Shady parts of the garden are places that people aren’t always sure how to deal with. I always reassure them that there are plenty of plants to choose from. However, if like them you’re struggling to come up with some ideas and inspiration, read on.
The first thing I’d encourage you to do is to check and see whether you are dealing with ‘moist shade’ or ‘dry shade’. This will be your starting point along with knowing what soil type you have e.g. clay, sandy, loamy.
Once you have established those things you can start to make a plan to ensure you have shrubs and perennials that flower at various times of year to give you year round colour and structure in your borders.
Dry shade shrub suggestions
Moist shade perennial suggestions
Geranium ‘Johnson’s blue
These are all plants I use regularly and can recommend as ‘good doers’ for these particular sites. Green and white are a particularly effect combination in a darker shady spot. Most green looks better in shade and many white flowers have evolved to shine out in shade or at night, so drawing the eye in.
Climbers that look good in shade generally are ones such as Clematis Montana and Clematis macropetala ‘Snowbird’ and if you like Roses then Rosa ‘Madame Alfred Carriere’. The winter flowering Jasmine, Jasminum nudiflorum is a lovely climber to grow in shady conditions as it’s yellow flowers are very welcome when they appear in December flowering through to February and sometimes even longer. Finally, the other lovely choice for a summer flowering climber for shady sites is Hydrangea petiolaris. Although deciduous, it has lovely thick woody stems that look great in the winter wrapped round railings or trellis.
Grasses aren’t everyone’s cup of tea but I have to say that in terms of planning an effective and interesting garden I wouldn’t be without them. Ornamental grasses usually flower in the autumn and often retain their attractive seed heads throughout the winter. Some of them are even evergreen! Planted in amongst shrubs and perennials you will always be able to find a grass that will fill the space you want however big or small that may be.
Ways to use grasses
Grasses are very useful in any mixed herbaceous and shrub border to help provide year round structure and interest. Mass planting over a large area and running a line of grasses along a path perhaps in between garden lights can look very attractive too.
Grasses to try
My favourite and the one I find most versatile to use is Stipa tenuissima. It’s like a ponytail swishing around in the wind and is a great all round grass. If you have a windy garden then grasses are a great asset. By ‘swishing’ in the wind they create movement in the garden which contrasts nicely with more clump-forming perennials. If you have a corner garden perhaps in front of your house, grasses can provide you with a low maintenance, eye-catching choice of plant here.
Festuca glauca is a lovely blue grass. Needing full sun and being relatively low growing, this is a regular choice by my clients. It contrasts beautifully with pinky or terracotta coloured sandstone paving but can be used with almost any colour successfully. It looks fantastic in large drifts.
Although most grasses need full sun all is not lost if you don’t have a sunny garden. One of my favourites for shade is Luzula nivea. It has flatish heads of white flowers on narrow stems over evergreen leaves and edged by white hairs. I’ve used it successfully in damp basement gardens so one to bear in mind if you want a grass for a tricky spot.
How to look after them
Grasses are definitely one of the easiest plant groups to care for. If you are looking like most people for a low maintenance garden then these are a must. I’d recommend planting in spring as planting before that runs the risk of their roots rotting while sitting in wet winter soil.
How to propagate them
Spring is also the best time to propagate them. You can lift and divide large clumps by splitting them using two large forks back to back to pull them apart and plant in small sections.
If you’d prefer, most grasses can be easily propagated from seed, either by letting them self-seed or sowing seed fresh.
A lot of people are unsure when to cut back grasses, but my advice would be to leave it until the last minute. Grasses are beautiful through the winter especially when frost and even snow settles on them. The deciduous varieties can be cut back about 10cm in early spring and evergreens like a light trim in late spring. You can also give them a light feed with chicken manure in spring to encourage plenty of fresh growth.