Great plants for shady gardens

From ferns to hydrangeas, Kim Wilde shows you how to brighten any dark corners of your garden.

Every garden has its shady areas. Perhaps it’s an east- or north-facing border, overhung with trees, or beside a hedge, fence or wall. These areas are often neglected, as we tend to think nothing will grow there. One area of my garden is dry and shady, as it’s east-facing, and over-hung with trees – whose leaves block out the rain and roots suck moisture from the soil. But short of moving house or demolishing your neighbour’s extension, you’ll have to live with these areas. Don’t despair, though – there are lots of beautiful and interesting plants you can grow to make these areas a much-loved part of your garden.
The very first thing to do in such a seemingly inhospitable place is to add organic matter to the soil, which will retain moisture. Garden compost, leaf mould or good, old farmyard manure should be dug in generously before planting and applied as a mulch for good measure.
Shady garden plants generally flower between March and June. The rest of the year you will get mostly foliage, so aim for a rich tapestry of greenery with contrasting shapes and textures.

Shady plants
Epimedium is an excellent plant for dry, shady places. lts shield-shaped leaves make effective ground cover. Epimedium x robrum has the added bonus of coral-pink autumn tints, as well as pretty pink flowers in spring. E. x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’ has lovely, yellow flowers.
Euphorbia robbiae is an evergreen dIat’s a must for your shady green tapestry. It’s also suitable for sunny sites, as well as shaded positions. Its luminous-green spring flowers remain a1l summer and fade to soft coppery tones.
Pachysandra is another reliable ground-cover plant. It tolerates dense and dry shade, but is rather invasive. P. terminalis ‘Variegata’ has neat, white margins on the leaf and spikes of tiny white flowers in spring with a sweet scent.

For a large (60-120cm), luxuriant fern, choose Dryopteris filix-mas. It remains green until late in the year and is a superb contrast to rounded foliage plants. It will grow virtually anywhere. Or try Polystichum setiferum, an evergreen, hardy fern with fronds 15-60cm long. Ferns make great ground cover. Most need a cool, damp, sheltered site. I love Matteuccia struthiopteris, with its lacy fronds. It thrives in boggy places.

Large shrubs
With its bold, spiky foliage and fragrant yellow flowers, mahonia is a fantastic large shrub for shade. The leaves of Mahonia aquifolium (90-120cm) often turn red or bronze in winter, and its bluey-black berries are an added bonus. Mahonia japonica (up to 3m) flowers throughout winter to spring and puts on a fiery foliage display in autumn. Aucuba japonica ‘Variegata’ bas thick, glossy leaves speckled golden yellow. It usually produces bright red berries in winter. It can reach 1.5m in height, giving a welcome splash of colour.
Ligustrum ovalifolium ‘Aureum’ (golden privet) will reach up to 4m. In the sun, its leaves have yellow margins and a green central area. In full shade, an overall yellow/green predominates. The hydrangea family provides some beautiful shade-tolerant flowers, from the lime-green mopheads of Hydrangea aborescens ‘Annabelle’, to the pink flowers of Hydrangea paniculata ‘Preziosa’.
I’ve planted the oak-Ieaved Hydrangea quercifolia in a damp, shady courtyard and its large, conical white flowers brighten up the area in late summer. It also bas strikingly shaped large leaves, strongly lobed like an American oak. Most noted for its wonderful autumn tints, iliis plant can take a while to acquire this. A really fantastic shade-tolerant plant with variegated foliage is Elaeagnus x ebbingei ‘Gilt Edge’, which will look sunny even in a densely shaded position. Although this is an expensive plant to buy, it’s worth paying the extra for the rewarding display you get. Another variegated beauty is the holly, nex x altaclerensis ‘Golden King’, a female holly with glossy berries and bright yellow and gold margins.

Smaller shrubs
Shade-loving sma1l shrubs include Sarcococca (Christmas box), which has glossyevergreen leaves. In winter, you ‘re treated to honey-scented, white f1owers, followed by clusters of fat, black berries. Evergreen Viburnum davidii needs a male and a female plant to ensure an abundant display of electric-blue berries. It grows to about 9Ocm and is a striking choice for a container in a shady spot.

Shady climbers
Parthenocissus henryana (Chinese V1rginia creeper) is suitable for north walls. The leaves are a dark, bronzy-green with a silver vein pattern that turns a gorgeous red in autumn, before falling. It climbs by adhesive tendrils and once established can become quite rampant. Grow the ivy Hedera helix ‘Goldheart’ anywhere, even beneath evergreen trees, such as holly and yew. It gets going a year or so after planting and its leaves have a central splash of bright yellow. This is good for sma1l gardens, as it’s fairly compact, reaching 2.75m.
Garrya e1liptica (silk-tassel bush) is a striking evergreen plant that grows up to 4m. It can be free-standing, but I think it’s best as a trained wall shrub.

Garden of the month

Abbotsbury Gardens, Buller’s Way, Abbotsbury, Nr Weymouth, Dorset DT3 4LA (01305 871387). A 20-acre sub-tropical garden – with palm trees, yuccas and New Zealand flax – provides the exotic backdrop to peacocks and an aviary of tropical birds.

Compost corner

Even a small compost bin can provide a tree supply of rich, organic compost that will work wonders for your garden. Available from most large DIY stores and garden centres, it works much better than a heap in the corner of the garden! To get the best trom your compost bin in the fastest possible time, make sure you:

  • use only soft, leafy waste, vegetable debris, annual weeds and old bedding plants
  • mix grass clippings with other plant waste, otherwise they can go very slimy
  • firm it down as much as you possibly can
  • never let it dry out, so water it in dry weather
  • remember to remove the compost, which is ready in about four months, using it from the bottom of the bin first


Things to do in March

Sow greenhouse tomatoes, aubergines and peppers
Plant new strawberry plants
Give perennials a weak feed
Prepare vegetable beds, digging them over, then use a rake to break up the clumps into a fine texture

Prima solution

Q: I have a huge old peony in my garden, which has never produced a flower. What can I do to make it perform?
A: It probably just needs a good feed. Sprinkle 283g/10oz of sulphate of potash per square yard (available from garden centres) around its roots now, then again in June and once again in February. It should flower next year.

In bloom this month
  • Lonicera periclymenum ‘Belgica’ is an early-flowering honeysuckle with fragrant red and gold flowers.
  • Chaenomeles x superba, the ornamental quince, has bright crimson blossoms from March onwards.
  • Forsythia x intennedia ‘Lynwood’ produces masses of bright yellow flowers on long stems.
Kim’s choice

These cute bird nesting boxes are available from Found and cost from 8.50 each for one with a wooden roof, to 10 for a set of three without roofs. To order, call 0800 3168121 or log onto