Shade Garden Design Change

corner garden before
shady corner garden before

It’s immensely satisfying to plan and change your garden beds, making improvements, and adapting to the site. When I first moved in, this shady corner under the trees was very scraggly, as you can see above. I’ve gradually added shrubs and perennials, and now it is a much more lush garden area, even under the shade trees with a northern exposure. It’s fun to see the difference in your garden, and watch the progress from year to year as you make changes.

Although the before picture at the top was taken in April, it looked almost the same in the summer. There was a narrow 30 cm (1 foot) strip of garden, squeezed against the fence. It was partly planted with a weedy type of Achillea that flopped and spread rampantly. I removed all of the yarrow, since it spread into everything. There were tall trees in the garden, and grass in this corner, but nothing for a middle layer to bridge the two.

I’ve added shade tolerant plants to the garden bed, and enlarged it greatly. The area in the photo below, taken in July 2008, is about 6 m (20 feet) long and 1.5 m to 2.5 m (5 to 8 feet) wide. This section of the garden bed has mostly green and silver foliage, with blue and white flowers.

corner garden design 2008
shady corner garden design 2008

Adding some shrubs has helped to make it a more interesting view at all levels. The shrubs have been slow growing, but each year they fill in that middle layer, linking the tree canopy to the ground level plants. Because of the shady exposure, I’ve added a Hydrangea paniculata ‘grandiflora’ (PG hydrangea), and a Hydrangea paniculata ‘Little Lamb’ (little lamb hydrangea). These shrubs bloom for an extended period in late summer, with large white flower panicles that brighten the garden bed, and don’t mind the shade. This photo was taken back in July, so the buds on the Hydrangeas were just starting.

On either side of the Hydrangea are groups of Matteuccia struthiopteris (ostrich ferns), which thrive in the site, and grow 1.2 m (4 feet) tall. They make a green backdrop to the bed. I especially respect the way these unfurl so quickly in the spring, producing their elongated fronds so soon after the snow has melted. After six months of snow, fast greening is an excellent trait. The far group of ostrich ferns grew so well, I had to move them away from the fence this summer. They resented the move, and sulked for the rest of the summer, gradually losing one small section of leaflet at a time. I hope when they come back in spring that all is forgiven, and they grow tall and green again.

Campanula poscharskyana 'Camgood' closeup stars
Campanula poscharskyana 'Camgood' closeup stars

The largest Hydrangea is underplanted with Campanula poscharskyana ‘Camgood’ (blue waterfall bellflower). These Serbian bellflowers tolerate the shade well under shrubs. As a groundcover, they fill in and suppress the weed growth underneath, while creating a nice green floor for the shrub. The pretty blue flowers of the Campanula compliment the white hydrangea blooms.

The birdbath in the centre of this shade garden is one of my favourites. It has a hexagonal shape, with a small carved frog perches on waterlily leaves in the bowl. It is a favourite of the birds too.

Heuchera 'Mint Frost' Pulmonaria Campanula
Heuchera 'Mint Frost', Pulmonaria, Campanula

On the other side of the birdbath are  shade plants I picked for foliage or flowers. The silver foliage of Pulmonaria ‘Samourai’ (lungwort)  is just visible under the edge of the birdbath in this shot. Just beyond the Pulmonaria are some Heuchera ‘Mint Frost’ (coral bells). Their green and silver leaves look good next to the Pulmonaria. Beyond that, at the front of the bed, are a variety of small Campanula, with blue and white flowers, including the Campanula cochlearifolia (fairy thimble bellflower) shown below. At the far end on the left side, you can see the double flowering Campanula cochlearifolia ‘Elizabeth Oliver’. Even though they are at quite a distance, and the plants are very small, the many double flowers show up well. There are groups of Campanula rotundifolia (harebells) and Campanula carpatica (Carpathian bellflowers) at the front edge of the bed. All of these shade plants have adapted very well to the site.

Campanula cochlearifolia, Heuchera
Campanula cochlearifolia, Heuchera

At the far end are an unknown iris that is fairly shade tolerant. This iris was in another part of the garden when I moved in, and I have divided it and moved it around to a number of spots because it is so easy going. Behind the iris are some ferns, some more Matteuccia struthiopteris, and Athyrium ‘Ghost’  (ghost fern).

