Tips for a great shade garden

By Jean Henry Published:

Gene Bush, of Munchkin Nursery & Gardens in southern Indiana, had a few important lessons and a long list of recommended plants for his listeners at a recent program entitled “10 Months of Bloom from Perennials in the Shade Garden.”

The program was sponsored by the Capital Area Extension Master Gardeners and the Franklin County Council of Garden Clubs and was held at the Franklin County Extension Office.

Bush shared three lessons he has learned through experience that might be of benefit to someone just starting a shade garden.

Layering: This concept involves placing in one area plants that will come into their prime at different times. Early spring beauties will arrive even before the official beginning of spring and then as their foliage dies down the later spring species will surface and fill up the vacant spot to be followed later by the plants that will dominate for summer and fall.

Let Mother Nature have her way with the plants that want to multiply and spread their seeds as volunteers in unexpected places. This is actually the best way to create the look of a natural woodland setting and saves you from a lot of unnecessary “control” maneuvers that involve bending, stooping, cutting and digging.

Free yourself up to experiment by using books, the Internet and gardening friends to make your best educated guess about which plants will thrive in your particular environment considering light, soil and water requirements — then just give it a try.

Most plants will give you a grace period of two or three years before they give up completely. Watch them carefully and if they do not appear to be thriving move them to a spot that would offer them more of what they seem to be lacking.

These suggestions are a sample of what is available and recommended.
Spring bloomers may include Lenten Rose (Hellebore), Wood Phlox (Phlox divaricata) and Celandine Poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum). The foliage of the poppy will go dormant after blooming and so will need something planted nearby that will come later to layer over the spot.

Christmas Fern, Autumn Fern and other ferns are some of the choices for this. The poppy and the phlox will also seed themselves and volunteer around the garden. Later in spring Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia) and Bleeding Hearts (Dicentra) provide pink and blue color for the garden. The foliage of Bleeding Hearts will go dormant after bloom and a possible layering plant to come along afterward to fill in the spot would be the variegated Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum variegata).

In June and July the Japanese Shade Grass (Hakonechloa macra “Aureola”) has a glowing yellow color and cascading type foliage that offers a bright spot and interesting texture. The blue flowers of Downy Skullcap (Scutellaria incana) have blue blooms and also provide a favorite nectaring spot for butterflies.

With many of the flowering plants of June and July it is good to remember that they should receive “high shade.” In other words, they don’t require sun, but they do require light.

Late summer, fall
In August through October, the Cardinal Flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) are reliable for their bright red color. There are a number of fall blooming anemones blooming during this time and Asters are a must, as well.

Snow Flurry is one that will bloom in the shade with delicate white flowers. The hardy Begonia (Begonia grandis) makes a wonderful groundcover during the summer and then as fall arrives contributes its flowers of rosy pink on sprays of about 10 inches in height.

In November and December the garden is working its way toward dormancy but there is still much interest to be had. The Siberian Hardy Geranium (Geranium wiassovianum) has colorful foliage and the blooms of Barker’s Monkshood (Aconitum Barker’s), which started in October, continue right through frost.

A shade garden of perennials can offer something new in every season. The gardener will find on his daily walks that there is always something changing in the plant world — coming or going. Add a bench, a bird feeder, perhaps a birdbath and you will have created even more interest and a reason to leave the couch and the TV and go explore in your own backyard.

Bush’s complete program can be viewed on Cable 10 beginning at 3 p.m. Thursday. His website is

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