Find out which greens are best to plant in the shade
One of the prettiest dwarf herbs, sweet woodruff asks for little.
Some years ago, while on a bicycle tour of English gardens, my partner and I visited one of those grand country places for which England is noted. In addition to the picture-perfect herbaceous borders, an alpine terrace, a peony walk, and an herb garden flourishing far from the house, there was a shaded area filled with perennials chosen for their foliage. Admittedly, this estate employed four full-time gardeners, but the shaded garden, said the owner, “requires very little work indeed to keep in trim.” The plants themselves were tough and self-sufficient; many of them crept over the ground to form a weed-suppressing cover. The overall effect was a densely woven foliage carpet—leaves of many colors, textures, shapes, and sizes—as picturesque, in a different way, as flowerbeds out in the sun. Focused as it is on foliage, a shade garden trades color and dazzle for subtlety and cool serenity.
Most sun-loving perennials—daylilies, peonies, and the like—do best when given their own space to fill. But shade plants, as a rule, do not need such segregation. Let them mingle and, in some cases, fight it out. Given a good start in the form of organically enriched, weed-free earth and some encouragement thereafter—occasional top-dressings and scrupulous weeding—they soon widen to form interlacing swaths of foliage. For spring color, hardy bulbs such as snowdrop, scilla, and narcissus can be tucked right through the carpeting plants in fall.
Shaded yards, front and back, are almost the norm in city neighborhoods, where old trees weave skyward through a warp of wires. Here is a place for shade- loving herbs, mingled with ferns and native woodlanders. Even a single tree or the shady side of shrubs invites such treatment. At Larkwhistle garden, most of the beds catch the sun from dawn until dusk, but the afternoon side of old lilac bushes presented us with a place to grow shade- loving plants. As we read, collected, and planted, we were surprised to learn how many of the plants had once been used as herbs.
Allow shade plants to mingle in dark corners.
(Asperula odorata, syn. Galium odoratum)
Although a single specimen makes little impact, sweet woodruff en masse forms a carpet of glossy green whorled leaves and an earthborne Milky Way of tiny white blooms in June. Delicate in appearance but tenacious and hardy, this denizen of British and European woods craves shade, a modicum of moisture and, some say, acidic soil. With us, it does well in soil that is definitely sweet or limy. This is a no-care plant: Winter sweeps away its old leaves—no need to cut back—and rainfall takes care of watering.
Germany’s famous May wine, Waldmeister-Bowle, is traditionally served on May Day and throughout woodruff season, until the plant begins to flower. “There is something of a ceremony involved in making May wine, like brewing tea in Japan,” says Forsyth, recalling her childhood in Germany. “People go into the woods to gather fresh sprigs of woodruff. White wine and woodruff go into an earthenware jug or crock that is then buried in the ground for half a day to chill to earth temperatures. The woodruff is strained out and the wine served, sometimes mixed with champagne, from a crystal punch bowl into crystal cups.”
Woodruff gatherers also bring home bunches to hang in wardrobes and linen closets, where the herb dries, permeating clothes and bedding with a summer sweetness. I remember my first whiff of woodruff in the greenhouse of a commercial herb grower. It was a gray February day, but the scent of a few dry woodruff leaves transported me to a summer meadow. The fragrance, often compared to that of freshly cut hay, reminds me of spring earth and honey. Only faintly aromatic when fresh, the leaves develop their full bouquet when dry and remain fragrant for years.
In the past, sweet woodruff was one of the “strewing herbs,” a room freshener scattered over the floor to scent the air; bunches of dried leaves hung from church rafters did the same. It was also a common element in snuffs and perfumes. Today, snuff is gone and we’d balk at an herb-strewn floor, but dried woodruff remains an excellent potpourri ingredient, both for its own fragrance and for its ability to hold the scents of other herbs. As a mild medicinal, woodruff is a gentle tranquilizer, reputed to calm and soothe the nerves; a cup of woodruff tea before bedtime is supposed to relieve tension and help you relax, much like valerian.
