New Garden in Shade

new front shade garden dappled light
new front shade garden dappled light

Here is a new garden bed I’ve started  planting between some conifers. The area is very shady, so I chose some shade tolerant perennials, and included some plants with cream and silver foliage to lighten the area.

This bed gets less than an hour of light in the morning and an hour or so in the late afternoon. Then it gets the dappled light you see here off and on during the day. I picked perennials that thrive in shade like this.

I started by removing only the bottom branches that had no needles on them anymore from the conifers. This made a little room at the base, between the pine and the spruce. The front of the spruce gets more light, and still has branches to the ground, which I’ve left.

I then scraped the remaining grass off of this area, which was sparse anyways. I haven’t tried to maintain grass here for a couple of years, so the grass roots were shallow and easy to remove. Next I mixed in some organic material. There was plenty already here, since old deciduous leaves had accumulated under the bottom spruce branches, and were already breaking down. Also under the pine was a layer of very light, springy material. I think it is a mixture of old needles and perhaps long dead grass. There were lots of interesting textures, like a forest floor.

Under the pine there was a little midden (pile) of cone scales. They were left by a squirrel that used to like to sit on a pine branch and methodically work its way through each cone to get the seeds within. The scales fall to the ground and gradually make a little pile. They will make a nice mulch for the end section. They remind me of cocoa shell mulch.

new front shade garden hosta and ghost fern
new front shade garden hosta and ghost fern

In the centre at the back of the garden I planted Hosta ‘Francee’, which has a narrow cream margin on each leaf. The shading is reminiscent of the dappled effect of forest light on foliage. I’ve given it a little room, since it will expand.

new front shade garden looking through
new front shade garden looking through

On the left side I’ve included some Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ (Siberian bugloss) in the garden. These do very well in shade. These will have blue flowers in the spring, and the lovely patterned leaves for the rest of the season. This area on the left gets a bit more late afternoon sun, so the Brunnera  should grow big here, maybe 60 cm (2 feet) around. In deeper shade these plants grow about 30 cm (1 foot) around.

new front shade garden side view
new front shade garden side view

The Athyrium x ‘Ghost’ fern in the centre will add finely cut, lacy fronds, and a silver lightness to the centre of this shady garden area. They make a nice contrasting texture to the solid leaves of Hosta and Brunnera. They might need some extra water here, but I’ll see how they do.

The group of Epimedium ‘Lilafee’ (barrenwort) with the light green leaves on the right should do well here since this is a drier shade area. Their leaves have a nice contrasting shape to the other plants, and they will have pretty purple flowers above the foliage in the spring. They didn’t have the required cream or silver coloured leaves, but they do well in dry shade, which is even better. The light green coloured leaves match the Hosta at the back. This plant is rated for a warmer zone than 3, but the one I had survived a cold winter last year, so I’m planting more of this perennial. We’ll see next spring how they did on a larger scale.

before picture under conifers
before picture under conifers

Here is a before photo of the garden bed. You can see that there is just a few grass remnants, some tree roots, fallen needles and cone scales. On the other hand, there is little grass to remove and lots of decaying organic matter for humus. The tricky part in planting is to avoid the large tree roots when digging. I planted in pockets in between the roots, which meant the plant spacing is where the tree allows.

new front shade garden in shade
new front garden in shade

This photo was taken on the day I planted the area, Saturday. I haven’t finished planting the garden bed yet, but I already like this area in the middle. There is a section on each end still to go, but I haven’t made up my mind for sure. I might plant some dwarf goatsbeard to the left, maybe some Heuchera too, both do well in shade. I also might expand at the back and plant some solomon’s seal, perhaps the variegated ones. The garden section to the right is the shadiest and driest, and has overhead branches at less than a metre (about 2.5  to 3 feet), so I’d like to plant some more Epimedium, but I couldn’t find any more ‘Lilafee’, which has large purple flowers held well above the leaves. I might look for a white flowered Epimedium, to go with the blue and purple flower scheme.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this garden looks next year as the plants fill in to the space. I’ve tried not to squeeze plants too tight, as is tempting to do when you see lots of empty space in the bed, but I didn’t use my ruler either.

