Friday, May 30, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pacific Northwest Magazine / Plant Life

Shady Characters: Where it's dark and dry, they are happy to shine

Shady Gardens can be lovely, leafy refuges, and plenty of desirable plants prefer such conditions. My problem has been to recognize shade when I see it. I've been in denial that it took only 10 years for my open, sunny garden to grow beyond dappled in shadows.

I guess you can blame all those trees I planted — what's a garden without an evergreen magnolia, a katsura, some Japanese maples, a crabapple and a dogwood or two? The embarrassing thing is that it took me a whole season of wondering why my sweet peas looked so peaked to figure out that the spot I'd always grown them in gets very little sun anymore. So now the sweet peas are climbing up a trellis into bright sun on the other side of the house, and a chartreuse 'Sum and Substance' hosta is happily spreading its fat, ribbed leaves over all that rich, manure-laden soil I'd prepared for the sweet peas.

Maybe it's like coming to terms with phrases like "age-appropriate clothing" or those mailings from AARP. Once we accept the truth of a thing, we can deal with it. The reality is that a canopy of tree branches, as well as pergolas, large shrubs and house eaves, create dry shade, an especially difficult challenge to garden well.

Deciduous trees are the easiest to plant beneath, because light and moisture are plentiful during the leafless half of the year. Bulbs and early-blooming perennials thrive in these conditions; they flower when the trees are bare, then go dormant during the summer. Hardy cyclamen, trout lily (Erythonium), bleeding heart, Anemone nemorosa, snowdrops, crocus and early narcissus are all good choices to carpet the ground beneath deciduous trees and color the springtime garden.

It is far more difficult to grow healthy plants beneath eaves or conifers because both create conditions far darker and drier than desirable. Start by digging plenty of organic matter into the soil to increase its nutrients and capacity to retain water. While you don't want to pile a thick layer of soil or mulch around the base of trees, you can carefully work in, or layer on, some compost. If the blade of your shovel cuts through shallow, small tree roots, they'll grow back quickly, and conifers are so tolerant of root disturbance that it is possible to carve planting pockets between their roots.

The best technique is to choose plants that naturally thrive in such adverse conditions. This way you won't be struggling to take proper care of them, and the plants won't look as if they're struggling to stay alive. Any of the following plants, with some soil prep and supplemental water until established, will cover the ground in even the shadiest areas. Some even glow in the dankest of shadows:

• Epimediums are my favorite ground cover for dry shade, for they have airy little flowers and charming heart-shaped leaves that belie their tough, evergreen natures. Wild ginger (Asarum) is also low-growing and shade-loving, with valentine-like leaves in deep, shiny green.

• Native plants like salal and Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) have evolved along with our Northwest forests, so they're well-adapted to growing under trees.

• Hardy geraniums spread to form long-blooming mounds of attractive foliage. G. phaeum 'Variegata,' called mourning widow for its dark-blotched leaves and purple-black flowers, does well in shade, as does G. pratense and G. macrorrhizum.

• Chartreuse never looked so good as in the fluffy spring flower clusters of Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae, which has handsome evergreen foliage beneath the showy flowers. Another lime-green plant to light up shade is the self-seeding Bowles' golden grass (Milium effusum 'Aureum').

• Sweet box (Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis) is a shrublet with year-round shiny leaves and honey-scented winter flowers. Skimmia is another glossy-leafed small shrub with berries and white flowers.

• For a haze of pale bloom, plant plenty of Aster divaricatus, which flowers toward the end of summer.

• The lush look of ferns is especially welcome in the shade, and the male fern (Dryopteris filix-max), and the soft shield fern (Polystichum setiferum) do just fine in dark, dry settings.

Now In Bloom

Cordyline are borderline hardy in the Northwest, but are worth growing as annuals for their strong sculptural form like a slender, graceful yucca. C. baueri has 2-foot-tall spiky blades in a rich, smoky shade of burgundy ideal for centering a pot of mounding annuals or anchoring a border planting of hot-colored summer flowers.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is

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