How to liven up your shade garden with a little color

Story and Photos by Yvonne Lelong Bordelon

In Louisiana, shade gardens are prized for the green coolness they offer on hot, humid summer days – places to sit and relax while sipping a cool drink. A garden in shade can be lovely when planted in tones of green, but with good plant selection and by putting the right plant in the right place, your shade garden can be filled with colorful flowering plants and interesting textures that will delight the eye and also invite birds and pollinators. As a bonus, shade gardens normally require less watering and weeding than sun gardens.

The first step in planning your garden is to observe the degree of shade in the proposed site. There are three general categories of light requirements for plants: full sun, 6-8 hours; part-shade, some shade, but with partial sunlight; and shade, the sun is blocked most of the time. The degree of shade can change throughout the day and also through the seasons. Areas under deciduous trees get a lot of sun in winter and early spring when the trees are bare and but get dappled shade during late spring and summer. Evergreens provide shade year round.

Some plants that do well in “full sun” in cold Northern climates appreciate partial or afternoon shade when grown in the South. As long as you provide three to four hours of sun, most will bloom. Thinning out the tree canopy will let more light in, increasing the number of suitable plant varieties and improving the visual appeal of your shade garden.

It is important to prepare new plant beds so that the plantings won’t have to compete with tree roots for water and nutrients. An easy way to do this is to clear away any unwanted plant material and then lay thick layers of newspaper and wet them down. The newspaper will block the light, killing undesirable plants that will rot in a few months, enriching the soil and allowing beneficial microorganisms to flourish. Add no more than 4-5 inches of rich soil on top of the paper. Tree roots need aeration; so stay at least 2 feet away from the trunks of trees. Place boards or stepping-stones in the walkways between proposed plantings to assure that the fresh soil is not compacted during planting.

Draw up a design that includes groups of flowering plants as well as those with bright, colorful foliage and interesting texture. Arrange the permanent plants (shrubs and perennials) in the garden while they are still in pots. That way you can move them around until you are pleased with the arrangement before digging any holes. Depending on the design, tall plants look best in the middle of a circular design or in the back of a rectangular border. Small plants should be placed in groups of at least three or five.

After the permanent plants are in place, fill in with annuals such as Impatiens, wishbone flower (Torenia fournieri), Caladium, or bulbs such as Narcissus and snowflake (Leucojum spp.). Ferns such as holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum), autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora), and native southern maidenhair (Adiantum capillus-veneris) provide added color and texture to the design. Add vertical interest with trellised vines or bromeliads, orchids, and ferns in hanging pots or mounted on slabs of wood.

Following are several plant suggestions for a colorful shade garden:

Blue star (Amsonia tabernaemontana), Zones 3-9
This versatile native beauty with its mid-spring clusters of star-shaped blue flowers grows 3-4 feet tall and attracts butterflies and other pollinators. It does well in partial shade or sun in wet or dry soil, tolerating drought and cold. Uses include woodland gardens, perennial beds, and wet areas.

In part shade, native blue star sends up clusters of pale blue flowers that delight pollinators. Companion plants include Indian pink (Spigelia marilandica), spotted jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), and Verbena ‘Homestead Purple’.

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Zones 4-10
The bright red clusters of tubular flowers, which bloom for months from late summer through fall, attract hummingbirds and pollinators and stand out in part-shade areas. If protected from hot afternoon sun, this 3-6-foot native does well in moist, well-drained, fertile soil. Cultivars with white and pink flowers include ‘Alba’ (white) and ‘Angel’s Song’ (salmon marked with cream).  Red cultivars are ‘Queen Victoria’ (red flowers with reddish leaves) and ‘Russian Prince’ (red flowers with purple leaves).

The bright red flowers of native cardinal flower bloom for months in late summer through fall. Butterflies, hummingbirds and native bees drink the nectar. Once the seedpods turn brown the powder-like seeds are ready to plant.

Hosta – fragrant hosta (H. plantaginea) and non-fragrant (H. ventricosa), Zones 3-9
Hostas, or plantain lilies, have mounds of large colorful leaves and spikes of lovely, sometimes fragrant flowers. Not all Hosta species do well in the hot humid South. The rule of thumb when choosing species is that the ones with bright colored leaves (green, yellow, or white-edged) can take more sun. In Louisiana these plants thrive from spring to frost in moist, well-drained fertile soil with a part-shade exposure.

Hostas come in an assortment of colors and shapes and also have lovely blooms. The lighter colored varieties stand up to the Louisiana heat better than the blue-leaved types. Caladiums, ferns, as well as Bounce and Sunpatiens series impatiens are good companions.

American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), Zones 6-10, deciduous
Birds enjoy the bright magenta fall berries of this 4-8-foot very hardy native. Beautyberry tolerates heavy pruning in spring, is drought tolerant, and grows in part-shade to full sun in a wide range of soils.

In fall, the native American beautyberry is covered with striking clusters of magenta berries, which are pleasing to the eye and are eaten by songbirds and mammals.

Camellias (C. japonica, C. sasanqua and C. sinensis), Zones 7-9, evergreen
These three species of camellias attract pollinators and provide year-round color for the shade garden. Flower colors come in shades of white, pink, and red. C. japonica blooms from late winter through early spring. Sasanquas bloom in fall and tea camellia (C. sinensis) blooms in spring. All do well in part shade and well-drained acidic soil and grow happily under old-growth pines.

Old-fashioned evergreen Camellia japonica blooms winter through early spring and is a good choice for central and South Louisiana and for sheltered spots in North Louisiana. Many new varieties of C. sasanqua (including some dwarfs) provide a multitude of fragrant flowers in fall.

Hydrangea (H. macrophylla), Zones 6-10, deciduous
In spring and summer, large pompom-like flowers in shades of white, blue, and pink bloom on 4-5-foot bushes planted in moist, fertile soil in filtered shade. Acid soil produces blue flowers, while more alkaline soil results in pink. Selections such as ‘Nikko Blue’ (for blue blooms) and ‘Forever Pink’ (for pink) will bloom true in any soil. Other hydrangea varieties to consider include oakleaf (H. quercifolia) and panicle (H. paniculata).

Native azaleas, Piedmont (Rhododendron canescens), flame (R. austrinium), and swamp (R. viscosum), Zones 4-9, deciduous
All three native azaleas attract butterflies and other pollinators. The 6-8-foot piedmont (pink flowers) and flame (orange-yellow flowers) bloom in spring in partial shade and moist, well-drained soil. Swamp azalea with its white flowers in summer, prefers wet, shady areas.

Piedmont azaleas thrive in the open shade of mature pine trees while red ‘President Clay’ azaleas and camellias bloom nearby.




Japanese maple (Acer palmatum), Zones 5-8, Deciduous, part-shade, moist soil. Colorful foliage and finely cut leaves

Fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus), Zones 4-9, Deciduous native, part-shade to sun, moist well-drained soil. Frilly spring flowers followed by olive-like berries that birds eat.

Redbud (Cercis canadensis), Zones 4-9, Deciduous native, part-shade, well-drained soil. Dark pink early spring flowers attract pollinators. Yellow fall color

Bugleweed (Ajuga reptens), Zones 4-10, Shade to part-sun, moist well-drained soil. Purple to variegated foliage with blue flower spikes in summer. Attracts pollinators

Green and gold (Chrysogonum virginianum), Zones 5-10, Native, shade to part sun, moist well-drained soil. Textured foliage with yellow spring blooms

Deadnettle (Lamium maculatum), Zones 3-9, Shade to part shade, any soil but wet. Silvery gray textured foliage with blue flower spikes in spring

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