade Garden

Creating an herb garden in areas with less than full sun provides opportunities to blend the herbs with other plants in different landscape styles, from a shady border to a woodland garden. The single most important factor in choosing which herbs to grow is selecting those suited to the light levels on your site. The foremost design consideration is to combine herbs with contrasting habits and textures. Angelica (Angelica archangelica), for example, is a statuesque plant in any setting. Sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata) has a soft, fine, ferny texture. Set these off with plants with sharply vertical leaves, such as mioga ginger (Zingiber mioga) or shade-loving irises. If winter interest is important, blend in evergreens like hellebores or epimediums. Don't feel obliged to blend herbs only with herbs. They are at home with many other types of shade-loving plants, including ferns and woodland wildflowers from foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) to columbines (Aquilegia) to phlox.

Growing Tips

  • Most shade-loving plants, herbs included, are woodland denizens that prefer a consistently moist (but not soggy), humus-rich soil.
  • Before sowing seed or planting, amend poor soils with compost or other organic matter.
  • Transplant herbs before or after periods of active growth when the plants can devote more energy to settling in and becoming established.
  • To conserve water and keep the garden evenly moist, mulch with several inches of compost, leaf mold, well-rotted manure, or shredded bark.

Herbs for a Shade Garden

Angelica archangelica · Angelica

This statuesque short-lived perennial, often grown as a biennial, reaches two to five feet tall and often three feet across. In its second year angelica produces six-inch round flower heads with whitish-green starry flowers atop thick, ribbed, succulent stems tinged with purple. The fragrant flowers attract many good insects, including honeybees and beneficial wasps. Angelica's fresh leaves are used to sweeten acidic fruits such as rhubarb; its stems are candied as a sweet; and its seeds are added to pastries. A few cautions: Eat angelica only in small amounts, since it may be carcinogenic. Because it contains furanocoumarins, handling angelica can heighten the skin's sensitivity to sunlight. In addition, angelica closely resembles one of its poisonous cousins, poison hemlock (Conium maculatum), which has more finely divided feathery leaves. Growing Tips Hot-climate gardeners must grow angelica in some shade or the summer sun will bake it. Cold-climate gardeners can grow it in the sun. The soil should be rich and moist yet well drained with plenty of organic matter. Plants usually die after blooming in their second year, but if you scatter the seeds in place, they will often germinate. Grow seeds when they are fresh, or freeze them in a moist soil medium until sowing. They stay viable for several years. Typical of plants in the carrot family, angelica has a taproot, so transplant with care in cool weather. Hardy in Zones 4 to 8.

Cultivars and Related Species Korean angelica (Angelica gigas) is a medicinal species with gorgeous burgundy flowers; purplestem angelica (A. atropurpurea) is a native species found in swamps and moist woods in eastern Canada and the U.S.

Companion Plants Angelica grows well in a shady border with perennials including hellebores, lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis), sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), epimediums, and ferns.

Anthriscus cerefolium · Chervil

Chervil is a mounding short-lived annual herb with finely dissected leaves that have a wispy, ferny texture; it reaches a height of one to two feet. Best known for its association with French cuisine, it is one of the ingredients in the fines herbes blends often used to flavor eggs, fish, and salads. Its delightful flavor is described as resembling anise. After blooming, the beautiful white umbel flower heads form dark brown seeds. Chervil closely resembles the perennial shade-loving herb sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata).

Growing Tips Chervil grows well in rich, moist soils in cool shade. Where summers are cool, chervil does well in full sun. Grow it from seed in early spring or in late summer for a harvestable crop of leaves in four to six weeks. For successive harvests, sow seeds at regular intervals during spring and late summer. In warm areas chervil will not thrive during the heat of summer, but you can seed it in fall for a winter garden. Chervil is a true annual.

Cultivars and Related Species Chervil is in the carrot family (also known as the umbel family) and related to sun-loving dill, coriander, parsley, and fennel, as well as shade-loving sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata).

Companion Plants Chervil looks wonderful edging a shady path. It's also lovely in a container, where you might try combining it with herbs that emerge later in the season, such as chives (Allium schoenoprasum).

Asarum canadense · Wild Ginger

This native herbaceous perennial, well loved for its sparkling green, heart-shaped leaves, makes an excellent groundcover in shade. The brownish-red tubular flowers hide beneath the leaves. In the wild the plant is found in moist, rich woods in northeastern North America. Its creeping rhizomes are used as a flavoring, with a taste similar to ginger.

