During the height of summer, when the garden is filled with a kaleidoscope of colors and an endless array of blooms, there are moments when we need a dark, shady retreat out from under the sun. A cool, leafy corner can beckon, and invite us to relax, to rest the eyes and soothe the spirit. Shady areas are the counterpart to a sunny border or garden, both a destination and a delight, yet many bemoan shade for making a garden site dull or just plain gloomy. Well, dismiss the despair and realize the opportunity. There are many plants that will thrive in the shade and brighten as well as lighten; just don’t expect masses of blooms or an array of colors. Think serene, with pale, light colors that will glow in the shadow and shade. Texture and form are the important elements to exploit in a shade garden rather than a riot of color. As a bonus, flowers that do bloom in the shade usually last longer because of the cool environment.
The first step is to determine the intensity of shade in the designated area of retreat. Small leaved, deciduous trees and shrubs usually cast a dappled, light shade while deep shade, essentially no direct sun, is cast by evergreens, solid fencing, or buildings. If you’re in an older home with original landscaping, many of the trees and shrubs are likely to be mature, which not only makes a shadier site with dense root systems but also means the site is prone to being dry. Another key consideration is soil condition. It is important that the shade-loving plants have their roots in a top-quality medium that nourishes and sustains them. It's wise to incorporate organic matter, like well-rotted farm manure or compost from your compost heap. Once degree of shade is determined and the soil amended, you can then select your plants.
Ferns are an ancient, flowerless group of plants especially suitable for shady spots. Versatile workers that provide a classic textural element, they do well planted in a mass or lining a path where their airy foliage can be best appreciated. Most prefer a moist site and some are evergreen. A lacy beauty is Dryopteris marginalis, the native wood fern, with lovely blue-green fronds; it’s often used by florists in bouquets. Another native that is evergreen is the clump-forming Polystichum acrostichoides, the Christmas fern, which provides year-round interest with its sturdy dark green fronds. The delicate looking fronds of another native, the maidenhair fern Adiantum pedatum, belies its longevity and toughness.
Sedges are another group that will enliven your shady nook and provide elegant, grassy textures that are also well suited planted in containers. A native I planted last summer is the diminutive Carex platyphylla, blue satin sedge, a shimmering six-inch mound of pale blue broad leaves. For more drama there is Carex siderosticha
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‘Variegata,’ another broadleaf sedge in dark green edged white; or, for a golden glow, try Carex dolichostachya ‘Gold Fountains’ which have narrow leaves edged in gold.
Many types of sedge have thin, bladelike foliage that pair well with bold, large-leaved plants like Hostas or Heucheras, also known as coral bells.
Spring flowering bulbs perform well in dappled shade and you’re spoiled for choice here. There are perennials galore and many native species like Aster divaricatus, or the white wood aster, or Aster cordifolius, a heart-leaved aster in pale blue hues, which is known to hold its own in competition with roots and in droughts. Cimicifuga, the black cohosh or bugbane, introduces a six-foot stately presence with large compound foliage topped with spires of white.
If you haven’t mature trees to provide shade and can’t wait 20 years for them to mature, then a simple gazebo or an arbor or pergola covered with climbers and vines will provide an equally happy retreat. And keep in mind that shade gardens usually require less maintenance —another way to stay cool. In the heat of high summer, who could ask for more?