The garden bed has been expanded and changed many times, including last summer and fall. Since this photo, I’ve added some Cimicifuga ramosa ‘Atropurpurea’ (bugbane) to the back of the bed. This tall growing perennial has foliage with a slight purple tinge, and will get spires of white wands. Cimicifuga are great shade plant for the back of the border.

The shape of the bed has also changed since the July 2008 photo. Here it has a curving border, but now it comes out wider and the front edge is straight across, until it curves behind the pine. I cut the front edge of the bed with an edger, actually an ice breaker that gets summer use in the garden. I usually re-cut the edge about twice a year to keep the grass and garden separate. There is a small trench inside the edge that is filled with mulch, to keep the grass out of the bed. I couldn’t put a permanent edging around my beds, because their shape and size change continually.

Here is an earlier post I wrote about  changing a side garden bed.

Does the design of your  garden beds constantly change, either their shape or plants? Do you make a plan and keep it the same for years, or do your garden beds evolve over time?

69 thoughts on “Shade Garden Design Change”

  1. Garden beds definitely change over time here, they would change quicker if I had more time. This is just the type of garden I would like – lots of trees but not much else. The trees give a lovely sense of maturity to the garden and it is fun to fill in everything else. Beautiful selection of flowers.

    Best wishes Sylvia (England)

  2. You’ve put this bed together beautifully. I love the sweeping ostrich ferns mixed with so many other lovely plants. The blue campanulas do pair well with the white hydrangeas.
    My garden beds have evolved over time, and I’m sure we’ll continue to change them each year to suit our whims and wishes :)

  3. The size and shape of my beds changes every year. Constantly growing outward;) I found your use of campanula very interesting. I had never thought of trying it in shady areas. It really looks nice and adds a lot to your shade garden.

  4. My heart sings when I see other people who aren’t afraid to experiment with an assortment of shade perennials. While fern and hosta are wonderful staple plants, there are so many wonderful selections.
    You will be immensely thrilled with the Cimicifuga! Have you grown them before? The aromatic bouquet when they flower… ahhh! There is narry a fragrance to compare.
    My main shade garden is between two houses so it’s shape has pretty much been dictated, but its growing in length with every passing growing season.
    You have a wonderful garden!

  5. I do love your blues, greens and frosted whites. Your shade must be ideal…moist and fast draining! I like the curves you’ve created, too. The garden beds here change all the time…one was shrunk and the one across from it grew…and right now the Garden of Benign Neglect is under going a big change…

  6. Sylvia, I really appreciate having the mature trees here too. It would have been nice to have some more mature shrubs, as I’m impatient as they grow. I would like for the fence to be hidden behind a wall of green. It has been enjoyable to design the beds, and plant them. Some of the perennials would probably be larger, if I didn’t move them around so much too.

    Kerri, the ostrich ferns are as close to tree ferns as I can grow here. The blue waterfall Campanula are now my favourite underplanting. They enhance the shrubs, and don’t mind the shade or competition.

    Chandramouli, thanks, it’s fun to see the change, and I’m glad that I have some early photos to notice the difference now.

    Marnie, mine get wider every year too, and they actually all join together. I’ve found that the C. carpatica, C. rotundifolia, and C. cochlearifolia tolerate the shade well. They have a few less flowers, but still look good. The C. poscharskyana seems very shade tolerant, and I can’t believe how covered in blooms they are. There is one squeezed in behind the birdbath, on the north side of the fence, with a tall fern on one side, and the Hydrangea on the other, yet it was covered in well over 50 blooms.

  7. Teza, most of my garden is shady, so I’ve experimented with quite a few. I do have some Cimicifuga simplex ‘White Pearl’, which have nice foliage, but they bloom too late to flower before the frost. They get wands in late fall, but each year the frost gets them before they open. I wouldn’t recommend them for zone 3. I planted the Cimicifuga ramosa ‘Atropupurea’ last fall, because it is supposed to bloom earlier. We’ll see if the blooms can outrace the frost next fall.

    Gail, I’m lucky to have fairly good soil. The trees do their part to add more organic matter each fall. I’ll look forward to seeing your before and after photos too. It’s fun to read the description of how they’re changing.