A restrained creeper, not aggressive like mint, woodruff sends small, searching runners in all directions. To cover a given area once all perennial weeds have been removed, set out at least five plants, 8 inches apart, and keep the intervening spaces weeded until cover is complete. Woodruff is slow and difficult from seed—germination can take a year—and plants in quantity are expensive. A gardening friend may part with starter clumps, and if patience allows, several plants left to spread for a season will provide propagating stock. Either take small plugs—pieces of crown with roots attached—using a sharp knife and a trowel, or lift a whole plant and break it into rooted bits to plant elsewhere. Give new plants a recuperative dose of fine-textured organic matter—damp peat, composted manure, leaf mold, or compost—stirred deeply into the planting hole.
Somewhat like the related woodruff in appearance but a little taller, Lady’s bedstraw produces a froth of greenish-yellow flowers. This herb does not run but expands gradually outward, filling whatever space you give it. In our garden, it competes with the dense surface roots of cedar trees but would do better without that struggle. For those who like balance and formality, clumps of bedstraw can be set at intervals along a shady border; it will also sprawl decoratively over the top of a retaining wall. Spaced on 12-inch centers, bedstraw soon creates a lacy cover for spring snowdrops, fritillarias, scillas, and dwarf daffodils, filling out after the bulbs have bloomed and gone underground. Although bedstraw is more tolerant of sun and dryness than is woodruff, it still appreciates good ground. Maintenance is slight—clearing away the strawy debris left by winter and, if necessary, reducing the size of the clumps with a trowel or small spade. A midsummer shearing keeps this lax herb from swamping nearby plants.
The genus name Galium comes from the Greek word for milk. Also called “cheese renning,” bedstraw was once widely used as a rennet substitute, because its leaves and flowers cause milk to separate into curds and impart a yellow tinge to the finished cheese. Bedstraw leaves also yield a fine yellow fabric dye, while the roots effect a red coloring. The habit of stuffing mattresses, “even of ladies of rank,” with the dried herb earned this plant its common name. The practice may have been an imitation of the Nativity, since bedstraw was thought to be one of the herbs that lined the manger in Bethlehem.
Lady’s bedstraw does not run but expands gradually outward, filling whatever space you give it.
A good neighbor for bedstraw, the common bugleweed flourishes in any company but may be a threat to less ambitious plants. Here is an herb that will thickly cover any expanse of ground with persistent tongue-shaped leaves of various hues. The glossy foliage of one variety shines with the verdigris of old copper, another has bluish-green leaves, while others are mottled red, white, green, and cream. Several sorts planted randomly together weave a colorful tapestry, and all hoist decorative short spikes of blue blossoms in early summer. Square stems and lipped flowers show kinship with mints, balm, and other labiates. Ajuga spreads quickly and far, so it is wise to keep it away from smaller plants and out of a rock garden if you hope to grow anything else. But bugleweed is no plant to fear. Some perennials are shunned as invasive, but sometimes invasive is just what we want. This handsome herb willingly covers ground otherwise difficult to plant—the dryish shade under trees, for example—and is easily checked if it strays out of bounds.
Ajuga has a long history as a vulnerary, a plant used to heal wounds. “This herb belongs to Dame Venus,” Nicholas Culpeper declared in the seventeenth century. “If the virtues make you fall in love with it (as they will if you be wise), keep a syrup of it to take inwardly and an ointment and plaster of it to use outwardly.” The herb, which he called bugle, sickle-wort, or herb-carpenter, “is wonderful in curing all manner of ulcers and sores. . . gangrenes and fistulas also, if the leaves [are] bruised and applied or their juice be used to wash and bathe the place.”
A fine aesthetic complement to the preceding three and pushy enough to hold its own is dead nettle. This labiate might be chosen more frequently were it called something other than dead nettle. How about its old name, purple archangel, or even false salvia? Like common field yarrow, dead nettle has hemostatic properties: The bruised leaves are said to stanch the flow of blood.
With plain green leaves and dull magenta flowers, ordinary dead nettle is a bit dowdy, but it has given rise to some truly beautiful groundcovers. The heart-shaped leaves of L. m. ‘Album’ are freshly striped with white below candles of white flowers; in ‘White Nancy’, the light stripe extends almost to the leaf edge. ‘Beacon Silver’ lights up a shady garden with silver-white leaves outlined with a hairline margin of green, and its flowers are pink. I admire ‘Pink Pewter’ for its silvery foliage and rosy blooms; when blue forget-me-nots seed among it, the result is as fresh and pretty as spring gets.
