A shady patch of soil - on the cool side of the house, under trees or along a south facing wall - is an opportunity to grow some of our most beautiful plants.
Leaves that evolved to catch the light give us richly contrasting shapes, textures and colours - big and bold, glossy, fine and lacy, or frilled and crinkled. Flowers are more restrained in shady spaces, but they’re by no means absent.
Cold-hardy plants for shady spaces, particularly under trees, include glamorous ‘woodland’ plants such as hostas, ferns and hellebores. Boldly colourful Heuchera and Heucherella also fit this scene. Dicentra (bleeding heart) is one of those treasures that’s much easier to grow in Dunedin than it is in Auckland. But many ‘cool-climate’ plants can be grown in a warm climate when given some shade.
Where there is a warm sheltered spot with no frost, the choice of shade loving plants expands to the subtropical treasures like vireya rhododendrons and clivias in rich orange or yellow. With thick, strappy leaves, clivias look amazing mass planted under trees, as do NZ native renga renga lilies with their masses of little white lily flowers. Strongly structural bromeliads make excellent container plants for a shady front porch. Or for quick colour in pots, try impatiens or cyclamen.
NOT ALL SHADE IS THE SAME…
All plants need light for photosynthesis and no plant will grow in complete darkness, but many are adapted to life with less sun. ‘Full shade’ exists beneath the spreading canopies of mature trees or beside a tall wall or hedge. Deciduous trees cast full shade during summer but let the light through in winter, hence many ’woodland’ plants do their flowering in very early spring. ‘Heavy shade’ beneath evergreen trees or a building that casts its shadow all year-round is the hardest to work with. One solution is to grow plants in containers that can be moved to a brighter location to give them some time in the light.
It is far easier to find plants for ‘partial shade’, where they get three to six hours of sun each day. Many will grow well in part or full shade, but they’ll reward you with more flowers if you give them more sun. Because to produce the energy it takes to make a flower, a certain amount of sunlight must first be trapped in the leaves.
OPPOSITE, CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Clipped Buxus with white Astilbe; Heuchera 'Fire Alarm’; cream Clivia flowers; Epimedium sulphureum groundcover, rhododendron flower. RIGHT: Heucherella 'Stoplight' combines nicely with Tiarellas and Hostas