  8. Northern Shade, You need to come visit! ;-) You have done a beautiful job with this corner!!! I have a Garden Gate magazine from years ago that gave a lot of information on campanula. I need to refer to it again. Your plants are just beautiful! :-) Thanks for sharing.

    1. Shady Gardener, we would have fun designing together. I’m glad I kept some photos from when I first moved in. I sometimes forget what it looked like, until I pull up the old photos. I always like to see how people have changed their garden.

  9. My beds change all the time. This year it looks like my wet shade garden is going to get a complete makeover since the utility company took down a Maple tree that ‘threatened’ the power lines.

    I avoid edging too. Besides the beds always expanding and contracting the edging is no barrier to quackgrass.

    You should have luck with the Cimicifuga ramosa ‘Atropupurea’. Mine blooms reliably every year. I’m a borderline zone 3 and our first average frost is Sept 15

    1. Wiseacre, the degree of shade can really change over time, as trees grow, or come down. Do you think you might build a pergola or arbour to provide a little shade for the area, or just go with sunny plants?

      Thanks for the information about ‘Atropurpurea’. I’ll look forward to the blooms, instead of a foliage Cimicifuga.

      Yes, that’s the other reason I don’t use a physical edging, I don’t want to have to spray anything to keep the grass and weeds out of the edging material too. I like the look of a plain cut edge best, but there are some short natural stone walls that look fantastic too.

  10. I love to look at “before” and “afters” Northern Shade and your shady corner turned out beautifully. I love the curves and your plant selections look great together. That bird bath is adorable, I can see why it’s a favorite. I like to change things around in my garden although I’m not nearly as industrious as I used to be. I’d love to have more space for perennials in my sun bed so I’m planning a mini “re-do” this summer. I hope it turns out as well as yours did.

    1. Kathleen, I love to look at before and after posts too, and read about the gardener’s choices. The birdbath is a nice shallow one, and the birds have a slight preference to it over the deeper one. However, that means I have to refill it more, if I’ve had some enthusiastic bathers. I will look forward to seeing how you change your sunny bed. More room is always high on the list of improvements.

  11. The ‘after’ photo says it all! It’s just what I need to do to my shady back yard. Can I try your plant ideas? Not sure they’ll all work in my area, as I have more trees than you seem to have…(I’d really like to remove a few). I have so many ideas, just not sure about the time and $$ to carry them out! You have done an outstanding job with your yard!

    1. Jan, thanks, if some of the plants don’t like the warmer zone, there might be some equivalent types. Most of them would also take even more shade and do fine, except the Campanula rotundifolia and C. carpatica would have less flowers. This area gets around an hour of direct sun a day, at a low angle, and a bit of dappled light as well.

      Randy, maybe you could add a lattice or wooden structure with vines to create a shady area. There are certainly many more choices for a sunny area, and generally you can have even more blooms.

  12. How pretty! I’ll be so glad when we can have a shade garden again. The plants looks so cool and lush! At least righ now with all the shade we can enjoy a host of sun loving flowers. :-)

  13. As ever, I’m impressed and inspired by the way you sculpt with foliage and add little highlights of flowers (and since the flowers are campanulas, that makes it even better). I’m also glad to learn from the comments: I didn’t know there were longer- and shorter-seasoned cimicifugas; now I do. (I’m not sure I can grow them in my area, but ‘Atropurpurea’ has been beckoning.

    1. Pomona, thank you, at different times, there are different plants in bloom there, but the Campanula bloom for most of the season.
      I like the foliage of Cimicifuga simplex ‘White Pearl’. It is nicely shaped, and less coarse than Aruncus, but it needs a zone that has a longer growing season to enjoy the flowers. The ‘Atropupurea’ should have both nice foliage, with some purple tints thrown in, as well as flower wands.

  14. The before and after photos are great, they really highlight how much you’ve accomplished. Our yard was pretty barren too, when we moved in, but sometimes a mostly blank slate is a fun way to start.

    1. Cassandra, it was fun planning and planting. I do wish that the garden had been barren of goutweed, though. It took a while to get rid of it, and it still pops up here and there. I am thankful that there were mature trees. I would not want to to have waited that long for the lovely canopy.

  15. I really enjoy reading how people’s gardens evolve and about the plant material you’ve chosen. That heuchera has a splendid leaf – really combines nicely doesn’t it.