Rooting as it runs, dead nettle grows a foot tall and forms a weed-smothering groundcover; but it is easily reined in if it covets more than its share of space. There is no trick to growing this mint relative, save finding plants of the better sorts and setting them two hand spans apart in reasonably good ground in the shade. Tall daffodils will bloom through for spring color.
Our cool corner of evergreens and sweet cicely also includes Solomon’s seal. Green and white are the colors of this tall, handsome herb, capable of coming up through other groundcovers in a shady bed. I have seen it used to good effect, giving an impression of order and symmetry, in a foundation planting as an alternative to dwarf pines and junipers. Oval ribbed leaves, each tilted forward at a precise angle, are set at regular intervals along gracefully arching stems. Toward the top of the stems, wax-white scented bells hang from each leaf axil. Nor does this tidy plant disappear in midsummer; its foliage stays fresh until fall, then colors a warm yellow in keeping with the season.
Solomon’s seal is a close relative of lily of the valley (another favorite for shade) and spreads in much the same way, only slower. Thick, white underground rhizomes travel a short way and then emerge as new shoots. A patch in our garden that was hemmed in by lilacs and peonies did not increase much over the years, but when moved to a new corner, well enriched with humus, this hungry woodlander took off. Propagating the plant is an easy matter: Sometimes during October or April, divide the rootstock with a sharp knife, allowing each piece of root an “eye,” which looks like the tip of an asparagus stalk. Besides planting Solomon’s seal and cutting back its stalks at season’s end, I cannot recall ever doing anything else to or for this self-sufficient herb.
Violets cover a lot of territory, both botanically and in woods and gardens. Two members of the genus—ease, and sweet violets—crop up in many herbals as medicinal plants. We’re strict with both; a little leeway, and they are all over the place. Johnny-jump-ups (V. tricolor) are small, pert pansies that take to partial shade or sun, charming wee flowers that peer up at you as if daring you to pull them up. Once, we let them all stay, but colonies of seedlings jumped up everywhere—tight in the crowns of perennials, under rosebushes, through the asparagus. Now we leave a few at the base of rocks that edge flowerbeds, and even these hop the curb and take off. And as much as we complain, we wouldn’t be without these colorful violas. Given their own space, purple-and-gold Johnny-jump-ups are an easy groundcover, as bright as any annual and longer flowering than most. Among the first flowers to open their eyes in spring, they are usually colorful in a small way at Thanksgiving. No wonder they are such unrestrained seeders. Although I am not a great flowereater, I often pop a Johnny into my mouth while gardening—just to let the little pests know who’s boss.
Sweet violets (V. odorata), the most famous of the herbal violets, are harder to come by. Several times, we have sent for plants or brought home a tuft of green from a nursery, only to have a crop of nice purple flowers but none of the famous scent described by Francis Bacon in 1625 as “the sweetest smell in the air.” Once you have the true sort, though, watch them closely. Self-sown sweet violets can quickly become a pain in the perennials. Evicted from our flowerbeds, they now have all the lawn space they can carpet. In April, they stain the green purple and flood the air with scent, and for the rest of the summer, they are run over with the mower and no harm done. Perennial relatives of pansies, sweet violets expand from year to year by small creeping rhizomes and plentiful seeds; ordinary ground in sun or shade suits them fine. Fragrance is what sweet violets are all about. One author states that “white wine vinegar derives not only a brilliant tint but a sweet scent from having violet flowers steeped in it.” All violets are edible and add a festive touch to spring salads. Young violet leaves and flowers produce a tea rich in minerals and vitamin C; mint or lemon balm adds flavor. “I have an old steamer chair in the tool shed,” said Louise Beebe Wilder in The Fragrant Path (1932), “and when a mild March spell starts the violets to blossoming, I drag it forth and lie by the hour in the sunshine inhaling the delicious fragrance.” If I were to drag a steamer chair into the garden in March, chances are I’d be inhaling snowflakes—but the thought is there, and spring always comes.
Text and images excerpted with permission from Herbs: The Complete Gardener’s Guide (Firefly, 2001). Text by Patrick Lima. Photographs and illustrations by Turid Forsyth.
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