Book: Making The Most of Shade

This summer I really struggled with my garden. In the Spring it started off with a boom! I was afraid I had too many plants in my border but as summer waned on I realized I had far less afternoon sun then the year before. My plants chugged along offering a few blooms but none of my high summer plants got as big and lush as I hoped. In late August they received a significant trampling from the insulation guys and I gave up.

I think I need help. I’ve come to the realization that I won’t have the cottage garden of my dreams overflowing with peonies, echinacea and hollyhocks. The learning curve for this house and garden is steep which at the moment is terribly frustrating. Can’t something just grow and be beautiful so I can move onto something else to pour my money into?

I picked up Making the Most of Shade (Rodale), by Larry Hodgson, in hopes of gaining more insight. For me it’s been hard to envision a shady border on an urban size lot. When I think of shade; I imagine woods and wetlands. I only have one tree but my corner is canopied in shade by my neighbor’s trees.

The book focuses on perennials offering a two page discussion on each plant’s profile, growing tips, problems and solutions, top performing varieties and garden notes. Under Aruncus ‘Goat’s Beard’ Larry offers this note:

One of nicest hedges I’ve ever seen was composed not of shrubs but of goat’s beard planted in row in front of a farmhouse. The hedge was full and as dense as any shrub could be and coiffed with beautiful feathery white blooms. When I stopped to take a picture, the owner came out and we talked a bit. It turned out the owner had unsuccessfully tried twice to grow a “traditional” hedge, once of arborvitae and the other time of lilacs, but snow shoved onto the plants from a passing snowplow kept tearing off branches, and they never filled in properly. With goat’s beard, though, the entire hedge sprouts anew from underground each spring, eliminating damage from the snowplow.

Sounds like a familiar problem? I have the same issue in my front garden bed. I’ve tried endless summer hydrangeas and then boxwoods which I plan on yanking next Spring to move to containers because of the snowplows and potential dog pee problem. I’m not sure goat’s beard will be the right fit but I think using a perennial would offer me the advantage of it dying back in the winter.

A beautiful “hedge” of goat’s beard found on Macgarden’s blog.

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  1. I love aruncus and grow it in my garden, but be warned that it offers only one season of fluffy prettiness. (also, mine does only so-so in shade; I prefer cimicifuga) For big impact, try a hosta called Sum and Substance, which has huge chartreuse leaves and probably could make a decent hedge. Pair with white- or blue-flowering plants/small shrubs (like wood asters, fragrant phlox, dicentra, azalea in spring; rhodos, lilies, heuchera in summer; more asters and some astilbe in fall, &c) and you’ll have at least 3 if not 4 seasons of good color and interest. hellebores are a MUST in any shade garden — perfect for year-long texture but especially their exquisite early flowers. Also great is true (not false) solomon seal (get the one with variegated leaves). an excellent shade-tolerant shrub to try is red-twig dogwood, which is a-maz-ing in winter. and don’t forget annuals, which are surprisingly happy regardless of light levels. Fragrant white nicotiana does better for me in shade than sun. good luck!


  2. Thanks Amy,

    I have lady’s mantel and lamb’s ears which do really well and I love. The nepeta does well but I’ve not the biggest fan of it. Shasta daisies did not work, got really moldy and died.

    Thanks for the tips.


  3. There are a slew of perennials that work in both sun and shade, like lady’s mantle, and some of the plants that grow anywhere, like lamb’s ears and nepeta and shasta daisys — maybe try some of these while you figure out exactly what will thrive? Also, while you are experimenting, see if there are “plant swaps” near Marblehead — you divide your perennials or remove stuff that isn’t working, bring them to the swap, and trade with other gardeners (who tend to dish a lot of information about their plants) all for free.


  4. I wish we could trade each other half! I realized this year that the parts of my property that I considered to be shady/part sun are mostly all sun. I know I should not be complaining, but I long for hellebores, white bleeding heart, Solomon’s seal, sweet woodruff, anemones, and on and on … Instead I am working with what I’ve got, and sticking to full sun, heat and drought tolerant plants (hello, Lavender!). I’ll be lucky if I can convert one small corner of grass over to a shade perennial garden. So I know how it feels to have to re-envision your dream garden. But it is certainly more rewarding when you work with what you’ve got and have great looking plants rather than trying to force plants to grow out of their ideal environment. I have wasted so much time and money doing that. Oh well, live and learn! Have fun planning/planting, and good luck!


  5. Oh, you can make such a pretty shade garden with ferns, ivies, hostas, lilies, and maybe the right kind of larkspur. Foxglove grows in shade. I know it sounds funny, maybe it’s just in my garden, but the box and the hydrangea definitely prefer shade.


  6. Oh yes, hellebore! And as I’m sure you know, many lovely historic plants are shade tolerant.

    In case you’re looking for suggestions for the shade garden of your dreams, check out: tree peony, yellow wax bell, monk’s hood, epimedium, Japanese anemone, wood aster, blue bells, solomon’s seal, bugbane, dicentra, and dare I say, New York fern.

    all the best!


  7. This book is very, very good. I use it all the time – I even take it with me to the nursery! And take heart – you CAN have a gorgeous garden in the shade (urban shade no less!) It just takes a little adjusting to more foliage and less flowers. (Incidentally if you want peonies, look at species peonies. THey handle shade and, while they have smaller flowers, they have lovely bluey leaves.) Just make sure you know what kind of trees you’re dealing with. If they’re black walnuts, you’ll have to adjust a little more to juglone tolerant plants. Not a huge problem but something to be aware of.

    Happy digging!

    PS. Now is an excellent time to plant hellebores. You want those.


  8. i too had always thought i’d wanted a big sunny border. but what i found was that it needed more watering, more weeding and overall more care than i wanted to give. i lived near The Garden in the Woods in Framingham, MA and found that walking their trails over the course of many seasons was just enough inspiration to get my own garden started. i started gardening in the shade and haven’t looked back.