Shade gardening is a very good thing when you live in the South. It makes gardening in the heat of summer a bit more palatable. And while you can’t grow fruits and vegetables in the shade, or lawns, there are many other plants that thrive in the shade.
Perennials are plants that come back for more than one year. Many perennials go dormant in the winter to return the following spring, but some of them are evergreen. While most gardeners are aware of hosta and ferns as great perennials that will grow in shade, there are many others that can fill your garden with color all season.
Among my favorite evergreen shade perennials are the hellebores — commonly called Lenten rose or Christmas rose. They are not new plants, but the newer varieties are much showier than their early cousins. Depending on which variety you are growing, you can have blooms from December through March. The plants are poisonous, so deer leave them alone. Once warm weather arrives, they keep their green foliage but stop producing new leaves as they become basically dormant during the summer. They kick in with new growth in late fall.
Some other early-blooming perennials include bleeding heart (Dicentra), columbine and foxglove(Digitalis). Bleeding heart comes in pink, white and red blooming varieties but is typically a spring ephemeral — the plant does its thing and then goes dormant by mid-summer. Columbine and foxglove are not the longest-lived perennials, but they can reseed to extend their time in the garden.
Moving into late spring, you can add bletilla or the hardy orchid with its showy purple or white blooms; Mayapples, both the native and the Chinese hybrids like “Spotty Dotty” and “Kaleidoscope” with dramatic, large leaves; and the lovely crested iris (Iris cristata).
For low-growing or groundcover perennials try ajuga, epimediums and blue star creeper (Laurentia). For other perennials grown mainly for their foliage
add hosta, leopard plant (Farfugium), Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum) and coral bells (Heuchera).
There are two plants commonly called ginger that will do well in shade gardens but couldn’t be more different in their growth habit. The low-growing group of gingers called Asarum range in plants that are ground-hugging to 10 inches or more in height. Some are evergreen and some are deciduous. They do bloom, but the flowers (while showy) are hidden behind the foliage. The other common-named ginger is a much flashier plant with showy and fragrant blooms. Several genus of these gingers include alpinia, hedychium and zingiber. The most common is the butterfly ginger — Hedychium coronarium. This fragrant plant
could be a substitute for a canna in shady spots.
Fall-blooming, shade-loving perennials include Japanese anemones, toad lilies (Tricyrtis), turtlehead (Chelone) and hardy begonia (Begonia grandis).
Not all shade perennials need the same conditions. Some of these plants thrive in light shade, while others can take deep shade. If you are giving them any light it is usually best to have morning sun — which is more forgiving than afternoon sun — or dappled sunlight. The amount of moisture or nutrition they need will also vary. Group together your perennials that need the same care, which will then make your job easier. Try to have plants that bloom in different seasons to extend your color and interest.
Some perennials would prefer to be planted and ignored, while others need division every three to five years. Sometimes one of your plants may get too happy and start to spread, so you need to learn how to keep them in check. I added a toad lily to my garden and ended up with the spreading variety (Tricyrtis formosana) when I would have preferred the more upright one (Tricyrtis hirta). I annually have to dig up plants to prevent them from taking over the whole garden!
As with any garden, weeds can be an issue. Luckily, some of the more invasive weeds like Bermuda grass and nutgrass are sun lovers and usually not an issue. Wild violets and ground ivy weeds also love shade. In addition, we tend to see more winter weeds under deciduous trees, because more sunlight is coming through. Using a sharp hoe and a good layer of mulch can help.
Perennials typically are less maintenance than annuals and can give you a lot of color and texture in a shade garden, along with a mix of shrubs and trees. A good garden has a little bit of everything, which makes it interesting.
If you want to learn more about shade perennials, I am presenting a talk on them at the 2019 Arkansas Flower & Garden Show on March 1-3 at the Arkansas State Fairgrounds on West Roosevelt Road in Little Rock. It is a great place to learn about plants, get ideas for your garden and buy some of those plants to take home. Seminars are ongoing in the Farm & Ranch Building all day Friday and Saturday, with my perennial talk at 1:45 p.m. Saturday. To see the whole schedule of events go to: www.argardenshow.org.