Roots and Shoots: Blooms in the Shadows

By Pamela Doan

Shade isn’t considered an ideal condition for most gardeners. It feels gloomy and we can’t create the explosion of color inspired by the summer sun that we love. Most of our favorite flowers thrive in full sun.

But with the temperatures we’re experiencing now, and that we can expect for the future due to global warming, there is a lot to appreciate about shady spots. Over the past few months, temperatures have been 2 degrees warmer than average in the U.S. and in New York. Climate change is bringing more frequent heat waves such as the one that kicked off July.

Trees, which have taken a beating in storms this past winter and spring, are essential in cooling our yards and homes. Research suggests a shade tree can lower the heat index 5 to 15 percent for a house. Because of a process in which trees take in and give off water vapor, temperatures in their shade can be as much as 25 degrees cooler.

Gardening in the shade doesn’t have to feel like a second best option. There are many lovely plant choices and possibilities.

A shady planting with bleeding heart, columbine, foam flower and hellebores blooming in spring (Photo by P. Doan)

Too often, bare ground is exposed under trees because grass won’t grow there. While there are shade-tolerant turf grasses, sedge (Carex pensylvanica) will thrive in these spaces. Fine blades of green flow and top out at 8 to 10 inches high. Mow or not. I like to see it on a slope where its features can be appreciated best.

Ferns and spring-blooming perennials also like darker spaces. Combining different types of ferns adds texture and these natives have different fronds that will contract and complement each other. Look for lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina), hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula), ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) and maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum). Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) will stay green in the winter, giving a focal point to a four-season garden.

Many native blooming shade perennials are referred to as spring ephemerals because they bloom for a brief time at the end of winter. Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) has delicate white flowers that only exist for a couple of days. Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) has a single bloom that resembles an apple blossom under umbrella-like leaves.

In my own garden, I’ve planted a lot of foam flowers (Tiarella cordifolia) and love their column flowers with fuzzy white blooms and leaves that stay green in winter. They spread out just enough but not too much and are reliable and require no tending.

I’ve found bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia) to get bigger and produce more blooms every year once it finds a place it likes. Even though the foliage yellows in the summer heat, it’s worth it for the display in spring when it confidently pokes through the soil.

Hostas, pachysandra, English ivy — I didn’t mention them because there isn’t much to say. The latter two are a nuisance in my yard, planted by someone previously and impossible to be rid of. Vinca, too. I’m more interested in creating natural, native woodland gardens and none of these have a place there.

Ken Druse’s book, The New Shade Garden: Creating a Lush Oasis in the Age of Climate Change, is a helpful resource with pages of beautiful photos of plants and techniques for design. If you need some ideas, check it out.

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