Growing Tips A hardy perennial that thrives in woodland-garden conditions with moist soils, wild ginger's growth is so thick that it can be an excellent weed suppressant. Although it can be grown from seed, it's best propagated by division. Hardy in Zones 4 to 8.

Cultivars and Related Species Among the many botanically interesting species in the genus is European ginger, Asarum europaeum, a gorgeous evergreen species with shiny green leaves that reach five to ten inches tall, hardy in Zones 4 to 7.

Companion Plants Grow wild ginger as an edging plant along a shady walkway or as a groundcover. It blends well with ferns, hostas, and other shade herbs, such as sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata).

Cryptotaenia japonica · Mitsuba, Japanese Wild Parsley

This short-lived perennial herb is grown and used extensively in Japan, where it is known as mitsuba ("three leaves"), a name that refers to its three-part, doubly serrated, dark green leaves. It grows approximately two feet tall and has insignificant small white flowers. Mitsuba is both an important culinary herb, used for its parsley-celery flavor, and an attractive ornamental plant. It looks a bit like flat-leaf parsley (Petroselinum crispum var. neapolitanum) but in flavor is more like chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium). Both its young spring leaves and young stems are harvested; older leaves tend to be bitter. It is excellent in salads and soups and with vegetables, eggs, and seafood.

Growing Tips Mitsuba is usually grown as an annual from seed, sometimes as a perennial. Grow it in rich, moist soil in shade; in cooler climates, it will tolerate some sun. Successive seed sowing is useful for regular harvest of young leaves. It often reseeds itself in place. Hardy in Zones 4 to 9.

Cultivars and Related Species Cryptotaenia japonica forma atropurpurea is grown for its very attractive purple leaves; C. canadensis is a species native to the piedmont forests of eastern North America. These two are nice in the garden, but mitsuba is best for eating.

Companion Plants In cooler climates, mitsuba grows successfully in a sunny border with other herbs such as bee balm (Monarda didyma), and it pairs nicely in the shade with sweet violets (Viola odorata), chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium), or musk geranium (Geranium macrorhizum). It's also at home in a cool-climate vegetable garden, where it can be used as an attractive border or edging plant.

Cunila origanoides · Maryland Dittany, Stone Mint

In the wild this small and little-known member of the mint family is found on stony outcroppings in eastern North America. It grows from 12 to 18 inches tall with slightly toothed leaves and sweet purple-pink and sometimes white flowers, which appear toward the end of summer. The mint-marjoram-scented leaves are used as a flavorful tea, and the flowers are pretty in dried arrangements.

Growing Tips Maryland dittany prefers a well-drained but moist site with good organic matter in a slightly acidic soil in partial shade. It's easy to grow from seed or division. Hardy in Zones 6 to 8.

Cultivars and Related Species Corsican mint (Mentha requieni) is a ground-hugging shade lover; American pennyroyal (Hedeoma pulegioides) grows more upright but also thrives in shade. Doublemint (Mentha x gracilis 'Madalene Hill') and orange mint (Mentha aquatica) are popular for cooking and teas, but they prefer sunny spots to shade and are rather aggressive.

Companion Plants Maryland dittany is not an aggressive mint and looks at home with sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) and wild ginger (Asarum canadense). It also thrives in the nooks and crannies of a shady rock garden or along a woodland path.

Galium odoratum · Sweet Woodruff

This lovely herbal groundcover has bright green, whorled, pointed leaves and small, white, star-shaped flowers. Rounded, sticky seeds sit atop square stems. A herbaceous perennial, sweet woodruff grows roughly 6 to 12 inches high and creeps along the ground. Its leaves contain coumarin, which makes them smell like freshly cut hay or vanilla when dry. Traditionally, the leaves are used to add flavor to May wine, as a wonderfully fragrant ingredient in pot pourri, or as a strewing herb in churches.

Growing Tips Native to European woodlands, sweet woodruff prefers a shady spot in rich, evenly moist soil. If happy in its location, it will spread quickly; it can be controlled by division or by confinement in a container. It is most easily propagated by division. Hardy in Zones 4 to 8.

Cultivars and Related Species Yellow bedstraw (Galium verum), an ancient herb that was once used for stuffing mattresses, is closely related, but it prefers to grow in sun and can be rather aggressive.