    1. Laura, thanks, I wish that I had did it all that first year, but I’ve changed and added to it just about every year for the last 7 years. I added a bit last fall, so I’m looking forward to seeing how it looks this year.

  16. Northern Shade,

    The before and after photos are just incredible! A very lovely design – just beautiful. I cannot imagine why the previous gardener chose Achillea – it’s such a sun lover. Your plant palette is perfect.

    Chloe M.

  17. Well, it seems I’m not the only one who likes to change things around. At the moment I’ve got a long border which has been empitied (at long last) of its ‘amenity’ landscaping shrubs, but now I need to decide on a planting scheme. Ideas aren’t the problem – deciding on one is. Am seriously considering a very simple scheme, with a limited number of plants -eg grasses such as stipa gigantea, interspersed with another plant in differing colours. Or not. Mmmm.

    Love what you’ve done with your tree corner, though, so maybe I could try something like that?

    P x

  18. Chloe M., thanks. I wondered why they put Achillea in the shade too. It managed to spread too much, including onto the lawn, yet the flowers just flopped pathetically on their stems.

    Pam, sometimes simple planting schemes based on a few plants can look very effective. Narrowing down the ideas is often the tricky part. I am constantly changing my beds too, mostly adding, and a bit of rearranging. I’m never sure how people can add permanent edges.

    1. Sigrun, I love the adaptability of most Campanula, and add them to many garden beds. With your garden on a slope, even the short Campanula would show up especially well.

  19. Northern Shade, what a great transformation, and so great to see something work so well and look so lush (especially from our garden at the end of a harsh Australian summer!) I have some of those Campanula poscharskyana though I don’t know what variety – and now they have all dried up and died back – but they should come back next spring.

    1. The Itinerant Gardener, the C. poscharskyana handle our mild summers well and bloom right through. They also tolerate the -35 C (-31 F) winter well with snow protection. I imagine that your over 40 C (over 104 F) temperatures for extended periods would make some plants want to skip the season. It would take a lot of water to keep up with that transpiration.

  20. I am glad I stopped in. I have a newly fenced yard and deck that will receive a lot of new plants this spring and summer, and your results give me hope. I often move things around, and sometimes am known to move items a mere 6-inches (15 cm).

    1. SwimRay, it will be fun to see your before and after photos. I wish that I had taken more before pictures, from different angles.
      I know what you mean about fine tuning the plant arrangement. It would be easier if they were all in pots. :)

  21. It is always interesting to see how a garden design can change over the years. You have made some great additions to your space. I like to think that our garden is evolving…things that work well and look nice tend to evolve slowly, while things that cause problems evolve quickly. This year I will likely expand a few beds and create some new ones.

    1. ChrisND, I agree that it takes a while for a garden to evolve, unlike those instantaneous garden transformations on television. Perhaps in areas with a longer growing season, the process is faster. Sometimes mine seems closer to those alpine areas, where they advise you not to step on the plants as they took 20 years to get ankle high. :)

  22. Hello the NS ! .. I still can’t get over how many plants we share girl ! .. I just caught a quick glimpse of the Dwarf Campanula book .. I know I need to have that because I love these little sweet flowers a lot too .. and they do brighten up shady nooks and corners (which are still locked in ice .. jeez !) .. love seeing before and after pictures .. I am going to do that too with what work we are having done .. new shed and deck .. hopefully I will plant around everything and it will look lush and green (other shades where possible too !) like yours : )

    1. Joy, I always recognize old favourites when I visit your site. I think you would really enjoy the Campanula book. There’s a Campanula in it for every nook.
      My garden is still in the ice age period too. I go out and check around at spots that look a little melted near the house, as if I might see some growth, but I know it’s way too early. However, my Campanula portenschlagiana is actually green all winter, so I have to trek by it each time.
      I look forward to seeing what you do with your new areas.

    1. Shady Gardener, even though the garden is covered in snow, I have been thinking about spring, and making lists of tasks, plants, and changes. Do you have a long list of new plants you want to try by now too? I’m very eager to see the first green shoots.

  23. This is beautiful – I am inspired! It’s such a great idea to take before/after/along-the-way photos!

    Thanks for visiting my blog. I’ll be back to visit yours!

    1. Ginger, I really enjoy reading about how other gardeners changed their gardens, what they did and why. There are some beds I’d like to extend this spring, but the snow drifts are in the way right now.

