Shade-loving plants can brighten the garden

SHNS Scott Humphrey sits under his Chinese pistache tree, which creates shade for plants in his backyard in Rancho Cordova, Calif.

It's a summer gardening dilemma: People love shade, but most plants prefer sun.

Under towering trees or man-made structures, shade creates cool oases. On a triple-digit afternoon, that sunless shadow can lower the temperature 10 to 20 degrees.

But that same shade can kill sun-loving plants. They'll stretch their stems into a gangly, unattractive mess as they search for slivers of light. Flowers? Forget it.

There can be a happy gardening medium, a space with cooling shade for humans and enough light for flowering plants to thrive. The key is finding the right spots for the right plants — and people, too.

"You want your garden to be pretty," said gardener Scott Humphrey, "but you also want to be able to spend time outdoors."

Humphrey, a former nurseryman who works for the California state Parks and Recreation Department, has had to adapt his Rancho Cordova garden as its shade has increased dramatically.

"I planted that sycamore when I was in junior high," he said, indicating a 30-year-old tree that blankets the front yard in heavy shade. "It must be over 40 feet tall now."

Humphrey's family has lived in the same home since 1963, he noted. "The shade really keeps the house cool. We hardly turn on the air conditioner at all. We spend a lot of time on the patio, too."

But sunlight in his garden is a moving target. So he keeps many of his plants in pots.

"I can move them to where people are," Humphrey said. "That way, I can change out color with the seasons."

Even shade-loving plants flower more with some morning sun.

"You need morning sun for the best color and blossoms," he said. "But you need afternoon shade to combat that blazing afternoon sun."

Humphrey's favorite summer shade plant? Fuchsias. He loves the delicate flowers and the wide range of form.

"To me, they're designed perfectly," he said. "You really have to appreciate their beauty, the shape and color of the petals and sepals. There's so much variety. ... They bloom all summer with very little effort."

Fuchsias continue to find fans.

"My favorite shade-loving plant is Fuchsia ‘Genii,'" said Scott Paris of High Hand Nursery in Loomis, Calif. "It has these lovely red stems and chartreuse yellow-green foliage that almost glows in the shade plus these pretty nodding flowers."

Paris has a lot of shade in his own mature garden. Among the plants he repeatedly recommends are hostas, hellebores (for winter flowers) and heucheras; all three perennials offer a lot of flower power even in the shadiest spots.

"Cannas are great in the shade, too," he said. "A Tropicana canna makes a big splash of color without much sun. Clivias are almost bulletproof; the orange flowers are pretty, but I love their big, strappy foliage."

For annual summer color, impatiens and begonias continue to be best-selling shade plants, said Greg Gayton, manager of Green Acres Nursery and Supply in Sacramento, Calif.

For shady spots, gardeners now have more choices, said Gayton, a California Certified nurseryman. "Thirty years ago, it was all ferns and Japanese aralia. But now, there are many many plants to consider.

"Hostas are just outstanding," he added. "Astilbes look great. Flowering maples do fantastic in the shade. Bergenia cordifolia" — Elephant ears — "is our biggest seller for shade."

For scent as well as flowers, gardenias are a popular shade choice.

"They do well in both sun and shade," said Humphrey, who grows Gardenia veitchii, which forms a low mounding shrub covered with luminous white flowers. "They're actually a transitional plant that does great on the edge of shade."

Hydrangeas, cannas, columbine, penstemons and foxgloves also work that transitional zone of dappled shade. They add big pops of color in the afternoon shadows.

Foliage also can be colorful.

"Coleus are really big for shady borders," said Gayton. "They're also wonderful for cottage gardens and container gardens. They look fantastic with impatiens."

Among the variegated coleus that add bright color in shady spots are Aurora Black Cherry (red with a green edge), Electric Lime (practically neon green) and Kong Rose (big-leafed and burgundy).

Japanese maples and nandina (also known as heavenly bamboo) offer vibrant red leaves in shade — a bright contrast to cool greens in the shadows.

"You've got a lot more options than you might think," Humphrey said. "It's just a matter of testing how much sun or shade plants can take."

Not all shade is created equal. Before planting anything in existing shade, evaluate your sun and soil situation.

Shade can be solid or dappled. It can move with the sun or pop up seasonally. Shade can be moist, dry or somewhere in between.

Take some notes about where and when your garden gets shade. Then, match up plants that can thrive in those conditions.

Shade falls into four categories:

q Open shade: Light is bright but there's no direct sun, such as the space under a covered patio or a narrow side yard with northern exposure. Look for plants that like partial shade such as fuchsias and begonias.

q Dappled or light shade: Sunlight moves across the space but never remains full for an extended length of time. It filters through tree branches but still dapples the ground. This often is enough light for even sun-loving plants. It's perfect for succulents, camellias or hydrangeas.

q Medium shade: This is the space under small trees or on the north side of buildings. Shade lovers thrive here; others won't grow at all. Think of plants that thrive in the forest or jungle. It's a great spot for azaleas, ferns, hostas, hellebores, ginger, caladiums and coleus.

q Deep or full shade: All sunlight is blocked, such as under large evergreen trees or in a narrow garden area near buildings or fences. Only the hardiest shade-loving plants (such as ivy or moss) will grow here.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,




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