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What you Grow Matters #2: Making Magic in your Shade Garden

By August 1, 2018August 15th, 2018What You Grow Matters

When I was young, I loved walks through the wide woods that were my backyard. Exploring the sandy game trails under the dappled shade, I made up stories about magical castles, dragons, unicorns, fairies and other enchanted beings. My siblings and I were thrilled to discover patches of moss overgrown with ferns, where we imagined gnomes were hiding. A sunlit dogwood in bloom was a fairy castle, and a grassy bank near a tiny trickling stream was a paradise for unicorns.

Tiny mushrooms and toadstools in various shapes and colors delighted us. What joy we found in discovering a treasured lady’s slipper hidden amongst the crowsfoot (fan clubmoss) and leaf carpet on the forest floor! It was a real treat to happen upon a raspberry or blackberry patch and enjoy the sweet taste of summer, or marvel at the rich autumn colors of the changing leaves.

Those were the good old days. I’m sure many of you can relate!

Shaded woodland settings are a beautiful and even magical sight to behold, but for the home gardener, shade can pose a real challenge.

The plants listed below are selected for their shade tolerance and hardiness specific to our area here in Anne Arundel County. This mix of native and ornamental perennials, grasses and groundcovers in different colors, sizes and textures is meant to inspire your shade garden planning, and planting! Many of these selections will work beautifully in containers as well; I have 5 containers of multi-colored heucheras (coral bells) on my front steps at home and they grow bigger, fuller and more beautiful each year.

As always, Himmel’s staff are happy to help you with your design and offer additional planting suggestions, so stop by the shop and talk with one of our experts! Be sure to check out our fairy garden selection for that little bit of added magic. And remember, whether it’s a few container plants or a woodland paradise… what you grow matters.


Siberian Carpet Cypress

Fresh, minty-green colored evergreen cypress that grows 1-2″ tall and 6-8′ wide. This is a great plant to establish beds or garden paths with evergreen color. This selection also works well on hillsides to help prevent erosion.

Shade Perennials:


Astilbe are a native perennial with fern-like leaves and beautiful flower plumes that burst forth late spring to mid-summer in a variety of colors: white, pale pink, fuchsia, crimson red and lavender. Cool weather transforms the color of the leaves after the flowers fade away. This is one of my favorite shade plants.

Aquilegia [Columbines]:

Columbines are beautiful old-fashioned flowers that bloom in early spring and attract butterflies and hummingbirds. There are a few varieties that come in multiple shades of pale yellow and bright red. This native beauty adds color to the spring border and looks right at home incorporated into a rock garden or naturalized flower bed! I will always love columbines as they were my Nanny’s favorite flowers.

Brunnera [Siberian bugloss]:

This is an outstanding perennial with beautiful leaves in white etched in green. The late spring flowers are a stunning shade of blue floating delicately over the foliage.

Dicentra eximia:

Native Dicentra [cut-leaf bleeding heart] are shade-lovers with beautiful rose-pink flowers that attract hummingbirds. They grow 12-18″ tall and are deer resistant.

Heuchera [coral bells]:

Heuchera are my all-time favorite shade perennials! Native, colorful, high heat and humidity tolerance, with small bell-shaped flowers on tall stems that attract pollinators like honeybees and butterflies, heuchera work well in shade beds, in natural woodland settings, and in containers.

Heuchera come in a wide variety of colors from silvery green to purple to caramel. Fire Chief and Southern Comfort are my favorite color varieties! They are deer-resistant and pair well with Hosta and Astilbe.

Hellebore [Lenten rose]:

Hellebores are a beautiful and reliable staple for shade and woodland gardens! They bloom in late winter and are a welcome addition of color and hint of spring. The leathery green foliage is evergreen. Flowers come in a variety of shades: lime green, white, rose red, or a combination. These understated beauties deserve more attention!


A well-known favorite for the shade garden, hosta comes in a variety of sizes and colors from the tiny Mighty Mouse or Munchkin varieties to the giant Blue Angel or Empress Wu varieties. A mixed selection of hostas can transform a shade bed from average to awe-inspiring or enhance a rock garden with outstanding texture and form. Use in your toughest shade spots for brilliant results.


Lamium is one of my favorite shade plants. The beautiful minty green and white variegated leaves add bright color to shade, and the gorgeous purple flowers bloom mid-summer. These plants form a nice low mound and are great for the front of the shade bed. Purple Dragon is an outstanding selection.

Tiarella [Allegheny foam-flower]:

Another native well-suited for shade, Tiarella has lovely heart-shaped leaves and white or pink flowers that attract pollinators and hummingbirds. They are deer-resistant and when established, will spread and create a nice ground-cover.

Tradescantia [sweet Kate, spiderwort]:

Tradescantia is an attractive perennial with lance-shaped leaves and purple or blue flowers. These natives bloom from June-October. The mounding form of Tradescantia is suitable for beds or containers.


There are several native ferns that work well in a shaded woodland setting:

Lady Fern

Eastern Hay-scented Fern

Ostrich Fern

Sensitive Fern

Cinnamon Fern

These come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are adaptable to a range of conditions from drought to wetland areas.

Japanese Painted Ferns [non-native] are a lovely tri-colored fern that add cool mint, white and pink tones to dark shade areas.



Carex are wonderful, moisture-tolerant compact grasses for shade situations. They come in a variety of colors – thin-bladed silver, wide-bladed green with lime green edges, sunny yellow with lime edges, and more. They are mounding in form and top out at 10-12″. Deer-resistant; native.

Hakenochloa macra [Japanese forest grass]:

This tough ornamental grass brightens up shade with a beautiful golden-chartreuse green color that seems to glow. This grass grows 1-2′ tall and wide and is deer-resistant.

Ground Cover:

Ajuga [bugle-weed]:

Ajuga is a lovely ground-cover with leaves in shades of green and bronze and short flower spikes in shades of purple or white. This evergreen ground-cover is a member of the mint family and will quickly fill in empty areas with dazzling foliage that changes color in autumn.


Pachysandra is a wonderful ground cover. It’s native, tolerates shade, has white flowers that are fragrant, and is deer-resistant. Use pachysandra to fill in tough  planting areas.

Elizabeth Elliott

Author Elizabeth Elliott

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