Nancy Brachey

10 great choices for gardening in the shade

Encore azaleas are among the most popular flowering shrubs in the Piedmont.
Encore azaleas are among the most popular flowering shrubs in the Piedmont. ENCORE AZALEAS

Continuing the topic of gardening in the shade, begun last week, let’s turn our attention to plant selection. That is the most fun of all, as well as rewarding in the results it can bring to a home landscape.

In most instances, a shady landscape means a partly shaded one, with sunlight reaching the ground through the tree canopy or from the sides. This is a good situation that invites a nice array of choices in shrubs and perennials. Darker places where little sunlight reaches have more limited choices but should be fine with evergreen ground covers such as ajuga, pachysandra or mondo grass.

Here are five good choices for shrubs and five perennials that prosper in light or filtered shade, prosper in our climate and are reasonably low-maintenance.


▪ Azaleas. This is probably the most commonly planted flowering shrub in the Piedmont. The choices in colors and size are huge, and you should pay close attention to both when you select azaleas this spring. Some azaleas can get quite tall at maturity; others stay short enough to plant under windows.

▪ Camellias. These are choice plants and well worth the investment for the beauty of the evergreen plant and the flowers they produce in fall, winter or early spring. Some get very tall, 12 feet or higher. If you opt for more than one, choose two different varieties to stretch the bloom season.

▪ Oak-leaf hydrangeas. One of the most beautiful hydrangeas, the oak-leaf bears cone-shaped white flowers in early summer on graceful plants with interesting foliage. It looks especially good in a shady corner where its roundish shape, 4 to 6 feet tall, looks natural.

▪ Pieris. Many varieties of pieris are on the market. This is truly a plant for all seasons with spring flowers and excellent foliage among its attributes. Flowers may be white, pink or red, and heights range from a compact 3 feet to a seriously grand 12 feet.

▪ Osmanthus. This large evergreen, sometimes mistaken for a holly, produces a roundish shrub that looks good all year and bears small, fragrant flowers. Older types have been solid green or variegated. A new variety, Goshiki, is smaller and very pretty, reaching about 3 feet and bearing pink-tinged leaves when young. It becomes creamy yellow and dark green at maturity.


▪ Hostas. A top choice for any kind of shade, including deep shade, hostas have gained a tremendous following over the past decade. As with azaleas and camellias, there are more choices than you can plant in a lifetime. But hostas are worth it for their luxurious green or variegated foliage and their dependability. New foliage rises in spring with flowers, rather insignificant, following.

▪ Dwarf crested irises. This is a lovely small plant, perfect for a shady corner where you won’t miss it when it blooms in spring. Leaves rise 4 to 6 inches tall and plants tend to spread neatly in a good spot with sufficient water. This is a perennial that is both elegant and cute.

▪ Caladiums. This plant grows from a bulb, sending up grand leaves, typically green and white but sometimes with colorful markings of pink or red to add to its distinction. Most grow 6 to 12 inches tall and demand little from the gardener beyond watering in dry weather.

▪ Lenten roses. Hugely popular for shade gardens, the Lenten rose produces long-lasting flowers starting in late winter. The color range has greatly expanded to include more pinks, purples and cream-colored flowers. The foliage lasts all year and is usually trimmed back in late winter to allow new stems to rise and create a beautiful, new plant.

▪ Hardy ferns. Too often overlooked in favor of tropical ferns, the hardy ferns rank among the most long-lived and dependable plants for shade, including quite deep shade. Some are evergreen; others die back in early winter and send up fresh foliage in spring. This is a good companion for any perennial, bringing fluffy texture to the flower bed. A wealth of choices exist.

Nancy Brachey:

Ask Nancy

Q. Is it too early (or late) to prune my small Japanese hollies?

A. No. But hurry. It is best to prune evergreen hollies just ahead of the new growth that will be appearing shortly. Get the plant to the size and shape you want now and avoid cutting off new growth this spring.