Shade loving perennials to brighten up the dark garden
The shady garden can be a pure heaven. Indeed, when I imagine a shade garden, I always picture something that would look like the forest floor of a tropical jungle with the dew droplets slowly falling from gigantic leaves and the dimmed light dancing on the lush greens of beautifully veined foliage.
But here we are, in Ireland, not in Brazil! So we may prefer a magical woodland filled with colour and flowers (and better suited for our climate). Get involved in the wild gardening trend and re-introduce the pollinator friendly blooms for shady corners bursting of life. Yes it can be beautiful and good for the environment!
Blooming plants in shade can be quite spectacular and give you that WOW factor like the feathery astilbe (False Goat’s Beard), for example. These easy-to-grow herbaceous perennials will tolerate shade as well as full sun, preferably in damp conditions. They require a moist soil as drying out will stunt the growth. The fluffy plumes (in shades of white, pinks and reds) look at their best in July and August taking over the show after the Primulas.
Astilbe in full bloom. © Veronica Lopes for Windyrigde Garden Centre
The primroses make great additions for the shady garden as they are undemanding. Coming in a variety of sizes, they are mainly suitable for the front or the middle of the border. With an exceptional range of colours available from the pale yellow of the Primula Veris (Cowslip) to the most unusual combination of lilac and red of the Primula Vialii.
Primula Vialii. © Veronica Lopes for Windyrigde Garden Centre
In general, the shorter varieties (30cm high and less) like the primula denticulata are early flowering (spring) and ideal for the front of the border or pots. The taller varieties (approximately 60cm high) like the Primula x Bulleesiana, commonly known as Candelabra primrose, will bring the middle of the border to life with their fresh and pastel shades which are also very attractive to butterflies.
Primulas (Spring flowering varieties) © Veronica Lopes for Windyrigde Garden Centre
Other options include: Astrantia with its lovely pincushion flowers, the Dicentra (Bleeding Heart) for its delicate drooping flowers, the Bergenia for its bright flowers over evergreen foliage that will tolerate dryness, a great addition under trees. And, of course, the star in shade for its early bloom and the huge variety: the Helleborus. ( There is a full article on this absolute must in The Journal )
Dicentras © Veronica Lopes for Windyrigde Garden Centre
Helleborus © Veronica Lopes for Windyrigde Garden Centre
Bring some height:
Borders in shade often lack the height. As it is already dark, it is important to bring the colour to eye level (as well) to get a lush look. Most of the tall flowering perennials will bloom in mid and late summer, right on time for the summer barbecue parties.
Amongst the giants, the airy and delicate thalictrum is most certainly one of the tallest. Some varieties can reach 1.5m, forming a cloud of small flowers in clusters overlooking the rest of the border from July to September. In white, pale pink or lavender, the shades are romantic and discreet and ideal for an inviting peaceful corner. The perfect setup for a cup of tea and your favourite book.
Foxgloves (Digitalis) © Veronica Lopes for Windyrigde Garden Centre
But maybe you prefer bold colours, shocking pinks and purples to rock the beds with tall spikes of ever-blooming foxgloves. The generous flowers will ornate the beds from May to July. Now, be aware, these beauties are not fully perennial but rather biennials so let them go to seed, they can spread around the garden this way. The cherry on top, they are native woodland plants so perfectly suited for the Irish garden, providing plenty of food for bees (maybe a spot not too close to the dining table is best).
Last but not least, another bee-friendly giant, the Aconitum. The Monkshood gets its name from its deep purple hooded flowers in 1.5m tall spires in mid and late summer.
Be mindful however, the foxglove and the monkshood, despite their immense benefit for the environment and its diversity, are also toxic. Therefore, they must be kept out of reach of young children and pets.
Colour is not just flowers! We often undervalue foliage and yet these underrated leafy plants are an asset in any garden. First, the foliage lasts longer, most perennials flower for 3 months on average every year but the foliage will pop out several weeks before and remain another few weeks after the flowering.
The colours are not less bright. Take hostas, for example. The bright yellow shades of some varieties like ‘Orange Marmalade’ will look fantastic in a bright and pop scheme in a rather moist environment.
If you are a blue lover, then, the Brunnera will be a great option. Its beautifully veined, silver foliage is simply unreal and it will become the most resilient companion, even in dry shade where its forget-me-not like flowers in spring will form a pale blue cloud over spring bulbs.
Brunneras (‘Silver Heart’ and ‘Alexander’s Great’) © Veronica Lopes for Windyrigde Garden Centre
But when it comes to colourful foliage, the real star is the heuchera. From lime green to the darkest purple, oranges to pinks, any colour, you name it; the heuchera is a real chameleon. It is mainly grown for its year-round foliage; it flowers though, in summer, bearing tiny little bells in pale pink or white a few inches above the foliage.
Heucheras © Veronica Lopes for Windyrigde Garden Centre
To conclude, you don’t need to have a large garden to have a shady spot. With the construction booming, gardens are becoming smaller and walls higher for privacy but this tiny courtyard, patio or balcony can still be a colourful heaven with a minimum effort and, most importantly, the right plants. Be aware, however, if you decide to grow these beauties in pots, all potted plants need a little more care (regular watering and feeding are simply the minimum to provide).
Choose light coloured pots preferably (cream or white is ideal) as they’ll help to brighten up the area.