Planting in shade; a simple scheme for a shady garden

By Andy McIndoe

Most gardens have shade at some time of the day or year; perhaps cast by overhanging trees, or from a wall or fence, or the shadow of the house. Small urban gardens may be in the shade for much of the day, the surrounding buildings only allowing the sun’s rays to penetrate when it is directly overhead in summer. In some cases the planting situation may be permanently shaded, even if there is daylight. Shade is often seen as a challenging situation, because we cannot grow the plants that immediately spring to mind. To many a garden means grass and brightly coloured flowers. Shade means foliage, texture and usually more subtle blooms.

What are the best shade tolerant plants?

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In reality the palette of plants for shade is rich and exciting. Some of our most beautiful shrubs and perennials thrive in shade, rewarding with year round interest. If you put them together with a little thought and creativity the effect will be stunning. I have chosen a selection that I find pleasing throughout the year, with a few seasonal highlights. These are tried and tested in the shadiest city gardens, ones that grow successfully in pots and containers, raised beds or in the open ground depending on whether you have any. The only ones you need to be careful with in the ground are the camellia and the pieris. These are both ericaceous so need acid soil. If you are unsure grow them in pots filled with lime free, loam based compost. All others can be grown in pots in standard loam based compost for mature plants.

Let’s start with camellias. Wonderful evergreen shrubs that grow well in shade and produce some of the most flamboyant flowers of any hardy shrub.Camellia japonica varieties have glossy, deep green foliage that reflects the light; a quality that enhances a shady situation. Choose a variety with an upright habit, rather than one which is lax and loose, it will look better in a pot. There are many to choose from in shades from white to deep red. Camellia japonica ‘Margaret Davis’ has large picotee blooms of soft white edged pale pink, although a few surprise all pink or streaked blooms often appear.

I love this camellia alongside Pieris japonica ‘Little Heath’. This is a bushy, compact shrub with small, narrow leaves of soft green and white, flushed pink towards the tips of the shoots. The new growth is delicate and bronze-pink. It produces few flowers, but these are secondary to the beauty of the foliage.

If you crave shade loving perennials with flowers then look at hellebores. Some do really well in shady situations. The popular Helleborus x hybridus varieties will grow in shade. but their foliage declines when the plants are in bloom. Helleborus x ballardiae ‘Candy Love’ is a much more shrub-like plant, with strong evergreen foliage and heads of large saucer-shaped flowers in a wonderful shade of creamy green, flushed with old pink. The effect is warm and delicious; it lives up to its name. It grows well in a large pot or in a border.

Skimmias display their clusters of flowerbuds at the tips of the shoots throughout winter. In shade the foliage of a skimmia is rich, softly shining green, in sun it is yellow. This yellowing of leaves is often attributed to soil type, but it is the shade they crave. There are many male varieties with beautiful buds which open to fragrant flowers in spring. They do not produce berries but do not see that as a disadvantage. Who wants bright red berries disturbing the shade? Skimmia japonica ‘Godrie’s Dwarf’ is neat and compact with lovely salmon pink buds and a sweet fragrance.

Architectural plants are often associated with sunny situations. Here again some of the most beautiful thrive in shade. Astelia nervosa ‘Westland’ is underestimated. Its elegant spiky leaves are soft pewter, purplish towards the midrib. Even in a pot it can grow to 90cm (3ft) or more with great elegance and finesse, and without the problem of ugly faded leaves. It shines in the shade and is a wonderful contrast to the deep green broad leaves of other shrubs. Light it at night for stunning shadows.

In total contrast Fatsia japonica has an almost tropical feel in the shade. Its large, hand-shaped glossy leaves are luxuriant emerald green; wonderfully verdant. The stems are upright and the shrub can reach mammoth proportions; contained when grown in a pot. It can become leggy with bare stems and leaves only at the top. If this happens cut it hard back to 30cm (1ft) in spring. It will then grow vigorously with even more impressive foliage.

Evergreen euonymus will grow happily in sun or shade. They are tough and reliable in pots or in the open ground. Euonymus japonicus ‘Green Rocket’ has a striking habit with upright stems and glossy dark green, rounded leaves crowded around them. It is extremely compact and makes a bold statement even when young. Euonymus japonicus ‘Microphyllus ‘Variegatus’ has much smaller deep green leaves delicately edged with white. Upright when young it broadens with age and makes a great alternative to box, Buxus sempervirens. Because of regular watering in pots box often suffers from potash deficiency resulting in bronzing of the foliage. Euonymus does not suffer the same problem.

The ever popular Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’ must be the most widely planted shrub for shady situations. It is an excellent plant, either allowed to sprawl loosely or grown as a short climber against a shaded wall or fence. Euonymus fortunei ‘Silver Queen’ has a creamier variegation and more striking foliage. It is in my experience also more compact and a better choice for this scheme.

Finally I want to include one of my favourite plant groups for pots: the evergreen ferns. Ferns are superb in shade and providing you water them they thrive on neglect in terms of feeding and repotting. Polystichum setriferum ‘Herrenhausen’ is a lovely creature with gently waved intricate fronds of great grace and texture. The worst thing about ferns: their names. In nearly forty years in horticulture I’ve never mastered ferns' names. This year I’m going to try to make it the year of the ferns!

A last word:

Of course plants in pots need watering. They also need feeding. Personally I can’t be bothered with liquid feeds so I use a controlled release fertiliser (granules) once a year in spring. I use a specific ericaceous fertiliser for the camellia and pieris. This type of fertiliser only releases nutrients when the soil is moist enough n the weather is warm enough: no wastage.

So what are your top recommendations for shade? Let’s share our experience of your shady characters. Happy Gardening!

Andy McIndoe

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