A woodland carpeted with wild flowers in spring is an unforgettable sight. Rich, moist soil coupled with dappled shade can foster not only native woodland treasures but also shade-loving plants from around the world. Woodlands and forests in Europe, Japan, and China have given us some of the most beautiful plants we can grow in our shady, moist gardens.

A cluster of small trees can offer a protective canopy for your treasures, and even a single tree can allow you to grow a few shade-loving plants. Or tuck woodland beauties like Solomon's seal, forget-me-not, and bleeding heart into soil along the east side of your house, where morning sun is plentiful but there is protection from scorching afternoon sun. Better soil, install an arbor or pergola and plant your shade plants beneath it, where they will be sheltered from the midday sun.

Planning for Seasonal Change

Many shade- and moisture-loving plants flower early in spring when sun and moisture are plentiful. This is because in nature, rain is typically abundant in late winter and spring, but conditions dry radically as summer begins. And dwindling rainfall isn't the only change.Trees clothed with leaves block out light while simultaneously absorbing a great deal of moisture from the soil. The result is that places that are moist and partially shaded in early spring become shadier and drier as the season progresses.

It is easy to create a woodland garden that is lush with greenery and flowers in spring. However, the same places where blue woodland phlox, trilliums, and miniature daffodils flower in spring may look barren by midsummer without heat-tolerant recruits.

You can count on spreading foliage perennials like hostas and ferns to emerge in late spring in time to hide the yellowing foliage of spring bulbs as they begin to go dormant, and you can be sure that the hostas and ferns will maintain their good looks throughout the rest of the growing season. Heucheras are also valuable for this purpose, along with short, shade-loving grasses, such as golden hakone grass.

Do plan to provide supplemental water to your shade garden should a drought cut off its natural water supply. Although hostas, hellebores, and other shade-loving perennial plants are surprisingly drought tolerant, weather is always unpredictable, and is sometimes inhospitable. Droughts can last for several weeks, and can even come in the spring, when rain is usually adequate. Because this particular gardening niche depends on ample water in spring, strategic watering with sprinklers or soaker hoses during spring droughts can ensure its health and resilience through the rest of the season.

Bold Backgrounds

In a shade garden that is viewed from one vantage point, the entire scene will appear more lush and have greater visual depth if you employ trees and shrubs as background plants. For example, dogwoods underplanted with azaleas make a background that is packed with dazzling flower color in spring. Or you can mix in shrubs that produce colorful berries in autumn, such as viburnum or winterberry holly. Small spiraea, dwarf summersweet, or hydrangea can add color to a shady shrub border in midsummer, and the glossy evergreen leaves and blue berries of mahonia are invaluable for providing much-needed interest in winter. If your shady spot already has a fence or wall, soften its appearance by training a long-lived vine to grow upward until it spills across the top of the structure.

Climbing hydrangea is ideal for growing on a heavy stone or brick wall, or you might employ the less-weighty Dutchman's pipe on a wooden fence. You can also emphasize the vertical presence of a wall by growing upright plants in strategic places. This is a task for which the tall flower spires of foxgloves are supremely suited.

With a background in place, you are set to embrace the varying leaf textures of foreground perennials, which range from the light and airy divided leaves and feathery flowers of astilbe and goatsbeard, to large-leaved black cohosh and turtlehead. You can easily fine tune your choices to provide a long season of color. Shade-loving perennials that bloom in spring and have lasting foliage interest, such as columbine and lungwort, can be combined with species that flower later on the scene, for example, Japanese anemone and monkshood.

If you are confused by the design concept of using plant textures, simply think of texture as leaf or flower size. Contrast plants that have large leaves or flowers against those that have petite ones. For example, if you use oak-leaf hydrangea as a background plant, its large, broad leaves can be counted on to appear even larger in company with the feathery flower spikes and cut leaves of astilbe, or the puffy sprays of meadow rue flowers. If the background plant has small leaves, as found in most azaleas, choose foreground plants with bold foliage, such as that of bergenias, hostas, or turtleheads.

Add Color with Containers

Most shade-and-moisture-loving perennial and woody plants look their best when allowed to develop into undisturbed colonies. Disturbing their roots can slow the growth progress and compromise their ability to tolerate drought. Set aside special places where you want to grow shade-tolerant annuals, such as impatiens or tender summer bulbs like caladiums, where you can plant them without digging into the roots of permanent plantings. Better yet, grow these and other colorful plants in containers, and either sink the pots into the garden or set them on the ground among your hostas and ferns.

Using containers broadens your plant palette, because you can use plants that prefer more light when they are young, such as browallia, wishbone flower, or coleus. Start them in a sunny spot, and then shift the pots to the shade garden when the plants approach their peak. If moved to a shady location when they begin to flower, many annuals actually bloom longer than they would if left in a brighter spot. In fact, even annuals that normally need at least a half day of sun, such as dusty miller, flowering tobacco, petunia, and salvia, seem relieved to be moved into shade in midsummer. Should they sulk or stop flowering, simply move them temporarily back to better light. Flowers in pastel shades, like pink and blue, or even white flowers show best in partial shade, though occasional bursts of red can be a welcome surprise.


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