Don’t despair, just adjust if shade is all you have


I helped out at a local plant sale this weekend and one customer was trying to figure out what she could grow now that the neighbor’s new garage blocked most of the sun on her city lot in Milwaukee. She had hostas to plant but wanted other flowers.

Here’s the truth — not much that’s desirable grows in Stygian conditions; pretty much everything but nasty weeds and mushrooms need some light. And when planting under trees with shallow roots like many evergreens and maples, supplemental water is a must. But there are a surprising number of plants that will provide pleasant blossoms if given a couple of hours of even filtered light a day. My own garden has a lot of them.

Spring flowers in the shade of deciduous trees aren’t really hard to come by. Most bulbs and many wildflowers shoot up at the first sign of warmth, bloom before the trees above them leaf out and go dormant as the leaves develop and block the light. What comes next is the problem.

In our shade perennial beds right now I have the forget-me-not blue of Brunnera and the yellow of globe flower (Trollius) in blossom under our hawthorn tree. They’re covering what’s left of the scilla that started flowering in April. I’ll have to deadhead both the Brunnera and the globe flower, but they’ll keep their attractive foliage through the summer. Once they’re finished flowering, the hostas in the bed will provide weeks of purple and white blossoms, as well as decorative foliage.

In other shady perennial beds, native black cohosh are already 3 feet tall. The flowers are pollinated by flies and beetles and are supposed to have an unpleasant smell, but ours are far enough from the path that I’ve never noticed it.

They’re planted alongside the purple-leafed form of cohosh that will blossom in late August. Those flowers have a sweet fragrance that wafts all the way across the garden. In the same bed are several kinds of late summer flowering Ligularia, waxybells (Kirengeshoma) and toad lilies (Tricyrtis) — a dreadful name for a lovely family of plants.

For gardeners interested in native plants, our miniature woods start flowering early in April when the first trillium open. Their red, yellow and white flowers are quickly joined by white blood-root blossoms and yellow bellwort. Mayapples and wild ginger come later. Most of these plants are ephemeral, but their place is taken by the Big-leaf asters and Zig-zag goldenrod that emerge in early summer. This succession planting is close to what might be in a natural woodland.

Nearby baneberry plants are also shooting out of the shaded soil. They’ll soon have small white flowers, but, like the Jack-in-the-pulpits next to them, the long-lasting cones of red berries that follow are the real attraction.

None of these plants get more than a couple of hours of filtered sun a day and none get supplemental water unless the rains stay away for weeks at a time. But they need help from the hose to get off to a strong start, so water until they’re well established.

If shade is all a garden’s got, there’s no need for despair. Flowers, some surprisingly showy, are possible with just a little patience and preparation.



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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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Port Washington, WI 53074
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