Shade gardens more than ferns and ivy

May 12, 2005
Victoria County
Master Gardener

Shade gardening can be almost as colorful as gardening in the sun. When shade gardening, you need to consider what kind of shade you have for your intended location - light shade, deep shade, dappled shade (just bits of sunshine coming through a canopy of trees or covering), morning shade, or evening shade. When you reach your decision, you may then start to work on your bed.

You may have an existing bed that just needs to be worked a bit with amendments made. Of course, you know you must remove any existing weeds. Make sure your soil is loose or easily crumbled. This can be attained by adding some good composted mulch, some sand or gypsum or, if you have the very hard "gumbo" soil that is so prevalent in our area, some composted manure and some good slow-release plant food. You need to work this bed up a few days before you plant your new plants. Make sure everything is well mixed in your bed and water in.

If you are starting a new bed, I am an advocate of raised beds. I am also an advocate of using the newspaper method and adding all the soil and other amendments.

However, you will need at least a month if you plan to make this type of bed. If you are wanting to get that bed in now, I would recommend using the digging and adding method. For more information on these methods, refer to an article I wrote previously on bed preparation that was published on Jan. 20 in this column. It is archived on the Master Gardener Web site at:

If you are making a new bed without using the newspaper, you just dig your existing soil and start adding the good things to make a rich, friable, workable soil. All these methods are good and work well. It is just whatever you have in mind and how you want to do it. The most important thing of all is to give your new plants a good start so you can enjoy them.

Ferns perform very well in shade gardens and there are so many lovely ones that you could plant in your new bed. Just check with your local nursery and see what strikes your fancy. There are also different types of ivy that you could use. If you chose to make your bed using these plants, you could have a pleasing bed. However, I personally need more color in my landscape and even though you will be gardening in some sort of shaded bed, you do have many choices that can be very colorful.

Plant choices

Another thing to consider besides color is texture in your new bed.

How about the cast iron plant? It has long leaves that add so much shape and texture to a bed.

Elephant ears also come to mind. I just love the very large leaves, and now they come in several varieties. The ones with black leaves are spectacular in a bed. I also am experimenting with one that has white ribs. It is called Trybec and I am anxiously waiting to see how it summers. I also have one that has dark purple stems called Rubra that handles our summers very well.

Caladiums very readily come to mind as another shade garden specialty. There are many varieties and now is the ideal time to get them into the ground. They will take our hot summers and will reward you with their lovely colors for a few months. They will die back when the weather gets cooler, but will sometimes return in the spring. Usually when they do, the leaves are much smaller, but the colors are just as vibrant. I have had them return for a couple of years, so I am left with the feeling that I have truly gotten my money's worth from the bulbs.

There are many other plants that are excellent in a shaded area. How about blooming plants like the hydrangea? You really have to add a lot of composted peat if you are brave enough to try this, but it's so worth the effort.

Impatiens are another choice. They have those wonderful jewel colors that I find so desirable in the garden. Every now and then you might be so lucky as to have some that will re-seed.

Gingers would be a great selection, and there are so many varieties. I have several and find them a little challenging sometimes to get started, but once they are established they seem to do well. They are one of my favorites since they are not only beautiful, but are fragrant and make good cut flowers.

If you like evening bloomers, you might plant the old fashioned four o'clock. I have several varieties and just this year, planted a lime green one that I am anxiously waiting to see. They are very good bloomers, with lovely little blooms and are fragrant. Once started, mine have re-seeded for years now.

I visited with Laurie Garretson at Earthworks Nursery and she gave me an extensive list of shade plants. I do have some of the ones she recommended, some I have never seen, and some I plan to get. They are nandina, variegated pittisporium, azaleas (again, you really have to amend your soil with a lot of good composted peat, but it is worth the effort), begonias, torenia, New Guinea impatiens and oxalis. I just saw the chocolate plant for the first time, which she recommended, and it is stunning with its rich brown leaves! You may also consider brunsfelsia, a very lovely plant commonly called "yesterday, today and tomorrow," and many more. You need to visit your favorite nursery and see what they have in stock. Make it soon so you will have time to enjoy your new bed.

I would encourage you to try something new in your beds. You never know what is waiting for you.

I am currently contemplating trying a gunnera. This plant gets huge - about 15 feet tall. It has leaves that get about 4 feet across. If I do try it, I will take some of the little plants and donate them to a future master gardener plant sale out near Victoria Educational Gardens at Victoria Regional Airport.

Speaking of VEG, it currently takes a direct west sun, but plans for the new expansion call for mini gardens to continue around the Officer's Club building and to the east, including a more shaded area. Look for more information on the expansion coming soon.