Read more about sweet woodruff.

Companion Plants Sweet woodruff grows well under the shade of trees and looks great with hellebores, ferns, sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata), and woodland wildflowers.

Geranium macrorhizum · Musk Geranium

Do not confuse this herb with the tender, fragrant geraniums that belong to the genus Pelargonium. Musk geranium is an aromatic, hardy herbaceous perennial that grows 15 to 18 inches tall and is semievergreen with gray-green, deeply divided, lobed leaves. Pink flowers appear abundantly above the velvety-textured leaves. Musk geranium is most valued for its distinctive, warm musky fragrance, hence its use in perfumery and in pot pourri.

Growing Tips Musk geranium is happiest in a woodland garden with shade or partial shade but is tolerant of dry shade. Grow it in soil rich in organic matter and divide it often. The plant has a long, sticky rhizome that starts above ground. Hardy in Zones 4 to 9.

Cultivars and Related Species Quite a few ornamental cultivars are available, including Geranium macrorhizum 'Album', with white flowers; 'Bevan's Variety', with magenta flowers; and 'Ingwersen's Variety', with light pink flowers and light green foliage.

Companion Plants Musk geranium grows well with epimediums, native grasses such as holy grass (Hierochloe odorata), or as a groundcover under the light shade of trees.

Hedeoma pulegioides · American Pennyroyal

This strongly scented native annual mint reaches a height of 10 to 12 inches, with branching stems, slightly hairy, toothed leaves, and bluish, tubular flowers that project from hairy green cups in the leaf axils. Pennyroyal was historically used as a medicinal tea but is not recommended currently for safety reasons, as it can be poisonous if ingested in large doses. Its leaves are most valuable for keeping away mosquitoes: Crush the leaves and rub them directly on the skin, or place them in alcohol to make an antimosquito spray. American pennyroyal smells much like English pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium); both have essential oils high in pulegone.

Growing Tips Easily grown from seed in good garden loam, American pennyroyal will reseed itself if conditions are right. In the central and eastern U.S. it can be found in woodlands and disturbed sites. It is an annual that can withstand light frost.

Cultivars and Related Species Other species of fragrant Hedeoma are found in parts of North and South America, but none are shade-tolerant. The genus Hedeoma is closely related to other mints, especially English pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium).

Companion Plants The slightly fuzzy foliage of American pennyroyal provides a nice contrast with may apple (Podophyllum peltatum), lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis), or bee balm (Monarda didyma).

Hierochloe odorata · Holy Grass, Sweet Grass

One common name of this aromatic, grassy herb reflects its status as a sacred plant by Native Americans, who use it in purification ceremonies; its other name describes the enticing aroma it gives off when dry. Its scent of vanilla or newly mown hay arises from its principal component, coumarin. The herb's tufts of bright green leaves spread into mats and reach a height of about a foot. Its linear, flat, 1/8-inch-wide leaves are woven into baskets, mats, and incense ropes. The herb is used in Europe for strewing on church floors and as a flavoring in vodka to make zubrowka.

Growing Tips Holy grass is best grown from plugs or divisions planted in spring. It prefers moist, well-drained soil in light shade. This plant can be aggressive, so consider confining it to a container. Harvest the leaves in summer and dry them for maximum fragrance. Hardy in Zones 4 to 9.

Cultivars and Related Species Holy grass is closely related to sun-loving sweet vernal grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum), which also smells like newly mown hay when dry.

Companion Plants Holy grass can be mistaken for a weed because of its resemblance to other grasses. Try growing it in a container to make it stand out. It's also handsome combined with other small herbs such as American pennyroyal (Hedeoma pulegioides) or sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum).

Mentha requienii · Corsican Mint

This choice, tiny mint is a groundcover for moist shade. Compact, rounded leaves make this mint look much like baby's tears (Soleirolia soleirolii), although it is easily distinguished by its strong minty fragrance, reminiscent of the liqueur crème-de-menthe. Small purple flowers appear from the axils of the leaves.

Growing Tips Corsican mint grows easily from division. Plant it in a rich, moist soil, and don't allow it to dry out. It doesn't compete well with aggressive plants, so give it space along a walk, stream, or in a container for easy access to the leaves' pleasing aroma. Cover the plant lightly with pine needles in winter, or overwinter it indoors. Hardy in Zones 8 (7 with protection) to 9.

