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Container Gardening: 12 Shade-Loving Plants in My Backyard

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Container Gardening: 12 Shade-Loving Plants in My Backyard

May 31, 2019

Container gardening in my Brooklyn backyard is complicated; much of my north-facing garden enjoys (I use the verb with gently gritted teeth) a lot of shade.

From fall through early spring the shade is complete. The pots receive no sun at all, as it dips below a tall townhouse which casts a long shadow. But, from mid spring through late summer, the amount of welcome sunlight increases from less than one tentative hour to a solid five at the sun’s zenith, before dwindling again as the year turns.

The good news is that my garden is lush, beautifully textured, and a rainbow of green hues. Here are 12 tried-and-tested shade-loving plants that thrive in my USDA zone 7b backyard:

Photography by Marie Viljoen.

A surprisingly diverse range of shrubs, perennials, and annuals thrives under these conditions. Some of them have tricky little secrets and sulk unhappily if they are misunderstood, but once divined, the plants flourish. The key to successful shade gardening is observation.
Above: A surprisingly diverse range of shrubs, perennials, and annuals thrives under these conditions. Some of them have tricky little secrets and sulk unhappily if they are misunderstood, but once divined, the plants flourish. The key to successful shade gardening is observation.

Oakleaf Hydrangea

Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), a native of the southeastern US, is familiar to most gardeners. Despite its ubiquity, I appreciate its shapely leaves and its extraordinarily long lasting flowers.
Above: Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), a native of the southeastern US, is familiar to most gardeners. Despite its ubiquity, I appreciate its shapely leaves and its extraordinarily long lasting flowers.

Planted in a sturdy pot three feet tall by 20 inches wide, this dwarf cultivar stays relatively compact and is crowded with blooms from late spring. It receives the full five hours of direct sun by midsummer, but can handle less.

Another aspect of the oakleaf hydrangea that I value is that the shrub sends up discrete suckers in its pot—in effect, baby plants. When I see that they have their own little root systems, I carefully sever them from the mother plant and repot them.
Above: Another aspect of the oakleaf hydrangea that I value is that the shrub sends up discrete suckers in its pot—in effect, baby plants. When I see that they have their own little root systems, I carefully sever them from the mother plant and repot them.

In two years of growing this hydrangea, I have propagated three additional shrubs. Free plants! And an excellent return on investment.

Another reason to love the oakleafs is that their flowers are transformed gently over months to a pale, spotted pink, before turning rusty red by late fall. In a small garden having this much interest in a single plant is very important.
Above: Another reason to love the oakleafs is that their flowers are transformed gently over months to a pale, spotted pink, before turning rusty red by late fall. In a small garden having this much interest in a single plant is very important.

Bush Honeysuckle

Another shrub native to the southeastern states is Diervilla sessilifolia &#8
Above: Another shrub native to the southeastern states is Diervilla sessilifolia ‘Cool Splash’, also known as bush honeysuckle. This cultivar has variegated leaves, a boon for dark corners. Most literature puts it in full sun, but this particular plant (which has moved with us) has thrived in as little as three hours of direct sun in the growing season (and none in fall through spring). Bonus? Pollinators love the nectar filled, lightly scented flowers.

The shrub is useful in water-wise gardening, as it actively dislikes being moist, and is one I frequently pass over on my daily watering rounds in summer.

Aralia ‘Sun King’

This gorgeous Aralia cordata &#8
Above: This gorgeous Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’ is my faux shrub. Also known as Japanese spikenard, the plant dies back completely in the shadow of winter, but by late spring has sent up tall stems richly attired with attractive leaves.

It provides substance to the back of a row of pots, and practically glows in the dark. It receives a maximum of three hours of direct sun in summer.

The aralia is an Eastern Asian native and the forager in me planted it for its edible spring shoots, known as udo in Japan. This is a thirsty plant, one of the handful of Asian perennials that follow which require frequent and deep watering, to mimic the conditions in which they evolved.
Above: The aralia is an Eastern Asian native and the forager in me planted it for its edible spring shoots, known as udo in Japan. This is a thirsty plant, one of the handful of Asian perennials that follow which require frequent and deep watering, to mimic the conditions in which they evolved.

Ligularia

Another thirsty beauty that despises drying out is the statuesque Ligularia japonica. Its bright daisy like flowers shoot up on tall stems and open as July turns sticky.
Above: Another thirsty beauty that despises drying out is the statuesque Ligularia japonica. Its bright daisy like flowers shoot up on tall stems and open as July turns sticky.

Ligularia is most famous for its enormous umbrella leaves, which add tropical drama to challenging gardens. In direct sun Ligularia leaves tend to wilt, even if well watered, but will perk up again as shade returns.

Rogersia

More leaf drama belongs to Rogersia podophylla, whose leaves are  inches across. I nearly killed my plant last year because of under watering, until I learned what it needed.
Above: More leaf drama belongs to Rogersia podophylla, whose leaves are 14 inches across. I nearly killed my plant last year because of under watering, until I learned what it needed.

Generally, I err on the side of less water, as overwatered plants take time to show stress, by which time it may be hard to rehabilitate them. But these mountain natives like it wet, as long as their drainage is excellent; the water must be able to run freely from the pots’ drainage holes. (My aha moment came when I began  growing wasabi this year, but that is another story.). Rogersia is also a generous giver, as it can be divided easily to make more plants. I now have three.

Lady Fern

I spend as much time as I can in the woods, and I love ferns. Indigenous lady fern (Athyrium angustum forma rubellum &#8
Above: I spend as much time as I can in the woods, and I love ferns. Indigenous lady fern (Athyrium angustum forma rubellum ‘Lady in Red’ —quite a mouthful) has tall lacy foliage and the cultivar’s intensely red stems are striking.

