A shady border – the best (and easiest) part of your garden?

Posted By: Alexandra Campbell On: May 6th, 2018 In: Gardening know how, Middlesized country, Town gardens

My shady border is probably better for longer than anywhere else in the garden. Although I do far less work in it – less planting and weeding – than I do in the sunnier borders.

Hyndrangea 'Annabelle' and cotoneaster in a shady border

A spray of cotoneaster, hydrangea ‘Annabelle’ and an evergreen cyprus in my north-facing shady border.

If you look up ‘plants for shade’, you usually will see barely repressed pity for those with shady gardens or borders. The implication is usually that this is the ‘difficult’ part of your garden, and that you will struggle to make it even look acceptable…if only all borders could be in full sun, our gardens would be perfect…

But which border do you have to weed most often? The sunniest or the shadiest? In this garden, it’s certainly the sunniest. I’ve spent 10+ hours weeding the sunny border this year, and it’s still bursting with weeds. They come back vigorously to enjoy the sunshine. The shady border does have weeds in it, but they are slower growing.

Foxgloves are shade-loving plants

This shady patch in one of my borders hosts shade-loving foxgloves, smyrnium perfoliatum, angelica archangelica and hydrangeas. I basically leave it to get on with it.

In which border do flowers last longer? While my sunny border flowers go over at astonishing speed, the shade garden side offers a long, leisurely season of enjoyment. At the moment, the shady border has Solomon’s seal, saxifrage ‘London Pride’ and lily of the valley in flower, while the last hellebores are just going over.

And which border is best all-year round? Definitely the shady one, as far as I’m concerned.

Shady border in winter

The north facing border in winter…

Plants for shade

But aren’t you restricted in choice when it comes to plants for a shady border?

I was originally going to call this ‘the best plants for a shade garden’ or some such, but the more research I did on plants that were suitable for shady gardens, the longer the list grew. It’s much, much too long for one post.

Persicaria grows well in shade

A friend with a woodland garden grows several varieties of persicaria.

But, just for starters: lamium, hydrangeas, tiarellas, astilbe, Japanese Anemone (esp Honorine Joubert), skimmia, cyclamen, alchemilla mollis, acanthus mollis, hardy geraniums, ferns, hellebores, persicaria, eupatorium…

Shade loving anemones

Anenome Honorine Joubert is another shade-lover

Box and tree ferns for shade

Box and tree ferns are two plants that do well in shade, seen here at Le Jardin Agapanthe in France

The fact is that some plants do better in full sun and others in shade or part-shade. Either way, your choice of plant is restricted by aspect.  You will generally see more plants for ‘full sun’ in plant brochures, but a friend of mine thinks that’s a bit like the label on clothes that says ‘dry clean only.’ It’s generally ‘safer’ advice.

Hydrangeas for shady borders

Hydrangeas are good ‘shady border’ plants and come in a wide range of shapes and colours.

I’ve got a group of Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ who absolutely adore my ‘full shade’ border. I’ve tried to relocate them to where they’re supposed to be – in full sun – but they keep coming back. Oddly enough, however, they don’t like either of the semi-shady beds. I think plants just don’t read their own labels sometimes…

Shady terrace

The north-facing shady border…

Do you need more shade in your garden?

As two friends and I were going round the wonderful Jardin Agapanthe in Northern France, we all mused that we needed more shade in our garden. Le Jardin Agapanthe is an example of a garden where the owner deliberately created shade – it could have been an open expanse of sunny and colourful borders. It’s actually a layered plantaholic’s delight.

Le Jardin Agapanthe is a shady garden

Le Jardin Agapanthe in Northern France is a largely shady garden because of the layers of trees planted by the owner. But it’s still lush.

Shady courtyard

This courtyard at Le Jardin Agapanthe is surrounded by trees and vegetation – it feels charming and private.

But isn’t a shady border boring?

Many exotic plants are shade-loving because a jungle is quite a shady place. Those who create exotic gardens in temperate climates make excellent use of shade-loving plants to create a lush atmosphere.

Exotic gardens are often shady

Stephen Edney and Lou Dowle’s exotic garden in Kent is another garden where the owners have deliberately created more shade with lavish planting in layers, and lots of height.

Coleus prefers shade

Many exotic-leaved plants, such as coleus, prefer shade. In Stephen Edney and Lou Dowle’s garden (open for the NGS on July 29th).

Open for Faversham Open Gardens & garden Market Day

Colour and shade. This woodland garden is open for Faversham Open Gardens & Garden Market Day on June 24th. As well as persicaria, she also has eupatorium, another shade-loving plant for colour.

Pots for shade

Pots for shade. Colourful pots of hydrangeas in Emma Daniell’s garden, which is almost entirely shaded by a huge spreading walnut tree.

Shape and shade

If I’m being honest (rather than biased towards shade), I have to admit that there is a wider range of brightly coloured flowers suitable for a sunny border. However, the strength of a shady border is the wide variety of leaf shape and the different shades of green you can get when you focus on leaves rather than flowers. That’s also why a shady border can look better in winter – leaf shape and shade can retain its interest for longer than flowers, which are reliant on colour for effect.

Shape in a shady border

Leaf and plant shape is important in my north-facing border.

Shade-loving fatsia

Fatsia has a strong, exotic leaf shape and loves shade.

So before cutting down that tree, think about how much easier a shady garden is. Weeds don’t grow so fast. It’s more private. Plants that do flower often last longer. There’s a huge range in leaf shape and colour. And because it’s often more reliant on plant shape than colour, a shady border is more likely to look good all year round.

See the Middlesized Garden in early May in video

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5 comments on "A shady border – the best (and easiest) part of your garden?"

  1. What a beautiful post! Thanks.

  2. A great reminder that the shady places keep a garden going while the hot sunny plants come in a blaze of glory and then go. I love shady areas and love shade-loving plants. I hugely recommend https://plantsforshade.co.uk who sell every plant you need for shade.

    1. oh, I’ll definitely check that out, thank you

  3. Chris B says:

    I’ve noticed during the hot bank holiday weekend that some of the sunnier parts kf the garden are looking a bit shocked by the sudden jump in temperatures, but the shady side looks the same as it always does. You’re definitely right that it needs very little irrigation and weeding by comparison.

    Moderate shade definitely leaves you lots of options, although dense shade (below a completely closed canopy) is very difficult. I’ve been surprised over the years how successful many supposedly sun-loving plants can be with only indirect light (e.g. against a north facing wall). Now my approach is if in doubt, try it.

    1. Absolutely. And I’ve also found that the plant doesn’t necessarily die if it’s not happy, it just doesn’t do very well, so we can move it. Nothing to lose!

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