The 3 Best Plants For A Shade Garden

IMG_0243It seems that for every home gardener out there with a nice, big, flat sunny yard, there are five more who are just dying to get outside and plant but are cursed with deep shade covering most of their property. I can’t tell you how many questions I get on shade gardens and what to grow there.

Let me be the first (or at least the most enthusiastic) to tell you: there’s so much you can do with a shade garden! On my half-acre farm, we only have a few corners of shade, and we always struggle with how to fit all the plants in there that we want. Here are three of my favorite plants to grow in the shade.

Limelight Hydrangea

hydrangeaGrowing up on the east coast. I was surrounded by huge, mophead hydrangeas as they seemed to line every driveway and burst into color in the muggy Massachusetts summers. I didn’t really appreciate them at the time, but now think back longingly at their easy beauty. For floral design, however, I don’t find them entirely useful. They’re just too big!

I’m more drawn to Hydrangea paniculata, the limelights. Their conical shape is much easier to tuck into arrangements (I’ve in fact got about 20 stems sequestered away in my cooler right now that will soon find their way into large urn arrangements for a wedding ceremony).

Perhaps more special than their shape is their range of color. As the flower heads are maturing on the plant, they’re a light green, almost chartreuse at times. As they mature towards the right stage of harvest for cutting (cut any earlier, they’ll wilt), they turn a creamy white. And finally, as they sit and age on the plant, they start changing to soft shades of muddy pink that deepens as the season goes on. The colors they produce at this point are almost unmatched in the floral world. I’ve based many wedding color schemes off of the colors present in late-season limelight hydrangeas.

Solomon’s Seal

how-to-grow-solomons-sealI first learned about Solomon’s Seal through pouring over portfolios of floral designers I admired. There was always this one stem arching gracefully from the center of bridal bouquets that caught my eye, and I couldn’t tell what it was. Some digging led to find that it was in fact variegated Solomon’s Seal, or Polygonatum odoratum variegatum.

I’m always on the hunt for foliage that holds up well in bouquets out of water, forms interesting shaped in design work, and has a bit of interesting coloration. Solomon’s Seal fits all the criteria. Back east it grows more effortlessly, popping up in forests and shaded areas with no irrigation. I’ve learned that on my rather dry and sunny property, I have to bury it deep in the shade and give it lots of water. It will spread by rhizomes and multiply as the years go on, but it does take a while. I’m practicing my patience.


IMG_0264I’ve come to love ferns so much that I practically salivate at the sight of a redwood forest, making any road trips up to Mendocino pretty slow-going as I stop to gawk. For the purposes of landscape plantings, I would highly recommend trying out any fern that catches your eye at the local garden center.

For cutting purposes, there are a few varieties that I’ve really focused on adding to the garden in large numbers, as they hold up well in arrangements and are less brittle than others. The first is the Asparagus Fern. I grow these both in hanging pots and some planted right in the ground. The long, graceful habit is gorgeous both in the garden and in cut bouquets. Even better, it holds up great in delicate wedding work.

The Japanese Painted Fern is possibly my favorite fern of all time. The colors are spectacular and blend dark gray with maroon and some shimmers of white, making it the perfect greenery to tuck into complicated design palettes.

What are some of your favorite shade-loving plants?