The Shady Border: Shade-Loving Perennials for Season-Long Color

The Shady Border: Shade-Loving Perennials for Season-Long Color

See Table of Contents
  • Introduction: The Shady Border, by C. Colston Burrell
  • Manipulating Light Levels, by Judy Springer
  • The Challenge of Shaded Soils, by Charles & Martha Oliver
  • Designing The Shady Border, by Lucy Hardiman
  • Encyclopedia of Shade Perennials
    • Perennials for Dry Shade, by Edith Eddleman
    • Perennials for Moist Shade, by Colston Burrell
    • Perennials for Wet Shade, by James Stevenson
  • USDA Hardiness Zone Map
  • Recommended Reading
  • Nursery Sources
  • Contributors


The Shady Border

C. Colston Burrell

Some of the most bewitching plants available grow luxuriantly under the protection of tree branches. Wood anemones, epimediums, bugbanes, and toad lilies create intricate tapestries under flowering shrubs and trees. Herbaceous perennials form the ground layer of a woodland, sheltered by shrubs, taller understory trees, and a towering canopy. In each vegetation layer, you can grow beautiful species to enhance your shady border. These discrete layers, so vividly arrayed in a natural woodland, can be planted together in vertical as well as horizontal patterns, allowing gardeners plenty of latitude when combining plants in the shady border.

In the shady border, as in the sunny border, it is the effect created by interesting or unusual combinations of flowers, foliage, and fruits that creates lasting impressions. A bank of forest–green moss beautifully displays the silvery spears of a clump of wild ginger. A colorful carpet of trout lilies, phlox, bluebells, and bleeding–hearts announce the arrival of spring. The huge leaves of aralia cast elaborate shadows over a carpet of wild ginger. In the glow just after sunset, a bank of lime–green fronds of hayscented fern seems illuminated from within.

In spring, flowering in the shady border reaches its zenith. From late March through May scores of shade–loving plants bloom in the spring sunshine. Early snowdrops dangle in the first warm breezes, which encourage the flowers of hellebores, trilliums, bluebells, and primroses. The pristine white flowers shed from the horizontal branches of a silverbell rain down on artful combinations of wild azaleas, foamflowers, merrybells, shooting stars, dwarf iris, and unfurling green fronds. You can achieve stunning color combinations when you choose your shade plants carefully; seek out cultivars of favorite wildflowers to provide just the right effect. Creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera), for example, is available in pale or shocking pink, blue, purple, or white. Given the range of color choices, you can choose the cultivar that maximizes the visual impact of the plant combination you are creating.

More than anything, it is summer's foliage that draws me to shaded places. Though flowers take their turn, it is the thousand shades of green that delight the eye for most of the season. Chartreuse, celadon, emerald, and beryl only begin to describe the variety of shades that an uninitiated eye calls "green." The delicate fronds of ferns, the fine–textured fountains of sedges and grasses, the tropical luxuriance of aralias, and the bold texture of umbrella leaf create a tapestry of combinations rich enough to rival any sunny Border or bedding scheme. Leaf shapes range from strap–shaped to arrowhead–shaped to rounded to dissected; leaf textures vary from bold to fine.

In late summer and autumn, the blooms of goldenrods, toad lilies, and bugbanes accent the brilliant colors of autumn foliage. The decorative fruits of perennials and shrubs baneberry, blue cohosh, jack–in–the–pulpit, Solomon's plume, viburnums, and beautyberry add spots of color. Drying seedheads and showy pods also add interest.

In this handbook you will find ideas on creating a shady border in a variety of situations, from the edge of a mature woodland to a single shade tree, even the shadow cast by a building. Gardening is a partnership with nature, a participation in natural processes. To garden effectively, you must first understand the ground rules. In "Manipulating Light Levels" and "The Challenge of Shaded Soils," you'll learn how to work with low light exposures, root competition, and other typical conditions. The shady Border peaks in spring, but it is possible to extend the season with flowers, foliage, and decorative fruits. "Designing the Shady Class Border" explains how to create striking plant combinations in every season.

Finally, in the "Encyclopedia of Shade Perennials," you'll find extensive information about 70 dramatic shade plants for every kind of shady border dry shade, moist shade, and wet shade. Each entry includes suggestions on how to combine plants to maximize the impact of foliage and bloom. And because the shady Border can, unlike its sunny counterpart include complex combinations of woody as well as herbaceous plants, a list of 60 additional shrubs, flowering trees, and shade trees provides suggestions for spectacular companion plantings.

Image, top of page: Blanca Begert