  24. Northern Shade, I wish I’d taken “before” shots at my house… just because there were virtually no beds at all (not unlike your corner!). I do have a few plants on order. I’m trying a wee bit of seed growing outdoors (hope it works). And yes, I’m Very excited about Spring’s arrival! I have a couple of great hardscape projects in mind for outdoors soon, and can hardly wait to begin them! :-) Meanwhile I just plug away here and there at a few indoor items. We’ve entered our second annual Monsoon Season! We’ve had a lot of rain the past 3 nights. This will be good eventually, if all the soil doesn’t wash away! ha. Have a great day!

    1. Shady Gardener, receiving lots of rain is an excellent beginning for spring. How exciting to have some projects planned. Hardscape can really change the look of your garden, and give you more usable space outdoors. It will be a fun beginning to your garden season when your eager new plants arrive, ready to meet their garden buddies. Good luck with the seeds.

  25. Well hello again NS ! .. I was just doing a general search on these beautiful campanulas and your site popped up ! You are famous girl ! LOL
    I really want to get the campanula book .. I think I will go hunt in our local Chapters store .. if not there I’ll order it .. we had snow again .. locked in with patches of ice and this snow .. it seems like such a long winter I’m going stir crazy again .. once the renos get going I’ll be so excited to have them done .. appreciate them .. then .. GO PLANT HUNTING !!!

    1. Joy, I ended up ordering the Dwarf Campanulas book online, but perhaps your local store has a better selection than mine.
      It is – 30 C (-22 F) right now, but is supposed to warm up quite a bit later this week. So far, I have avoided going out with my hair dryer to help melt the snow.
      It’s going to be fun to design and plant your new garden beds, after the renovations, and even more fun sitting out in the garden, enjoying everything in summer.

    1. Birgitta, you have created some lovely combinations. Sometimes, when I see them blooming in the garden, I get a better idea of where they would look better. Sometimes, the plant doesn’t seem to thrive in its spot, so I experiment with different locations, and sometimes I just didn’t pay attention to the mature size. I’ve also had to move much of a bed forward to make room for something taller behind.

    1. Marie, thanks. I’m looking forward to seeing more green growth in the garden next month. Although spring is only a week away, we are not having spring weather yet.

  26. I have a shady spot that needs redoing and you’ve given me some great ideas. I didn’t know campanula would tolerate shade.

    Your photos make the garden look very serene and secluded. Lovely.

    1. Marnie, thanks. I’ve found that many of the Campanula do fairly well in the shade, although some of them, like rotundifolia, have fewer blooms in medium shade.

  27. It’s impressive to see the change of your garden. You really did a great job, when seeing the first picture and then what was the result in July. I am constantly changing my beds too, trying to improve the soil and growing conditions for my plants. Some beds are ok now, and some not yet. I am sure a garden never remains the same, it’s a constant change (that’s nature!). And we as gardeners are evolving too :-) !

    1. Barbara, thanks, it took a few seasons for the shrubs to grow. That’s true, as I rearrange the garden bed, nature makes more changes here and there. Also, I have a rough idea of the future size of perennials I plant, but some of them have not read their own tags.

  28. That looks really very nice now , even though I wonder how you succeeded to grow moisture loving perennials like Cimicifuga ramosa and Hydrangea in this corner.
    I have a few shady places in my garden and especially the one under the old pine tree resembles your place with the Pinus in the first photo. Like you I planted the same Cimicifuga underneath a few years ago and also a Hydrangea (arborescens Annabelle), but they are suffering in summer and I have to water to keep them growing. But still Cimicifuga is very reluctant.Matteuccia struthiopteris has been one of the first shade loving plants there I planted fifteen years ago when we came here and this fern loves that place under the pine tree and is very invasive. I have difficulties to control it. I find it very difficult to find perennials that love dry shade.

    1. Sisah, The Matteuccia struthiopteris is well behaved in my garden, just putting out a very occasional runner, enough to offset the losses. Perhaps the extra cold winters here are enough to keep it in check. The ones in deepest shade are a little stunted too.

      The Cimicifuga simplex actually grows very nice lush foliage, and tall too in this spot, but the fact that it wants to bloom after the first frost makes it a poor choice for Edmonton. I’m hoping that the new Cimicifuga ramosa has the winning combination of good foliage and lovely flowers.

