August 6, 2012

Liven dull shade gardens with sun-loving perennials

By AMY IVY, Cornell Cooperative Extension

---- — There is nothing like a blazing hot August day to make me appreciate the shade of a nice, big tree. 

Over the years, the trees in my yard have broadened to where they’re casting lovely shade over parts of my perennial flower garden. The sun-loving plants there do not appreciate that cool shade as much as I do, and many are leaning over, trying to catch as much sunlight as they can. I need to gradually replace these sun-lovers with plants that will thrive in these shady areas.

Sun-loving perennials are wonderful. The ones I chose are big and full of brilliant-colored blooms that really make a show. Phlox, heliopsis, daisies, rudbeckias, Echinacea, sedum and aster are just some of the showy perennials suited to sunny locations.

The beauty of a shade garden is more subtle, but it can be very pleasing as well.

Since any perennial is in bloom for only a few weeks at best, it’s always a good idea to consider the look of the plant’s foliage, since that’s what you’ll be seeing the most. Even in a sunny garden I like to mix spikey leaved iris with broader leaved peonies. Consider also the leaf colors since many varieties come in a wide range of colors and variegations now.

If your shade garden is looking a little dull right now, too, here are some plants that I’ve been adding to my garden that you might want to consider for yours:

Coral bells, or Heuchera, has been one of my favorite perennials for a long time. They don’t have pest or disease problems; their dainty flowers are on long, wiry stems, making them good for arrangements; and the leaves of the newer cultivars come in all sorts of colors and patterns. Our Master Gardener volunteers planted Heuchera “Raspberry Ice” by our front door, and it’s just beautiful. The flowers are a shade of raspberry, and the leaves have a striking pattern of light and dark shades of purple. The leaves of “Amber Waves” coral bells are a beautiful shade that’s hard to describe, sort of a rusty pink. I don’t even care about the flowers on this plant; the foliage provides interest all summer long at the front of my garden.

Astilbes have long been the traditional shade-garden plant, and it’s easy to see why. They don’t have any pest or disease problems that I know of; their leaves have a beautiful lacy texture all season; their flowers are gorgeous plumes of white, pink or red; and even the seed heads are showy in the garden. There are many, many varieties of astilbe, in all different heights, so any part of your shade or semi-shade garden could have a few astilbe.

Giant Solomon’s Seal is one of the easiest plants I’ve grown. I have the variegated type, Polygonatum variegatum, and it has thrived under my mild neglect. It’s about 4 feet tall with beautiful arching stems and seems to be pest-free.

This is just a start. Other perennials to consider include Lamium “White Nancy,” pulmonaria and, of course, any of the many types of hosta. Have fun looking for new plants to add to your shady garden.

Amy Ivy is executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension, Clinton County. Office phone numbers: Clinton County, 561-7450, Essex County, 962-4810, Franklin County, 483-7403. Website: Email questions to