Shades of Green

Find out which greens are best to plant in the shade

| April/May 2002

  • One of the prettiest dwarf herbs, sweet woodruff asks for little.
    Photograph by Turid Forsyth
  • Solomon’s seal, a relative of lily of the valley, is self-sufficient and stately.
    Photograph by Turid Forsyth
  • Johnny-jump-ups are long-flowering and unrestrained seeders.
    Photograph by Turid Forsyth
  • The true sweet violet is a beauty, but it can be invasive.
    Illustration by Turid Forsyth
  • The leaves and blossoms of this bugleweed provide subtle variations in the green of shaded spots.
    Photograph by Jerry Pavia
  • Once used to stuff mattresses, lady's bedstraw tolerates dryness and sun but likes good soil.
    Photograph by Rick Wetherbee
  • Spotted dead nettle has showy flowers and striped leaves which lend grace to shady corners.

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. 

Sweet Woodruff

(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.

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