      I do hand water this area with the hose, maybe once a week if it hasn’t rained. I also give the shrubs and trees a good soaking in the late fall, just before freeze up, to help them make it through until spring. Trees and shrubs that go into the winter without a lot of moisture have more trouble coming up healthy in the spring here.

  29. Beautiful makeover! What a difference thought, care (and quite some work I would imagine) can do! Blues and whites are favourites of mine, and you’ve mixed foliage brilliantly too. Very inspiring!

  30. It´s really useful to have pictures that enables you to see the changes made, and what a change! Very inspiring! I tend to by plants, and plant them without much thought. After looking at them for a season or so, I often find a better place for them. Moving and dividing plants is a constantly ongoing process in my garden, hopefully thats the way I will find a design that reflects my personallity.

  31. Camellia, thanks, I love blue and white flowers, and they suit the shadowy areas of the garden. They blend well with silver foliage too.

    Sara, sometimes it’s easier to figure out a plant after you see it growing in your garden. It is hard to picture just how a mature plant will look from a catalogue description, seed packet, or plant label. Also, some plants can look quite different, depending on what plants are next to them, showing up their leaves, shape or flowers.

    1. Sweet Bay, thanks. Most of the Campanula do seem to adapt well to this zone, and I find myself sneaking them in to many of the beds. I’ve had less success with palms. :)

  32. Now that’s what you call a before and after shot. Much better! Maybe you have some thoughts to help me out with a trouble spot. My front walkway has a space about 18 inches wide and ten feet wide between it and the garage, and it’s almost always shady. It’s so narrow that I can’t plant any shrubs that might jut out onto the sidewalk and block the way. So I have it planted with hostas, but they bore me silly. Sure wish I could think of some narrow plant with a little height, and yet likes the shade.

    1. RobinL, planting narrow spaces is tricky, especially as you don’t want to block the walkway. Most of the the taller pants tend to get wider too, and you don’t want wet foliage brushing legs. If you want height, one of the skinniest tall ones is Digitalis (foxglove), which can get 1.5 m (3 to 5 feet) tall.
      There are many medium sized shade perennials that would fit. Polemonium (Jacob’s Ladder) is a perennial that gets about 60 cm (2 feet) tall, but less wide. and has blue flowers. Many astilbe would work too, if it is moist, or you give them water. My tallest astilbe are close to 1 m (3 feet) in bloom, but not as wide.
      In the next height down, there are many shade perennials with attractively coloured foliage and nice flowers. These might be safer for the bed, if you don’t want the walkway covered. The Heuchera (coral bells) come in a rainbow of leaf colours now, while Tiarella and Heucherella have pretty patterns on them. Brunnera (Siberian bugloss), Pulmonaria (lungwort), Epimedium (barrenwort), and Helleborus (lenten rose) all have pretty flowers, nice leaves,a variety of shapes, and don’t mind the shade. They are around 30 cm (1 foot) to 60 cm (2 feet) tall, and would fit the width. You could make a beautiful bed with just these. Many of the geraniums like Rozanne and Jolly Bee handle semi-shade fine. Many Campanula (bellflowers) would work too.
      You could plant some early spring bulbs in between the perennials to get some early blooms there. Scilla (squills), Muscari (grape hyacinths), and Galanthus (snowdrops) are small bulbs that are fairly shade tolerant. These have smaller foliage that dies back relatively quickly too.
      Have fun planning and planting your bed.

    1. Rosemarie, with your huge shade garden, you have room for lots of shade plants. It gives you a chance to experiment with many combinations. Many woodland plants look very sweet in large drifts too.

  33. This has got to be one of the best sites I’ve seen. I’ve been looking for plants that grow well in Alberta and stumbled across your site – and I thank you very much!

    What love and care you’ve shared with us. You give me inspiration to get out into my garden and lavish it with even a small measure of what you put into yours – well…. once the winter is over that is :)

    1. Debra, thanks, I’ve done a lot of experimenting to see what can grow well with our short season and extra cold winters. It is fun to see how the garden develops from season to season. I’ve grown to especially appreciate the plants with evergreen leaves that give good value in between winters. In Alberta, we have a short growing season, but a long planning season. :)

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