By Susan Leigh Anthony, Kennedy’s Perennials Buyer

As the weather warms, we look for relief in the shady parts of our yard. So, I think it’s important to make those areas as beautiful as possible. I have a few areas in my yard devoted to shade plants and have actually grown just about all of those on the list shown below.

More often than not, the first shade perennial to pop into the mind of most people is probably hosta, but if you have been thinking that shade gardens are all about hostas, then please reconsider. Believe me, hostas are the stalwarts of the shade garden. No shade garden should be without them. The variation in height, form, and leaf color is astounding! Blue, gold, variegated, and so many other foliage variations. I know, I know, deer love them, but a regular application of a deterrent works very well to keep the deer away.

Many people feel frustration after the spring floral display because there seem to be so few shade perennials that flower later in the season. That said, the way to really go in a shade garden is to depend primarily on foliage that is colorful and textural.

Using ferns and sedges for an airier effect near a more solid leaved plant is a great way to go. Ferns form a wonderful partnership with hostas. A gold-leaved hosta paired with a Japanese painted fern (silvery) is lovely. Then, too, one can place a blue-leaved hosta with a golden sedge, perfect!

Recently, I helped a very nice young woman choose plants to create a shady garden around some maple trees. Now, that can be a challenge, as maples like to drink up water like nobody’s business, which in turn leaves less for the plants that try to grow nearby. Hostas are tough and drought resistant, so we started with a plan to use large hostas nearest the trees. A mix of large blue leaved ones (vase-shaped ‘Krossa Regal’), large gold ones (‘Sum and Substance’), and a large variegated blue & gold (‘Frances Williams’). Further away from the trees would be Heuchera, and we used H. ‘Forever Purple’, which, with its deep, rich color, lent some contrast and a bit of sheen to the arrangement. Farthest away, we edged the bed with variegated golden lamium (‘Anne Greenaway’) which played up beautifully the colors of the hostas.

Do keep in mind that if you have a spot in your shade garden that does not get too dry, you can incorporate Astilbes into the mix.  They start flowering in mid- to late June, and continue right into July. Foxglove (Digitalis) are wonderful flowers for late June.

Heuchera are another great shade plant and many are now featuring great foliage colors and some even sport varied textures. They also come in shades of orange/apricot which look great with blue hostas. The deep purples like ‘Forever Purple’ and ‘Dolce Wildberry’ are among my favorites. There are chartreuse colored ones as well.  When you place a blue-leaved hosta next to a chartreuse colored plant, magic happens. Likewise, a gold leaved plant and a burgundy-leaved plant (burgundy-leaved actea or heuchera) is also a great combo.  Think gold hakonechloa grass ‘All Gold’ or ‘Aureo marginata’, or for a more upright effect, try sedge (Carex) ‘Bowles Golden.’  I also love Carex ‘Blue Zinger’, and have some around a Heritage birch tree in my back yard that look great! Sedges are often overlooked and shouldn’t be.

All of the Solomon’s Seals are great shade perennials. Most are great for adding some height and we even have a new one with red stems, called ‘Ruby Slippers’. We also carry an adorable dwarf variety called Polygonatum humile that can be used as a groundcover or in the front of the border.

Lamiums are tough low-growing plants with excellent foliage and long-lasting blooms. They can be cut back by about 1/3 after the first blooming period, which will encourage the plant to produce a second set of flowers later in the season.

Numerous fern varieties line the benches in our shade area. I have already mentioned the Japanese Painted (Athyrium nipponicum) ferns and there are even several varieties within that group. For real height – up to about 3 feet or more – there are Ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris). These are the ferns that have the fiddleheads which are edible in the early spring.

Something few people know is that there is a vine for shade called Akebia quinate. The species name ‘quinata’ is in reference to the five palmate leaves of the foliage. In spring, small clusters of aubergine colored flowers are tucked in under the foliage and have a delicate chocolate scent. There is only one issue with this plant and that is that you can practically watch it grow. I have mine on a light post that I walk by constantly, so I can easily keep an eye on it.  It needs clipping… often.

For late summer into fall, there are some flowering perennials, such as Chelone (Turtlehead), and believe it or not, a shade loving, late blooming, yellow-flowered salvia called Salvia ‘Koyame’ – very unusuaI. I brought it into KCG last year for the first time and waited patiently all season for it to bloom and when it finally did I was rewarded with stout yellow blossoms that lit up the garden. Among my favorite late bloomers is Kirengeshoma palmate (Japanese Temple Bells). Although it is officially a perennial, it grows to the size of a shrub and needs to be cut back in the fall. The yellow bell-shaped flowers dangle gracefully from the ends of the branches and supply much needed color late in the season. It also gives some height in the shade garden and is helpful in anchoring one side of the garden bed.

