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Planning a Shade Garden: 12 Low Maintenance Plants that are Easy to Find and Stay Looking Good

Shade cloth in greenhouse

I’m in “oh wow, it’s really Spring!” garden planning mode. It’s time I get serious and make a plan for all those ideas that have been rattling around in my head all winter.

This picture is the first “brain dump” of potential ideas, and now I just wanna take a nap after looking at it.

Once I go through and prioritize, the plan will get a lot more clear!

I already know one of my top priorities, and that’s creating a shade garden in the space behind the greenhouse and the raised beds. I built the fence as the backdrop structure last year, in anticipation of creating a pretty space in front it.

I've been experimenting with plants for the last couple of years to see what grows well in that area, and to see what I like. I’ve got a good list of plants that I’m happy with and that meet all or most of my criteria: low maintenance, looks good for several months, and is easy to find or grow (e.g., inexpensive). I’d also like the garden to contain flowers that are both good for cutting and that attract pollinators. The garden will be an island with a curving border and the area gets 3-4 hours of dappled sunlight. It’s somewhere around 20’ long and 16’ wide.

Here’s the list I’ve come up with. I hope you find some gems in here that work in your shade garden too!

  1. Climbing flowers: Japanese Morning Glory. I plan to build a large wood obelisk for a focal point (and paint it to match the greenhouse), and plant it with Ipomoea nil Morning Glory, also known as Japanese Morning Glory. This is a non-invasive cultivar with pretty blue flowers. They tolerate partial shade and will be inexpensive to grow from seed. They’re annuals for me in Zone 6, but I don’t mind growing them each year.

  2. Specimen tree: Dogwood or Japanese Maple. I haven’t decided if I’ll add a small tree yet, but I’m looking at small, understory trees (the shade garden is under a big oak and a big maple). Both of these would add all-season beauty and structure, and should do well in the area.

  3. Flowers: Veronica (Speedwell), Hyssop, and Astilbe. Not only do these flowers attract pollinators, they are wonderful cut flowers for bouquets! I already have Veronica and Hyssop and they have been such beautiful, easy plants (and they’re perennials). These all come in various shades of purple, pink, and blue. I purposely haven’t listed specific varieties because one of my goals is “easy” - so I’ll see what my local nursery has and probably go with that. My goal will be to plant several of each of these for a beautiful effect, which means I’ll probably also start some from seed. Bags of Astilbe bulbs can usually be found at local nurseries.

  4. Lush greens: Ferns, Hostas, and Heuchera. Although these are common, they really are quite lovely and come in so many colors and sizes. I picked up several Heuchera on clearance last Fall, and many people divide and give away ferns in the Spring. I have a favorite hosta that you just might love even if you’re not a hosta lover. Did you know that a small number of hostas have scented flowers?! My favorite is the Royal Standard cultivar and its white flowers give off a light, perfumey scent.

  5. Small shrubs: Hydrangeas. I’ve planted many different hydrangea around my front and back yard and the repetition provides a nice continuity among my gardens. I picked up a couple of Limelight Hydrangeas last Summer, so those will get added into the garden.

  6. Notable mentions: Viburnums (shrubs/trees) and Hellebores (flowers). These are also excellent choices for shade gardens so I don’t want to leave them out. I have some Hellebores by the house, and I love them in that spot. I’m thinking of planting a viburnum in another spot in the yard - there are so many different species to choose from and birds love them.

After lots of research and experimenting, it feels good to have narrowed down what will work in my yard as well as what I can find locally. I’m sure I’ll add some other things here and there which will be a lot of fun.

Experimenting is such a valuable step. Over the last couple of years I purchased several of the plants above and set their pots in the future garden area to see how they fared. I also found out which plants didn’t do well.

I’ll be trying a similar experiment in my front yard this summer. I really want dahlias in my front yard, but I’m just not sure if they’ll get enough sun. I’m planning an experiment with a few to see how it goes.

It’s a fun challenge to plan and create a shade garden. I hope I have the time and energy to pull it off!



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