Cultivars and Related Species Closely related to other mints, Corsican mint is distinguished by its growth habit.

Companion Plants Corsican mint may be grown either in a container or as a shady groundcover if protected from more aggressive plants.

Monarda fistulosa · Wild Bergamot

An excellent native plant for a wild garden, Monarda fistulosa grows to two to three feet and has tousled pink-purple flowers that attract hummingbirds and bees. The square stems are hairy and branched, with slightly hairy lance-shaped leaves. Leaves and flowers are used to make an excellent tea, either hot or cold.

Growing Tips Wild bergamot likes partial shade in rich, well-drained soil’it's prone to mildew if grown in dry soil. If the leaves get mildew, cut the stems back to the base for rejuvenation. Hardy in Zones 4 to 10.

Cultivars and Related Species Many hybrids exist because of natural crosses between Monarda fistulosa and M. didyma. Monarda fistulosa is most commonly found in eastern North America. An interesting clone that originated in Manitoba, Canada, is high in geraniol, which gives it a rose scent. It is sold as M. fistulosa 'Rose' or 'Sweet'. M. menthifolia is found in the West.

Companion Plants Plant wild bergamot with wildflowers such as mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum, wild ginger (Asarum canadense), or columbines (Aquilegia).

Myrrhis odorata · Sweet Cicely

This soft-textured, ferny, mounding perennial herb is a delight in the shade garden. Whether it's tucked into a shady corner, set along a pathway, or even used as a low feathery accent plant, it is cherished for its beauty, aroma, and usefulness. The finely cut leaves resemble fern fronds, while its flat clusters of carrotlike tiny white flowers reach up to three inches across. Stems are hollow and slightly hairy. All parts of sweet cicely are aromatic and have a flavor and scent of sweet anise with a touch of celery. Fresh leaves and seed are used for their sweet taste in fruit dishes or baked products. The sticky, dark brown seeds are a good breath freshener. Sweet cicely's roots are sometimes cooked and eaten as a vegetable.

Growing Tips Like most of its relatives in the carrot family, this cool-weather-loving perennial has a taproot, so it resents transplanting. Grow it from fresh seed, or scatter seeds that are just falling off the plant on the ground, and new plants will come up on their own. Otherwise, collect the seed and place it in a moist soil medium and keep cool in the refrigerator. After approximately two months they will be ready to grow in humusy, moist soil. Hardy in Zones 5 to 8.

Cultivars and Related Species Do not confuse Myrrhis odorata with a native American woodland plant also called sweet cicely (Osmorhiza); both have fragrant, segmented leaves.

Companion Plants Sweet cicely looks great in a shady herb garden with sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), wild ginger (Asarum canadense), musk geranium (Geranium macrorhizum), and wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa).

Zingiber mioga · Mioga Ginger

This Japanese native is known to many gardeners as hardy ginger due to its ability to thrive as a perennial in colder regions. Its gingerlike leaves have a tropical appearance, with medium green blades reaching two to three feet. The flowers are small, yellowish, basal spikes appearing in late summer or autumn; these are harvested for use in salads, as a flavoring with sushi, or pickled in vinegar for year-round use. Their taste is refreshing, with a gingery bite. Look for recipes using mioga ginger in Japanese cookbooks.

Growing Tips For best results, grow mioga ginger in very rich, very moist soil. Propagate it by division almost any time. Hardy in Zones 7 to 10 (Zone 6 with protection).

Cultivars and Related Species The fleshy rhizome of true ginger (Zingiber officinale) is routinely used in Asian foods, and though true ginger is less hardy in the garden than mioga ginger, its rhizomes are easily available in the grocery store.

Companion Plants If happy, this plant will grow vigorously, so plant it with other vigorous herbs that like moist conditions such as bee balm (Monarda didyma), mitsuba (Cryptotaenia japonica), or angelica (Angelica archangelica).

Holly Shimizu is the executive director of the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C., and former managing director of the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, near Richmond, Virginia. She contributed to the BBG handbook Gourmet Herbs (2001), served as editorial consultant on the Eyewitness handbook Herbs, and was a coauthor of The American Garden Guide Book on Herb Gardening. She was also one of the hosts of the television show Victory Garden and developed Holly Shimizu's Video Guide to Growing and Using Herbs.

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