Chances are there will be at least a few places on your property that don’t get the 6-10 hours of full sun that most gardens require. These are probably areas where trees or buildings block the sun. At Andrew’s Legacy we have a few of these areas and they are the perfect place for a shade garden. There are a lot of plants with low light requirements. Many woodland plants, such as Trilliums, Wild Ginger, Ligularia, Dog tooth violets and the like, lend themselves to shade gardens. But some are fussy, requiring special soil amendments, specific water fertilizer and light requirements, and have brief seasons. Ferns and Hosta are hardy and adaptable. Moss can be a bit particular, but once started is easier to care for.
I chose my two main shade gardens in areas that don’t get much light other than dappled sunlight or morning sun. I fought with and pulled up tree roots and rototilled in lots of compost and pete moss. I create a rich fertile environment for my plants and unknowingly for the surrounding trees as with a few years their roots invaded my gardens, sucking the life out of them. I fought with them for a while and eventually realized the only way I could outwit them was to leave the hardy plants that were surviving the tree roots in the ground and fill in with containers and moss. Ferns and Hosta became the backbone of my shade gardens since they seemed able to survive anything.
There is a surprisingly vast number of hardy ferns to choose from. The variety and number shoots up if you are willing to include tropical varieties, which worked well for me since I was including containers as part of my shade garden. Shades provide a lush texture and through varieties like the Japanese Painted fern and Ghost fern can provide color variations. Most are used to battling for resources with trees and have done well planted directly into my inhospitable ground. The Japanese Painted fern seems to reproduce well by spore, as I have found plants coming up in many spaces around the yard. Ostrich fern spreads by underground creeping roots or rhizomes. As with most shade plants they do need to be well watered, prefer and acidic soil and a nitrogen fertilizer. They seem to be unbothered by slugs or deer, but deer have been known to eat the new growth. True ferns do not produce seeds, but make spores found on the backs of leaves or in central bracts. Spores require perfect conditions to grow, but many varities of ferns can be reproduce through root division.
Hosta are one of the most common leafy perennials in the American gardening lexicon. They became so ubiquitous they fell out of favor in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s until hybridization began to produce hundreds of new and exciting types. The “blue”-leaved varieties tend to do better in shade, although most Hosta don’t seem to have a problem in the shade and the yellow/chartreuses types really pop in a dark place. Slugs love hosta, and I have been told deer do as well, so you will have to maintain diligence against these pests. Hosta thrive in the same conditions as ferns, although for the most part you may want to put them in the brighter section of the shade garden. They are easy to grow, hardy perennials and there are many exciting new types showing great variation in leaf shape, size, color and variegation. Hosta can be propagated by root division which is recommended every three or four years to avoid overcrowding.
For many of you, this may be an odd choice for a shade garden, especially those of you who have battled with moss in sections of your lawn or on your roof. But moss gardens have become popular, especially in Asian countries and Japanese gardens, and that popularity has spread. Moss can create a carpet of intense velvety green that flows over hills and engulfs objects in its path. It can be particular, but if it’s happy it will thrive. It can be the perfect addition to a shade garden, growing where nothing else will, unaffected by tree roots and the deepest shade. I got my moss from a neighboring wood, digging clumps and moving it to my garden. If you get moss form an area other than your property I recommend you get permission. If you don’t know where to get moss there are a few hardy varieties that can be purchased online at: http://www.mossacres.com/
Moss does require a lot of water and may need to be watered daily, especially when you are trying to get it to take. It does love a liquid nitrogen fertilizer, which will help it spread and green-up. Moss can dry up and will come back, but it looks best when it is well watered and thriving. Moss can even look good through a warm winter, or brought indoors in a greenhouse or terrarium. (Moss requires high humidity at all times.) Moss can connect empty areas of your shade garden, or you can create a moss garden with nothing else but moss. I have made a Pinterest board devoted to deep shade gardens made with moss and fungi. http://pinterest.com/macnish/moss-fungi-and-ferns/
Here are some pictures showing how we have used Ferns, Hosta, and Moss in our shade gardens.
This Hosta, called “Patriot” shows stark contrast in the variegation between the deep green and white edges, making it stand out in the shade.
Like many Hosta in my gardens I have long ago lost the name of this one, but its ribbed leaves and nice variegation help it stand out against the Dicentra in the background.
A thriving Ostrich fern works its way through the shade despite invasive tree roots. Hosta and English bluebells are in the background.
The pale green color of the ghost fern helps bring it forward in the dark shade and provides a nice contrast to the deeper green around it.
A close-up of a burgeoning Hosta. In the spring their growth is explosive.
Nice variegation of green against a pure yellow color in this Hosta.
Sometimes fences or garden walls create shade in the garden and can look stark and bare. A Staghorn fern, mounted on a cedar board creates interest and a focal point on this garden wall. Since it is tropical it needs to be moved indoors for the winter. One screw holds it to the wall so it can be easily removed. An unusual plant it is also an interesting conversation piece.
The traditional Boston Fern is happy in the shade of the porch. It’s leaves cover the moss basket it is growing in. Daily watering, frequent fertilizing and large containers are the tricks to making this tender tropical thrive.
There are many new Hosta that are bright chartreuse yellow. I recommend these varieties since the color really pops out of the shady garden and contrasts well with purples and pinks.
The Lady In Red Fern has an upright habit with deep red stems.
The Japanese Painted Fern is very hardy and colorful showing white, many shades of green and burgundy.
A Hay-Scented Fern grapples for space in a large container with Herchuera “Southern Comfort.”
This is the view from the side of our porch. A small shady space became a hidden garden filled with hardy and tropical ferns, Hosta, Moss and a variety of woodland plants. Although there are several containers in this garden, they are obscured by the lush growth. A copper bath beckons the birds and a terra cotta lion plaque stands guard.
Once established, moss will create a velvety green bed, filling bare spaces and looking lush and inviting.
Unusual containers are great for growing moss. Make sure they have drainage so the soil is not super-saturated, but a saucer on bottom can help ensure constant moisture.