Although it is a spring bloomer, another great anchor, and perhaps one of my very favorite plants, the tree peony is a plant I feel I must highlight. The beauty of the flowers is unparalleled and nearly all of the 12 in my own yard are in partial shade where they do extremely well. I find them very easy to grow and incredibly hardy. I live on a corner and passersby always comment on the loveliness of their giant tissue paper like flowers. Unlike the more common herbaceous and less common intersectional peonies, tree peonies should never be cut back to the ground.

Here is a partial list of shade plants we carry. Many are in stock now or will be again next year. The perennials area is staffed every day of the week, and I am usually in on Sundays and Mondays if you would like me to help you with design.

Wonderful Shade Perennials

  • Hosta- Funkia or Plantain Lily- they look great virtually all season and there seem to be an endless number of varieties.

  • Ferns- lovely textures -excellent to mix with bolder leaved shade plants- many beautiful varieties, lots of great texture.

  • Salvia Koyamae- Unusual yellow sage

  • Aruncus- Goatsbeard- airy, cream colored, astilbe- like flowers- some grow to the size of a shrub, while others are very small- for front of border

  • Astilbe- great variety of color and foliage

  • Digitalis- Foxglove-most are biennial- add color and height

  • Epimedium- Fairy Wings- fabulous spring bloomers- flowers appear before the leaves -most take dry shade

  • Dicentra- Bleeding Hearts- large ones are Spring Bloomers- some shorter varieties have extended bloom time

  • Mukdenia- fabulous foliage plant- late foliage color is reddish

  • Meehania- Meehan’s Mint – violet blue flowers  groundcover-/ trailer  U.S. native

  • Pulmonaria- Lungwort- great foliage all season-  various flower colors in spring

  • Primula-  several varieties- quintessential spring perennial

  • Aconitum- Monkshood, Wolfsbane- Deep blue, tall late blooming perennial- also an early version – blooms in July

  • Anemonopsis macropylla– unusual Asian woodlander- lovely & interesting

  • Asarum- europeum-European ginger- Classy, glossy, round leaves- great edger in a shade garden- slow growing- fabulous edging

  • Asarum splendens- Chinese wild ginger- elongated heart-shaped leaves, splashed with silver

  • Hakonechloa-  Japanese Forest Grass- comes in straight gold, var. green and gold, and other variations

  • Heuchera- Coral Bells- many varieties-  an array of foliage colors- flowers are sometimes white or the true coral- good hummingbird plant

  • Carex-Sedge- underused foliage perennial-   various leaf colors and sized

  • Aquilegia-Columbine- many colors- some are double flowered- good hummingbird plant

  • Corydalis- We usually carry two kinds- Corydalis lutea (yellow) and Corydalis ‘Blue Heron’ (blue)

  • Astrantia- Masterwort -lovely pincushion like flowers – mid- and late summer- white, pink and burgundy- great cut flower.  Martha Stewart likes them for cut flowers!

  • Chelone- Turtlehead- great late bloomer- native

  • Tricyrtis- Toad Lily- beautiful late bloomer – flowers resemble orchids

  • Actea- various types- all very different and interesting-  beautiful sometimes fragrant white spike flowers-  some have berries in the Fall- several have incredible burgundy foliage!

  • Chrysogonum golden star- great gold daisy flowered groundcover- lights up the shade- native

  • Ligularia- various types- color range of yellow to golden flowers- various heights and foliage types-prefers somewhat moist shade

  • Heucherella-a cross between Tiarella and Heuchera-   beautiful airy flowers and some have interesting foliage

  • Tiarella- Foam flower- a native plant with fluffy flowers

  • Iris cristata- Crested Iris- Short Iris that grows in shade- white or blue flowers

  • Kirengeshoma- Japanese Waxbells- a favorite of mine- it can grow as tall as a shrub, yet is still an herbaceous perennial- Late blooming yellow bells.

  • Liriope- Lilyturf- wonderful groundcover with violet flower spikes also comes in a variegated form – Great to use in a contemporary style garden as an underplanting

  • Phlox stolonifera-Creeping Phlox- not to be confused with sun- loving Moss phlox.  Lovely in the front of the border or as a groundcover- comes in white, lavender blue, and purple-ish pink

  • Rodgersia -Fingerleaf- A great architectural perennial for the back of the border- very underused foliage plant.

  • Podophyllum peltatum- Mayapple- Large leaved groundcover- native- wonderful in a woodland setting- can go dormant

  • Polemonium- Jacob’s ladder- We usually carry the variegated form ’Stairway to Heaven’-  beautiful foliage-  sweet, light lavender, flowers

  • Polygonatum- easy foliage plant- most are around 1 -2 ft- one is a short version

  • Paeonia suffruticosa-Tree Peony- gorgeous woody plant for part shade, large, stunning flowers, in late spring

  • Viola riviniana- often mistakenly named as Labrador violet- bronze-y/ burgundy foliage- blue/purple flowers- looks wonderful with a golden grass or sedge

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