How to create colour in a shady garden

If your garden is in a shady spot, you may have trouble getting sun-loving flowers to bloom to their fullest. But that doesn't mean you can't have an eye-catching, colourful garden in the shade. Here are some tips for creating colour in your shady garden.

How to create colour in a shady garden

Using shrubs and walls to add contrast

In a shade garden that is viewed from one vantage point, the entire scene will appear more lush and have greater visual depth if you employ trees and shrubs as background plants.

  • Dogwoods underplanted with azaleas make a background that is packed with dazzling flower colour in spring. Or you can mix in shrubs that produce colourful berries in autumn, such as viburnum or winterberry holly.
  • Small spiraea, dwarf summersweet or hydrangea can add colour to a shady shrub border in midsummer, and the glossy evergreen leaves and blue berries of mahonia are invaluable for providing much-needed interest in winter.
  • If your shady spot already has a fence or wall, soften its appearance by training a long-lived vine to grow upwards until it spills across the top of the structure. Climbing hydrangea is ideal for growing on a heavy stone or brick wall, or you might employ the less-weighty Dutchman's pipe on a wooden fence.
  • You can also emphasize the vertical presence of a wall by growing upright plants in strategic places. This is a task for which the tall flower spires of foxgloves are supremely suited.
  • With a background in place, you are set to embrace the varying leaf textures of foreground perennials, which range from the light and airy divided leaves and feathery flowers of astilbe and goatsbeard, to large-leaved black cohosh and turtleheads.
  • You can easily fine tune your choices to provide a long season of colour. Shade-loving perennials that bloom in spring and have lasting foliage interest, such as columbine and lungwort, can be combined with species that flower later on the scene, for example, Japanese anemone and monkshood.
  • If you are confused by the design concept of using plant textures, simply think of texture as leaf or flower size. Contrast plants that have large leaves or flowers against those that have petite ones.
  • If you use oakleaf hydrangea as a background plant, its large, broad leaves can be counted on to appear even larger in company with the feathery flower spikes and cut leaves of astilbe, or the puffy sprays of meadow rue flowers.
  • If the background plant has small leaves, as found in most azaleas, choose foreground plants with bold foliage, such as that of bergenias, hostas or turtleheads.

Add colour with containers

Most shade-and-moisture-loving perennial and woody plants look their best when allowed to develop into undisturbed colonies. Disturbing their roots can slow the growth progress and compromise their ability to tolerate drought.

  • Set aside special places where you want to grow shade-tolerant annuals, such as impatiens or tender summer bulbs like caladiums, where you can plant them without digging into the roots of permanent plantings. Better yet, grow these and other colourful plants in containers, and either sink the pots into the garden or set them on the ground among your hostas and ferns.
  • Using containers broadens your plant palette, because you can use plants that prefer more light when they are young, such as browallia, wishbone flower or coleus. Start them in a sunny spot, and then shift the pots to the shade garden when the plants approach their peak.
  • If moved to a shady location when they begin to flower, many annuals bloom longer than they would if left in a brighter spot. In fact, even annuals that normally need at least a half day of sun, such as dusty miller, flowering tobacco, petunia and salvia, seem relieved to be moved into shade in midsummer.
  • Should your flowers sulk or stop flowering, simply move them temporarily back to better light.
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