The Joys of Semi-Shade


IMG00099-20100514-0924This will look even better when the sunken calla gets going

As a vegetable gardener, my general opinion is that I want full sun everywhere.

And full shade, as everyone knows, is for the birds.  I'm talking about the kind of shade under maple trees, where even a fern won't deign to survive, where it's hostas and obnoxious weeds like spiderwort and lily of the valley, or nothing, baby.

But as an amateur ornamentalist, I happen to be discovering that part-shade is a delight, the kind of dappled shade that will allow a highly bred lily but also encourage experimentation with sweet and subtle woodland natives.  

When I first acquired my house in Saratoga Springs, I scorned the plantings here…nothing but the plainest green hostas and spiderworts and bad shrubs.  I spent a year with a bowsaw as a crazed serial-killer of awful Big Box Store shrubs.

However, there was one single area of the garden for which there had clearly been some ambition, a part-shady bed.  Someone obviously had been hired to design and make this area off the screened porch. It had a little koi pond–just a cheap tub like they sell at Lowe's–and a Japanesey fixation on landscape in miniature, complete with odd changes in grade and randomly placed rocks. 

A Japanesey fixation on landscape in miniature…boy, is that not my idea of how to plant a garden surrounding a Victorian house in upstate New York.  

But I have to admit, I was oddly inspired by certain elements of this bed…mainly, the tacky little pond with the sound of water spraying…a big old hydrangea arborscens whose flower clusters are a such a cool chartreuse before they open that the plant is like visual air conditioner…and a really pleasing combination of ground covers in green and white, including sweet woodruff, silver lamium, euonymus, mint, white-flowering forget-me-nots, and white violets.  

The shubbery–a Japanese maple and miniature hemlock–soon bit the dust in super-sandy soil that had been foolishly elevated by the person who designed the bed.  But I replaced them with tougher stuff: ninebark, a dwarf Alberta spruce, and a viburnum.  And I've had a great time sticking bulbs and perennials into the groundcover.

Because this bed is naturalistic in a way I'd never attempt on my own, a certain randomness seems to look great here, in other words, loads of different perennials poking up here and there out of the carpet plants.

I've decided on a broody, high contrast maroon and white color scheme, and many plants with maroon foliage will grow in part shade, including heuchera, a euphorbia, Eupatorium rugosum, a maroon-leaved geranium, and one of the darker cimicifugas.  There's Japanese painted fern, which is maroon and silver. Then there is the maroon flowering stuff, including a wonderful daylily with tiny dark flowers, the incomparable lilium 'Scheherazade' with its unbelievably shapely maroon flowers edged with apricot, astrantia, and something cool I just bought at a perennial sale I organized to benefit our school garden, Geranium phaeum or "mourning widow,"  which has tiny flowers in an oddly dangerous black color.

Then there are the woodland natives, which are almost too beautiful to be believed…sanguinaria, May apple, Solomon's seal.  While our native sunlovers all look as subtle as fireworks on the July 4th, these woodland natives have something worth chasing…mystery.  

Of course, I think I like this bed so much because it's a collaboration.  It's oddly helpful to have something to react against if you're just an enthusiastic gardener and not a visual genius.

I'm not starting from scratch, I'm just improvising on an established theme.  I think if I could get a second-rate designer to do the rest of my yard…so that I could then have enormous problems with his or her work and completely mess it up…my yard might be really beautiful.


  1. I love shade gardening. The only place I want sun is in the veggie garden area. And it is much easier to work with something already there, even if it is something awful. Never told the spouse that one of the main selling points of our house was that the only other owner was a gardener and there were “good bones” (well, maybe not all good, but bones nevertheless) that I built on.

  2. Starting with someone else’s design is much easier than starting from scratch. You can see what improvements you can make. The trees are already there, instead of having to visualize what tree where. I am having my first spring with all the things I plunked into the ground last fall, it started out glorious, now with the daffodils done, I am left with all this dying foliage and nothing to hide it yet, yuck. We will see in another month. Eveything may need to be moved.

  3. Omugod! Spiderwort and lily of the valley as NOXIOUS WEEDS? Yikes. Two of my very favorites,
    grew up with them in my childhood Iowa garden. I’ve been able to grow spiderwort very successfully in my sunny California garden now, but not (sigh!) lily of the valley.

    I’ve had spiderwort in the traditional blue as well as lavendar, lavendar and white and rosy pink. LOVE THE STUFF. We used to squeeze the buds to make ink and write secret messages on white birch bark.

    California Gardener

  4. Michelle, which calla lily is that?

    My mother used to grow massive green and white ones in a very swampy part of our garden in the middle of South Africa, and they were gorgeous.

    I have a soft spot for shady gardens, perhaps because of the delicate woodland flora of the NE – but I shun Japanese painted ferns because of how they are over used as ‘landscape’ plants, here…We all have our Issues.

  5. Beware the geranium phaeum, mourning widow. Soon you will be mourning the vigorous reseeding everywhere!

  6. I have a few bits of part shade that I’m planning for right now, so this post came at a great time. I’m thinking of edible native perennials, which include ostrich fern and giant Solomon’s seal. You’ve got my interest with the may apple and sanginaria. How about trilliums?

    I do have a few hostas to deal with, but rather than tossing/giving them away, I’ll move them – something has to go under the figs trees and it can’t be edible ’cause there’s some pernicious poisons ivy back there!

  7. My calla is Zantedeschia aethiopica. So gorgeous.

    Oh no, Ann–so will mourning widow soon join lily of the valley and spiderwort in the beautiful thug category?

    Now that I think about it, Zantedeschia aethiopica, too, is considered a horrible weed in California and South Africa.

  8. I found out the giant fern growing in my shade, which survived 4 days of 27 degrees as a HIGH (weird, huh, in NOLA?) is a Woodwardia. It has spread a bit, under the dead bougainvillea, and by my little pond. The fronds arch, and are anywhere from 3 feet to five. Tiny tear-shaped spores are growing on the leaves now. I’ll be passing those around soon.

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