Made for the shade

Look for this article in the summer-fall edition of Dockside magazine.

It’s midsummer and it’s stinkin’ hot.

Sure, you could flee the heat and go indoors. But that’s not what you’re here for. Air conditioning is a refuge, but it’s not a delight, and it’s certainly not why most people own a cottage.

Fortunately, there are other options. With some creative planning – and clever planting – you can create a relaxing and rewarding space that allows you to enjoy the outdoors without roasting.

“So much of our gardening time is focused on getting enough sun,” says Karen Tolton, owner of Water’s Edge Landscaping. That makes sense – the season is short, most plants need plenty of daylight, and people crave sun nearly as much as plants do.

But it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that a shaded area can also be a delightful spot to relax, particularly when summer’s heat is at its most intense. “You may only need a shade garden for a few weeks in Muskoka, but those few weeks can be wonderful,” says Karen.

Start with green

Full-sun gardens are often focused on the splash of primary colours, the bright reds and blues and yellows that seem to be so easy to produce when the plants are bathed in eight or more hours of sunlight a day.

Shade gardens are much more subtle than that. There’s room for colour – more on that below – but the first thing you’ll want to explore are the greens. Fortunately, that gives garden designers an incredible array of choice. “Our eyes see more shades of green than any other colour,” says Karen, “so we can detect really subtle variations in hue.”

Hostas are a natural place to start when shade gardening. They’re hardy, they love shade, and they come in an incredible range of shade and shape. “There are variegated leaves and solid green, miniatures that are just a few inches high and enormous plants that are four or five feet tall,” says Karen. “You could spend your life just growing hostas and never run out of varieties!”

Hostas bloom mid-summer, bringing a splash of colour to the green space. Some varieties even have richly scented blooms, to enhance the sensory delights of a hosta garden. Hostas do have a well-deserved reputation for being deer snacks, though, so you will likely need to have a strategy to combat bambi. “We use a garlic-based spray, which is very effective against mosquitoes and deer,” says Karen.

From the ancient world

Even more diverse than hostas, ferns are another excellent choice for a shade garden. Ferns are ancient plants – their fossils date back 300 million years – and they’re found in every climate in the world. Their needs are extremely basic: as long as the soil is kept moist enough, most ferns are happy. They don’t need dead-heading, pruning, or even much feeding, and other than the occasional slug they’re not bothered by pests. “A fern garden is incredibly easy – just plant it, water it, and forget it,” says Karen.

Even better for Muskoka gardeners, ferns are quite happy to grow around rocks. Some will even grow right on top of rock, wrapping their roots around the stone until they find a sliver of soil.

Shaded colour

Of course, it’s not all about greens in the garden. There are an abundance of flowering plants that are very happy to bloom in full shade or dappled sunlight. Bleeding heart is one of the most dramatic, beautiful dangling bracelets of hot pink or white blooms that show dramatically against a lush green backdrop.

Astilbe is another popular option in the shade. “Astilbe is available in a wide array of colours, with different varieties that bloom all season long,” says Karen. The feathery spikes can also be collected and dried for display into the fall and winter.

Woodland phlox is another brightly coloured option. While most phlox loves the sunshine, this North American native thrives in deep woodland shade. It blooms in the spring and early summer.

Another early season bloom for shade is periwinkle. This is an aggressive ground cover, that’s great for erosion control on shady slopes, but it needs to be used with care. “If it spreads into the woods, periwinkle can be an invasive nuisance,” says Karen.

Bigroot geranium is one of the toughest shade blooms. It doesn’t mind heat or drought, rabbits and deer don’t care for it, and it puts on a showy floral display in fall. Cranesbill is a relative that blooms nicely in spring and summer.

Yellow Corydalis is the longest-bloomer in any shade garden, with clusters of yellow flowers from spring through to frost.

Flexibility matters

Finally, there are the flowers that aren’t usually thought of as shade-lowers. Rudbeckia, or black-eyed Susans, will gladly take sunshine all day long, but they’ll also bloom in dappled sun or part-shade. So, too, will phlox, Shasta daisies, Sweet William, columbine, and many more.

“You may not get as many blooms in the shade, but people are often surprised to see how versatile supposed sun-lovers can be,” says Karen.

“Plants are amazing. And sometimes they surprise even us!”

Posted in In the Garden.