This garden bed is not only shady, but it’s under evergreens, so it doesn’t get the spring light that so many woodland plants like. There is lots of room to expand among the conifers, so I’ll be extending the garden this year and next on the same theme. It’s easy to do in manageable sections, in the gaps around the trees. Any particular shade loving plants you think would work on the same theme?

Here are some of the additional plantings for this shade bed, in this followup post.

15 thoughts on “New Garden in Shade”

    1. Joanne, cyclamen prefer a little warmer zone, but they do make lovely plants for the shade.

      Shady Gardener, they’re Athyrium ‘Ghost’, a cross between lady ferns and Japanese painted ferns. I find they grow taller and more robust in my garden than the painted ferns. I was thinking of Pulmonaria, too. A small Hosta would work well, so I will have to look over your pictures.

  1. NS, I’m so glad you finally are showing your progress with this new bed!! What a fun time you’re having! Are those Japanese Painted Ferns… perhaps ‘Silver Ghost?’ Don’t forget Pulmonaria and/or Tricyrtis! I have the cutest little hosta plants called ‘Ginko Craig’ and ‘Stilleto.’ You should look these up, as they’d easily fit into your corners. They are both green and white and very small. Have fun! :-)

  2. The shade garden looks really good now. I have an area similar which I really must address but it is dry shade so I think I will have to do some research

    1. Helen, this shade is a bit dry too, especially the right side, so I’m trying to put plants that do okay in dry shade to the right. There is more planting space behind too, that can be viewed from the other side. I’ll probably expand there later, but I don’t like digging up around all sides of a tree, and disturbing that many roots all at once.

  3. Northern Shade, I’m embarrassed to say that my fern in back is Athyrium ‘Ghost’ and it’s wonderful!! So much taller and fuller than the Japanese Painted ferns. Want me to send you a ‘Ginko Craig’ hosta? If so, send me an e-mail. However, I’m leaving Saturday for a week (Mr. Shady is on his own, so to speak!) and I’ll be home July 25. ;-)

  4. Shady Gardener, with all of the various crosses it is hard to keep track of them. Like you, I find that ‘Ghost’ is larger than my Japanese painted ferns. It also puts out many more fronds. I transplanted my Japanese painted ferns last year to a site with a bit more light. Perhaps next year they will send up more fronds.

    You are very sweet and generous, Shady Gardner.

  5. Lovely new garden, I’m sure it’ll be fun to watch it develop. I’ve been looking for information about underplanting, since I have 2 deciduous trees that I’m thinking of planting under (mature weeping birch & young norway maple), but I haven’t had much luck finding information. I’ll be gentle, as not to disturb the roots. I would love to underplant my conifers, but they are very large (blue spruce), and I’m sure the environment underneath them wouldn’t support growth very well.

    The mix of plants you’ve chosen looks great together, and the spacing ideal.

    An unrelated question for you, I’ve just read Lois Hole’s book on Perennials, and am quite taken with the Blue Himalayan Poppy, just wondering if you’ve tried this lovely plant and if you have an insight about it? :)

    1. Rebecca, I’ve put off planting this section for a while, but I’ll see how they do here. I’ve found the deciduous trees fairly easy to underplant. I think the sunshine in spring before the leaves come out gives the plants a good boost, and the woodland type perennials really thrive there. I’ve tended to plant one section at a time around the tree, so as not to stress them too much.

      I have grown the blue Himalayan poppy at my last garden, and I love the flowers. The plants never lasted long though. Many of them are monocarpic and seem to die after flowering. I don’t try to grow them anymore, but I do think that the flower is gorgeous. They used to have a large patch out at the Devonian Botanic Garden, but I haven’t been recently.