Compared with some other ferns, the lady fern can tolerate quite dry soil, and this makes me feel less guilty about my water hogs.

Ostrich Fern

Forager&#8
Above: Forager’s choice: indigenous ostrich ferns (Mateuccia struthiopteris) yield the famous edible fiddleheads that crowd farmers markets in spring. Along with my potted plants, an in-ground colony provides a modest local haul for me.

These gracefully arching fronds are one of my favorite parts of the shade garden. This plant has given rise to six additional ferns over the two years.

Hosta

Do not underestimate the well-known hosta. Some of the hardiest plants I have ever grown, they do not ask for much. Their watering needs are moderate and in return they offer a dazzling variety of leaf colors and sizes, with their distinctively pleated ribs providing dramatic texture.
Above: Do not underestimate the well-known hosta. Some of the hardiest plants I have ever grown, they do not ask for much. Their watering needs are moderate and in return they offer a dazzling variety of leaf colors and sizes, with their distinctively pleated ribs providing dramatic texture.

I use them as specimen plants, allowing their generous sideways spread to take up as much room as they like. Mine have not been bothered by slugs, but if they are problem, fill a small dish with beer and place it in the pot for three nights (fresh beer every night, please) to catch the little marauders. Need more? Those teardrop flowers, loved by hummingbirds (and edible for humans, too).

Coral Bells

When I first viewed this apartment, I noticed a chocolate-colored heuchera (also known as coral bells) growing defiantly from a crack in the poured concrete in the backyard. It was late summer and the place was parched. As much as the barren concrete depressed me, the heuchera seemed to be sending a message of hope: If I can do it, you can do it. It still flourishes there, and has set seed to germinate in other cracks. The effect is a softening one.
Above: When I first viewed this apartment, I noticed a chocolate-colored heuchera (also known as coral bells) growing defiantly from a crack in the poured concrete in the backyard. It was late summer and the place was parched. As much as the barren concrete depressed me, the heuchera seemed to be sending a message of hope: If I can do it, you can do it. It still flourishes there, and has set seed to germinate in other cracks. The effect is a softening one.
Heucheras are some of of the hardiest and most drought tolerant plants I have grown. This lime green Heuchera villosa, another eastern US native, has traveled with me since my very first terrace gardening days and has reproduced dozens of times, helping me to fill this much larger garden at no cost (well, apart from potting soil and pots, of course).
Above: Heucheras are some of of the hardiest and most drought tolerant plants I have grown. This lime green Heuchera villosa, another eastern US native, has traveled with me since my very first terrace gardening days and has reproduced dozens of times, helping me to fill this much larger garden at no cost (well, apart from potting soil and pots, of course).
Like hostas, late-blooming heucheras are often used in thoughtless, pedestrian plantings, but combined thoughtfully with other plants their best qualities are allowed to shine.
Above: Like hostas, late-blooming heucheras are often used in thoughtless, pedestrian plantings, but combined thoughtfully with other plants their best qualities are allowed to shine.

Geranium ‘Biokovo’

Speaking of plants that keep on giving: None has been as generous as this perennial Geranium x catabrigiense &#8
Above: Speaking of plants that keep on giving: None has been as generous as this perennial Geranium x catabrigiense ‘Biokovo.’ Beginning as one plant grown in our Harlem garden, I now counts six pots full. This repetition is a very useful tool in knitting a garden together visually, and in late spring through early summer the plants are a froth of white flowers, buzzed by honey bees.
Later in the season I trim the flowers stems back as the pretty cut leaves adopt protective red highlights in the increasing heat of summer.
Above: Later in the season I trim the flowers stems back as the pretty cut leaves adopt protective red highlights in the increasing heat of summer.

Jewelweed

A full-shade stalwart in my garden is jewelweed (Impatiens capensis). After rain the plants glitter like green chandeliers.
Above: A full-shade stalwart in my garden is jewelweed (Impatiens capensis). After rain the plants glitter like green chandeliers.

This native annual grows prolifically in nearby damp woodlands, and one spring I carried home six seedlings. I am now never without jewelweed and have to weed dozens of volunteers out at the beginning of each growing season: its spring-loaded seed capsules explode to project seeds far from the parent.  But the plants’ dramatic rise from zero to four feet tall in summer is so impressive that I never want to be without them.

Jewelweed fills difficult, dark spots, and in late summer through autumn bears orange flowers that are irresistible to hummingbirds. All it asks in return is deep, frequent watering.
Above: Jewelweed fills difficult, dark spots, and in late summer through autumn bears orange flowers that are irresistible to hummingbirds. All it asks in return is deep, frequent watering.

Swedish Ivy

A low-maintenance and bright stalwart of shady nooks is Plectranthus coleiodes. Making up for jewelweed&#8
Above: A low-maintenance and bright stalwart of shady nooks is Plectranthus coleiodes. Making up for jewelweed’s thirsty nature, so-called Swedish ivy (neither Swedish, nor ivy), prefers drier soil and can go for days without a drink.

While there is no doubt that a potted garden requires more attention than one in ground (rain is not as helpful, and watering is high maintenance), it does provide benefits: containing prolific plants, and also allowing you to give custom care to plants with specific needs, from very different backgrounds; whereas in ground they share soil media and moisture, in pots you control the conditions.

Tell us about your shade: Where do you live, and what do you grow?

N.B.: For more of our favorite container gardens, see:

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