You can grow beautiful plants even in a garden that gets very little sun.

By Nancy Mattia
May 16, 2019
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A shade garden is true to its name: plants that thrive without the typical four to eight hours of sun that many other plants require. Hosta and ferns are the most familiar shade plants, known for their gorgeous shapes and hardiness. Include these favorites or pick other worthy plants, and soon you'll have a pretty spot to enjoy away from the blazing sun of summer. To get you started, check out seven truths about shade gardens.

Plants with similar needs do well together.

It's important to know the sun, soil, and water conditions throughout your garden so that you're planting in the optimal spots. When you consider which plants to grow near each other, pick those that do well under the same conditions; for example, astilbe and ligularia can be planted together because both are wet shade plants, meaning they grow in very damp soil, says Susan Emhardt-Servidio, a horticulturist and Master Gardener Coordinator at the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Ocean County in Toms River, New Jersey.

Varying the heights of the plants will look appealing.

Instead of choosing plants that are all the same size, create a garden with plants that have varying heights. Plant from shortest to tallest for the greatest impact. Some of Emhardt-Servidio's picks (short to tall): tiarella, hellebore, and chelone lyonii, all of which have interesting textures; tiarella has great foliage colors, too.

Just because they don't need much sun doesn't mean they don't need water.

Low moisture is a common problem in a shade garden-maybe because it's often situated under a high roof line or below a cluster of trees (trim the lower branches or thin the canopy to let more light in), or it's competing with nearby shrubs for rainwater. Keep up with watering.

Mulch will boost a shade garden's health.

One way you can help plants retain moisture is to spread a thick layer of mulch in the garden. Mulch could be any plant material from crushed dead leaves to cardboard. It'll add nutrients to the soil and helps prevent weeds. It also regulates soil temperature and keeps soil from eroding.

It's easy to add color.

The color green dominates a shade garden so adding a bit of color nicely breaks up the verdant vastness. Colorful shade plants include yellow lady's slipper, euphorbia, and coral bells.

Low-maintenance plants make gardening a cinch.

In the easy-to-care-for category, hosta tops the list. It comes in several colors and sizes. "There's usually no maintenance except for slugs in wet years or deer," says Emhardt-Servidio. Ferns, another popular low-maintenance plant, come in shades from green to gray. Other easy shade plants: hellebore, elephant's ear, and lady's mantle.

You can shake things up by mixing plants.

Less common varieties can add color and texture to a shade garden, from leaves that are variegated, deeply veined, tinged, and fuzzy to matte and glossy. Check out such varieties as the shredded umbrella plant (syneilesis aconitifolia), which got its common name because its leaves open, umbrella-like, to reveal large lacy leaves and beesia deltophylla, a China native whose glossy, heart-shaped leaves feature deep veins that give them a rippled, puckered appearance.

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