  6. Hi Northern Shade:

    It looks like you are doing fine with your dry spruce shade planting and I’ll look forward to seeing next year’s pictures. I hope last night’s horror winds and hail didn’t do too much damage.

    I have two similar spots. For a blue spruce that gets a lot of late day sun, in 2006 I put a semicircle of stackstone caps on its north side to retain ~4″ of new soil and planted with a variegated fragrant solomon’s seal (Polygonatum odoratum ‘Variegatum’), hepatica (Hepatica nobilis), and an unknown volunteer plant with interesting leaves (oboval with ciliated margins and a rusty wash on a yellow-green background). I cheat a bit and give them extra water and all have done very well. The solomon’s seal has about tripled the number of shoots – but they are only about a foot tall and the white margin is very narrow (~2 mm). The hepatica is spectacular – it forms a mound of attractive green leaves all summer, most of which survive under snow cover, and in the early spring is covered with intensely violet flowers. Some forget-me-nots and spotted dead nettle have colonized around the margins of the bed and help to fill in with colour and form – both are a bit invasive, but pull out easily.

    The other bed is under a white spruce that spills over from the rental next door onto our SE front corner. When we first moved here, the spruce branches extended all the way to the ground and it formed a natural corner to the yard. Then one year the landlord had a fit and trimmed all the limbs to about 2m. Since then I’ve been putting things in and watching them do nothing or get trampled by dogs. So this year I put in a large raised bed made of landscape ties (a foot high), planted it with a bunch of inexpensive mail order shade plants. It doesn’t look as bad as I expected, it does keep the dogs off the plants behind it, and these are now doing well: more solomon’s seal, Hosta tardiana (short stature, light green leaves with dark green on the margins and tips and pale lilac flowers), wintergreen (Pyrola asarifolia), and Canadian anemone (Anemone candensis). The latter is invasive in good soil, but seems well behaved in dry shade. The Pyrola asarifolia makes a nice ground cover and it puts up spikes of pretty pink flowers in June. If you need something very low on a border, it is worth a go.

    1. Dave, I was fortunate, and didn’t receive any damage from the storm last night. A few extra of the small willow branches fell off, but it is always dropping them, and there are lots to spare.

      I was thinking of adding some variegated solomon’s seal behind the Hosta, but I didn’t see any around. I might go with a different solomon’s seal, or wait until next year. Thanks for the idea about the Hepatica. Various reports about it being rated for a warmer zone made me reluctant to try it. The flowers would look great in the bed, and I’m all for plants which provide early foliage in the spring. The wintergreen sounds like a good plant for the a groundcover under the low branches.

  7. I’m doing a shade garden for a lady requesting colour and flowers during the whole summer and was checking for something similar to early scilla for dry shade. Just thought I’d mention that I’m suggesting to her what has worked for me in a dry space with a drip line and tree roots. Lily of the Valley, Ajuga, Siberian Iris, Ligularia Dentata, Euonymus, Bergenia as perennials and their size will depend on her watering schedule. Fun annuals include Mimulus and Agapanthus. I used Cyclamen once in a spruce grove and they lasted two years.

    1. Dian, thanks for some more great ideas of plants for this shady garden. I love having large conifers, since they provide the main greenery for half of the year, when everything else is dormant, but they do require more care when planting around them. The plants here all overwintered and are doing really well this year. I added Cornus canadensis, Asarum arifolium, Aruncus aethusifolius, Hosta ‘Ginko Craig’ and Hepatica nobilis to this garden last fall and they all overwintered well, too.This year I added some Heuchera, Hosta ‘Patriot’ and Pachysandra. I give the garden supplemental water, but the recent rains have done most of the work for me.

  8. WOW, I’m so glad I found you. I’ve just been wondering about planting under the 2 spruce trees in my yard, and you’ve given me the exact idea to begin. I’m in zone 5, but try to buy for zone 4, so your zone 3 is just perfect!! Thanks

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