Brightening up a shady spot may seem a difficult task. Electric light helps, but many people want to use plants to break the gloom of dark evergreens.
Of course, seasonal flowers will do the job for a short time each year. Perennials and shrubs bearing white flowers, such as hydrangeas, azaleas, rhododendrons and pieris, stand out for a few weeks, but leave you in the dark the rest of the time.
Foliage, however, sticks around. And though silver, gray or white foliage or green foliage marked with those colors are more subtle than the big blooms of a hydrangea or rhododendron, they serve the purpose far longer.
Some good choices are out there, reasonably easy to find and not difficult to grow well in flower beds or as edging in front of shrubs. Consider them the supporting cast for the bigger, more seasonal white-flowering plants such as azaleas, pieris, hydrangeas and rhododendrons. The key is to have this goal in mind as part of your plan for your shady landscape as you contemplate planting in late summer and autumn..
Three I like especially for their reliability and good-looking foliage are:
Japanese painted fern. This is one of the most beautiful plants for a shady garden and should not be left out of any woodland garden. The foliage is mostly silvery-gray with a purplish-red midrib. Use it as a single specimen planted between darker, solid green hardy ferns or hostas. Or use this fern, which grows 8 to 12 inches tall as a groundcover, where it can be seen readily, especially as the fresh fronds rise in spring from the hardy roots. Like most ferns, this one requires regular watering in dry weather.
Lamb’s ears. This is an old garden favorite, hardy in the Piedmont, and best used as an edging plant in part shade. There its soft, slightly fuzzy foliage is easy to reach, especially by children, for whom it always seems to be a favorite.
The silver foliage takes a rosette shape with layers arranged in a sort of circular or oval pattern. The appearance of the mounds, 1 to 1 1/2 feet tall, is just OK in the winter, but new foliage in spring is lovely and very long-lasting through the year. Here is a case where the flowers, rising on tall stalks, are not as good as the foliage. Some gardeners just cut them off early.
Extremely wet weather in summer can cause foliage to deteriorate rapidly because moisture collects in the fuzzy leaves. Cut it off and await new growth. It is probably best not to plant lamb’s ears where plants are reached by automatic irrigation systems.
Dusty miller. One of the best choices for an evening garden in part shade or even full sun, dusty miller and its named varieties, such as Silver Dust, Silver Queen and White Diamond, bring very light and bright silver or white foliage to the landscape. The foliage reminds me of elegantly cut felt. The plants seem like a small woody shrub but are short-lived. They tend to overwinter pretty well in the Piedmont.
The shorter varieties of dusty millers look best as an edger arranged in zig-zag fashion rather than lined up straight like soldiers on parade. The named varieties tend to reach about 12 inches. But some are taller, so check labels before you buy Like lamb’s ears, the foliage is useful in arrangements of summer flowers where the light, bright color enhances reds, yellows and purples typically found in flower gardens. Dusty miller also benefits from a drier location away from automatic irrigation.