Fairfield Ledger

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Neighbors Growing Together | Aug 15, 2018

Gardening in the shade?

By Kathy Tollenaere, Jefferson County Master Gardener | Jun 06, 2018
PHOTO SUBMITTED Virginia Bluebells are a shade-loving plant. The plant’s early growth is very attractive. The flowers begin as pink buds and develop into blue flowers with maturity. They go to seed very quickly and the plant dies back afterward, waiting to return next year.

NOTE: The Jefferson County Master Gardeners are providing a monthly column, named “Dear Iris,” for The Fairfield Ledger readers.

Readers’ questions can be sent to The Ledger at PO Box 110, Fairfield 52556, emailed to lifestyles@ffledger.com or dropped off at the office, 114 E. Broadway. Include your name and contact information in case the Master Gardeners need more information.

For information about the Jefferson County Master Gardeners, call the Jefferson County ISU Extension office at 472-4166.


In 2002, we moved from one home to another; exchanging a very sunny yard for one with an abundance of shade, due its wooded location. Already being an avid gardener, I pulled out my favorite gardening magazines (Garden Gate being the “tops!”) and purchased a few books in anticipation of learning all about meeting the challenges of my new environment. Defining shade, part-shade, part-sun became an early quest. Throw in additional plant needs such as wet, moist, dry, humus-y, and alkaline and acidic soils ... you can understand my early concerns. After spending the winter researching and creating a prioritized to-do list, I felt ready for the Spring of 2003.

Please keep in mind that gardening is a never-ending, always changing labor of love, whether your passion is produce or landscaping/environment beautification; the latter being my priority. Having a cooler, beautiful, shady spot in which to rest, especially on a hot summer day, is a treat like no other.

You must also remember that a plant poorly placed is easily transplanted or replaced. I have made plenty of mistakes, but I have profited (continue to profit) from them.

Let me introduce you to some of my very favorite shade-loving plants, most of which have a good number of cultivars and/or varieties (a cultivar is a cultivated plant propagated by cuttings to retain the properties of the original plant, while a variety is a plant that happens in nature, whether by cross-pollination, or naturally. The seeds produced by a cultivar rarely produce a plant identical to the parent plant.):

• Astilbe – This is a lovely shade-garden mainstay. Its biggest concern is surviving extremely dry conditions. They appreciate (need) extra watering. There are many variations in height and color.

• Pulmonaria (lungwort) are an early Spring bloomer, with interesting leaf texture and coloration, the flowers of which have similar characteristics. While I appreciate them all, my favorite is ‘Raspberry Splash’ because the flowers open in a bright raspberry color and remain this way. Most other varieties begin as a blue bud and change to a pink flower. They will often reseed.

• Bleeding Heart also differs in size, leaf texture and color and blossom shape and color. They appreciate moist humus soil.

• Hellebore (often called Lenten Rose) is a wonderful addition to your shade/bright-shade garden. After blooming very early, their large, interesting leaves are especially nice. There are many new cultivars being developed, resulting in flowers with a variety of colors, single and double petals, and face-up as opposed to the original face-down flowers, etc, The plant reseeds easily, but the seedlings are not true to the parent plant. This plant has some very interesting characteristics and care “concerns.”

• Heartleaf Brunnera are a prolific early-bloomer, sporting clouds of tiny, bright blue blossoms. These are aggressive self-seeder, and I find they are great in the woodlands and given as gifts. Several cultivars.

• Virginia Bluebells are also delightful. I have them growing all over, as they also freely self-seed and they are easily grown from seed. The plants’ early growth is very attractive. The flowers begin as pink buds and develop into blue flowers with maturity. They go to seed very quickly and the plant dies back afterward, waiting to return next year. I have decided their very best environment would be within the woodlands!

• Toad Lilies (tricyrtis) have been cultivated to different heights, growth habits and blossom color and characteristics. The flowers themselves resemble miniature orchids and are just plain fun additions to the garden! I have several different plants and enjoy them all.

• Hosta probably remain the plant most people anticipate planting in the shade. They remain a favorite of mine. You might be surprised at the hundreds of varieties available; differing in size, leaf shape, color and texture, growth habit, scape height, and blossom color with scent or not.

Would you be surprised to know that many plants that take shade and part-shade include many daylilies, epimedium, heuchera, ferns, and clematis? Be sure to investigate before purchasing; at least by reading the plant tags!

I would be remiss if I were to write about gardening in the shade and not mention the variety native woodland plants available. Look into the purchase of seeds or plants (or receiving them from family members and friends) of Jacks in the Pulpit, Dutchman’s Breeches, Woodland Phlox, Trillium, Dog-toothed Violet, Spring Beauties, Bloodroot, and Wild Ginger, for example.

The love of gardening includes “sidelights,” such as the ability to be outdoors at the most enjoyable parts of the day, listening and watching the smaller wildlife (birds, butterflies, bees, etc), sharing and receiving plants (each new gift provides a memory), nurturing, and landscaping. The sound of a water feature provides further sensory satisfaction.

Are you ready to begin? Or perhaps revitalize an area? Or perhaps head outdoors with a cup of tea or coffee for a little Rest, Relaxation, and Restoration? Best wishes and Happy Gardening!

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