Louise Curley

20 Jun 2023 09:03

Shade Planting


If someone asked me whether I’d like a sunny or shady garden, I definitely say sunny. Sunny borders packed with colourful plants is what I think of when I conjure up images of my dream outdoor spaces, but I’m coming to realise that shade can be beautiful too.


Unloved Spots

Most gardens have at least one shady spot but these places often end up becoming neglected – think the side return of a house or a corner shaded by a large tree or neighbouring building. In my own garden the back border faces north and there’s a birch tree, two mature evergreen rhododendrons and am enormous lilac that’s well over 3 metres tall. Planting under large plants like these can be difficult because they take up a lot of moisture, making the soil dry, and their network of roots means the soil can be quite congested. But what I’ve discovered is that there’s a huge array of plants that positively thrive in these conditions.


Spring Shade

From February to June this is my favourite part of the garden. I’ve planted lots of snowdrops and hellebores for late winter colour followed by pulmonaria and primroses in March and snowflakes, a bit like snowdrops just taller, in April. All of these plants make the most of the bare branches of the trees above to flower.

May is all about colour as the rhododendrons turn into vast mounds of pink flowers. They’re both a bit bright for me – we inherited them when we bought the house – but because they’re so tall they provide much-needed year-round height and structure. It would have taken anything new we planted a long time to reach the same level of maturity so we kept them, thinning out their branches a bit to let in more light below and to show off their attractive mossy stems. I’m learning to enjoy the hit of late spring colour.

At the same time the lilac blooms, its flowers the classic pale purple colour with the most wonderful of perfumes on warm, humid days you can smell it from the house. By this point the leaves on the birch and the lilac have unfurled and this becomes cool, verdant spot. Another hit of colour comes from Dodecatheon meadia, also known as shooting star, which has intriguing dart-like flowers with reflexed rose-pink petals.


Texture and Form

A great way to add interest to shade planting is to combine lots of different textures. Think unfurling fronds of ferns planted alongside the delicate grass Melica altissima ‘Alba’, which produces an airy haze of tiny grain-like flowers that appear to glisten in the shade and the heart-shaped foliage of epimediums. These groundcover plants can be used to create layers of interest underneath shrubs and trees.


Beyond Spring

Shade planting often goes quiet as summer unfolds, as the tree canopy excludes more light, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Woodland margin plants have evolved to thrive on the dappled light this location provides. Plants such as tiarella will flower all summer long. The Himalayan cowslip is a majestic plant like our native cowslip but with much taller stems and perfumed flowers in midsummer, and Kirengeshoma palmata, a popular plant at this year’s Chelsea, has lovely large leaves and in August bell-shaped, waxy, lemon-yellow flowers emerge.