I recently attended a class by Carol Allen, our resident teacher and orchid expert, titled “The Most Reliable Perennials for Sun and Shade.” (If you’ve never attended class one of her classes at Behnke’s, Carol is a fount of knowledge, having been in the trade for over 30 years. She’s happy to answer questions, both general and specific to your own garden. She has classes almost every weekend on topics ranging from small-space vegetable gardening to houseplant 101. They’re great resources if you’re new to gardening or want to delve into a niche topic like rain gardens.) These are notes her recommendations for easy-care perennials for any condition. It was quite a long talk, so I have broken it into two posts. This one includes her introductory notes and her favorites for shade and part shade. Click here for her favorites for sun.
Carol started this class with a few general rules to keep in mind with any garden:
- Right plant, right place. This means that you have to know how much sun a specific spot gets and if you try to put a sun-loving plant in dense shade, though it may be very hardy, it won’t do well. No amount of fertilizer will make up for a lack of sun.
- Don’t get confused about the amount of sun an area gets. Morning sun (up until 11am or noon) is actually SHADE. Afternoon sun (about 3pm onward) is FULL SUN. Anything in between and you should look for plants for PART SUN/PART SHADE. When you move to a new house (or if you, like me, still don’t really know after years in the same place), spend a day at home and go out every couple hours and record if the area in question is in sun or shade. Even the kind of shade matters; a deciduous tree will give you dappled, light shade, whereas a house will cast much darker shade and if you’re trying to plant under evergreens, give up. Put down some mulch and an Adirondack chair and enjoy the shade because nothing else will.
- Deer. They’re a problem for most of us in the area. The best way to keep them out? A 7.5ft tall fence. Seriously. Carol has one at her house and loves it. There is no other guarantee that a deer won’t take a nibble on your plants. If they’re hungry enough, they might go after a plant labeled “deer resistant” or even one sprayed with repellant.
Hellebores (Lenten Rose)
They bloom early (we’re talking late winter), are deer resistant and like dry shade, notoriously hard place to find plants for.
Deer resistant, it’s also good for dry shade. They get about 3ft tall and are, hooray!, evergreen. They even look good when it snows! Their new growth is a coppery-red to give you some color, which can be hard to come by in shady areas.
Japanese Painted Fern
Another deer resistant fern that’s notable for its deciduous colorful foliage. It seeds around, but not enough to be annoying.
Brunnera (False Forget-Me-Not)
A deciduous, deer resistant groundcover that’s not invasive, unlike many more common groundcovers (we’re lookin’ at you, vinca and ivy). It’s good for slopes because it holds soil, preventing erosion. It gets sprays of forget-me-not-like blue flowers starting in May. It will seed out, but, once again, it’s not thuggish.
Eurybia (White Wood Aster)
This is another good one for holding soil on slopes because of its vigorous underground root system. Pollinators like it because its white flowers appear late in the season (around September) when not much else is available.
Cimicifuga (Snakeroot) ‘Black Negligee’
This striking plant has tall, dark purple foliage and spikes of white flowers. It’s a pollinator favorite.
Hosta (Plantain Lily, Funkia)
Yes, deer and rabbits love it, but if you don’t have a problem with them (hello tall fence or feisty Jack Russell), it’s a staple of the shade garden. Its variety means there’s one for everything, for both color and size. From miniature ones perfect for garden edging to grand behemoths for single statement plants, ranging in color from gray/blue to chartreuse, you could have a whole garden of hostas and not be bored.
Astilbe (False Spirea)
There are several different species of astilbe, but Carol likes the Asian varieties (japonica and chinensis) for being more drought-tolerant. They have interesting foliage, which is good because the showy flower spikes only last for about three weeks. Plant different varieties together to get a succession of blooms. Carol especially likes the variety ‘Sprite’ for being shorter and a bit of a creeper, making it perfect for along walkways.
Asarum (Wild Ginger)
Deer and rabbit resistant, this makes a good groundcover because it spreads quickly. There are some native varieties, but they’re plain green and deciduous. Asian varieties are evergreen and give you more leaf color variation. Carol likes ‘Quicksilver’ for its silver and dark green mottled leaves. Fun trivia: the roots were once used as a ginger substitute, but Carol wouldn’t recommend it nowadays because at $15 a plant, it’s a heck of a lot more expensive than supermarket ginger.
Chrysogonum (Green and Gold)
A good edging plant with deciduous leaves and yellow, buttercup-like flowers.
PART SUN/PART SHADE
Tiarella (Foam Flower)
This is a native, pollinator-friendly plant (swallowtail butterflies love it!). It spreads, is moderately deer resistant and deciduous. It produces stalks of foamy white flowers in spring.
Japanese Anemone (Windflower)
Produces airy pink or white, daisy-like flowers. It forms clumps and seeds out. It can be a aggressive once established, so if you don’t want it to seed everywhere, deadhead after blooming. The variety ‘Honorine Jobert’ is very old and reliable, with waist-high blooms.
Heuchera (Coral Bells)
There is a native variety, but once again, it’s not as colorful as the hybrids which will give you foliage ranging from chartreuse to deep purple. They’re mostly bred in Oregon, which should give you an idea of the conditions they like. They can be finicky in the ground, but growing them in containers where you can control the soil drainage can work really well. Carol suggests mixing your container soil with 10-15% Espoma Soil Perfector for optimal drainage.
These are on the mostly sun side of things, needing at least half a day of sun. They are very long lived, so as long as you give it conditions it likes, it will outlive you. They do require special planting: the root has “eyes” which can’t be planted more than 1” below the soil/mulch. If they’re planted to low, they won’t bloom. And you should probably forget about ever trying to move them; they have long taproots that are easy to damage. Deer resistant.
by Adrienne Neff, Behnke’s Graphics Department