In Maine, with all our trees, we are not accustomed to pondering shade gardens much. We take too much pleasure in fields of lupines or daisies, hillsides covered with bright yellow sedum or gardens of roses in all their glory. What these things all have in common is sun. But, at just about every household I have seen there are dark corners or areas beside buildings that get very little sun. Now, if this dark place happens to be back by the trash cans, no problem. But if it is by your front door, you probably want something more than a juniper bush and a few rocks. And, with a little planning, you can have it.

Planting shade gardens is very different than planting sunshine gardens. And, if it is deep shade you are working with, it does require planning. The trick to shade gardening is understanding that although shade plants do bloom, they bloom differently.

Their blossoms are usually ethereal or airy, usually small and somehow more subtle. When you plant a shade garden, you plan on the foliage bringing life to the space and not typically the flowers. The shape a plant takes, the color and form of its leaves and the leaf texture are the characteristics you try to blend to make that dark space light up and draw interest.

Is the drainage good?

In addition to the amount of light the space gets, you also must consider the soil type and especially the drainage. Shaded areas tend to stay moist, and a majority of shade plants like it moist. But moist is not wet. If drainage is a problem, you might want to consider removing the old soil, putting in new loam and compost, and building it up to improve the drainage even more.

I have a very good friend who couldn’t understand why the 30 or 40 tulip bulbs he planted never grew. When he told me the planting area was where the roof gutter drained, I had the answer – they rotted. We don’t always think of drainage as an issue but in a shady area, you must. If it is wet and shady, your options are very limited.

When planning a shade garden decide if you want a shrub or small tree in the area. If so, this needs to be chosen first because its form and future dimensions will greatly influence what else gets planted. But think leaf color and branch configuration and even bark color. There are some marvelous bushes and small trees with yellow bark or red bark, variegated leaves and leaves that change color from spring to fall, which will provide a focal point.

When you begin searching for plants, you need to know the difference between the vague light requirements on plant tags and what your location actually has for light. If you get four hours of direct sunlight a day, it is only part shade. But, if you get only two hours of direct light or only brightly diffused light, it is shade. If a plant marker says sun to part shade, it might grow in your spot but it will not prosper. Look for plants that say “shade tolerant” or “requires shade.” Make a list of plants that you think would work but make it longer than you need. Finding a specific plant is not always as easy as it sounds. I have been known to search six or eight nurseries for a specific plant and still come up empty-handed.

The hybridizers seem to be putting more effort into introducing a wider range of choices for shade, and some of the newer offerings are really neat. The choices in hostas have long since passed several shades of green. There is one called Guacamole, which has lime green leaves, and another called Golden Tiara with, yes, gold-yellow leaves. They have them in a wide range of choices now, including some with variegated leaves that stand out nicely in shade. Lady’s Mantle or alchemilla forms a lovely clump with interestingly shaped leaves and a frothy spray of yellowish-green blossoms that rise above the clump. Because many of these plants tend to have a lighter, brighter green leaf color aided by the yellowish blooms, they can help light up a corner.

Brunnera is a highly under-used shade plant. It is probably under used because they are not commonly found, can be fairly expensive and no one really knows a lot about them. I found mine, a new one called Jack Frost, at a small, one-family nursery and haven’t seen it elsewhere. Until a few years ago, there were only three cultivars of brunnera. There have been a few more added lately. This is a mounding or clumping plant that grows about 12 inches tall, is hardy here in Maine and has showy leaves. One of the cultivars, Dawson’s White, has a white irregular margin on each leaf. Jack Frost has a white leaf with chartreuse margins on the edge and heavy, dark green veining across the leaves. It puts up airy blossoms above the leaves that are blue and look a great deal like forget-me-nots. Don’t forget astilbes, which now range from 8-inches high to over 4 feet and have in a wide array of colors and blooming times. There are also bleeding hearts with their fern-like foliage, and there are a wide array of colorful and interesting ferns such as the Japanese painted fern.

A specialized nursery

If you want some unique and interesting shade/woodland plants, try the Wake-Robin Nursery in West Paris where owner Mike Murphy specializes in woodland plants from Maine and around the world. You can find out more by going to

It is very easy and also smart to leave a few spaces in that shady garden where you can add annuals like impatiens or coleus, which always brighten up a dark corner.

For those of you who read this column frequently, you might remember one particular column about planting a memory garden and me taking my nephew to the nursery with me. I was searching out astilbes and he was running about holding up plants and yelling, “Is this an astilbe?” Well, he called from Indiana last week to tell me that he and his wife had just planted astilbes in their new garden and he wanted me to know. Life really is a circle that just goes round.

Until next time, get out your flags and hang them high on the Fourth of July, remember the veterans who made that freedom possible, say a prayer not just for your family but for those families who have loved ones across the seas and share a moment with a special person because the circle does come round.

Happy gardening!

Jody Goodwin has been gardening for more than 20 years. She lives in Turner with her husband, Ike, her two dogs and two cats. She can be reached by writing to her in care of the Sun Journal, 104 Park St., Lewiston, Maine, 04243-4400 or by e-mail at [email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.