If you feel like the only thing you can grow in your back yard is mold and lichen, despair not. A shady garden spot can be brought to life with a variety of eye-catching evergreens and flowering perennials that will produce rich foliage and an abundance of colors throughout the year.
For added texture, the sun-starved gardener can interplant with an occasional clump of flowering annuals, such as Impatiens or Tuberous Begonias—old stand-bys that bridge the gap between a season's downtimes.
Just how shady is your yard? To find out, pay attention to moisture in the soil, because a shady environment may retain moisture within the soil at different levels. In densely wooded areas, where deep shade prevails, you may encounter boggy sites and standing water, while other locations display soils that are just moist to the touch. Where there's filtered light and the sun penetrates spottily, moisture evaporates faster and soil consistencies may be on the dry side. Make sure to fortify existing soils accordingly by adding organic-rich mixtures and composted materials to create a near-ideal environment for each plant.
Here's a list of species that thrive in the shade and can be planted as soon as they appear in your local nursery or garden center. Each requires little or no maintenance and will thrive if soils and moisture levels are amended accordingly.
Hosta lovers embrace the hardiness of the many hybrids that are available to the gardener. Plants arrive at nurseries and garden centers in early spring with leaves still tightly rolled up in 1 to 3-gallon pots, planted in average soil. As the season unfolds, a vast range of leaf colors come into view—anything from pale green with stripes and smooth in texture to dark-green, deeply grooved, and leathery. Depending on the variety, some Hostas will bloom during early spring, while others display showy spikes by early summer. Make sure to read hosta labels carefully, since their size, growth habits, and flowering times vary considerably. By mid fall, leaves begin to decay.
Painted Trillium perennial
Considered to be one of the most attractive woodland plants, it has three pure-white, wavy flower petals, elongated and pointed at the tip, and sports a dash of pink in the center. Each slender stem with bluish-green, waxy leaves grows 8-20 inches tall and produces one or more flower, which blooms between April and May, primarily in moist woods with acid soils. During early spring, you may see other Trilliums at the nurseries, such as the Red Toad Trillium, with reddish-brown or maroon flower petals, which grows to about 12 inches tall. Another stunner is the pure-white Large-Flowered Trillium or the Nodding Trillium, with swept-back flower petals.
"It's a fascinating plant, from the moment it appears above ground as tightly rolled, upright leaves that slowly unfurl to form an umbrella, about 12 inches off the ground," says Jane Baldwin, past president of Cylburn Arboretum Association. "The single flower is white, waxy and forms at the junction of two leaves at the top of one stem," adds Baldwin. Mayapple flowers May to June and thrives in rich, damp woods and makes a showy display when planted in great numbers.
Virginia Bluebells perennial
A self-seeder, it grows into an upright plant with gray-green foliage and nodding clusters of pinkish buds that open into pastel-blue trumpet-shaped flowers (often 12 or more). Virginia Bluebells love rich, moist soils and thrive in the shade as well as in filtered light. They grow to 24 inches tall and bloom by April or May. For visual effect, plant in thick clumps at the base of trees, at the foot of garden gates, or alongside a wooded path. When blooms are spent and leaves begin to lose their lustre, let the entire plant die back naturally.
Lady's Mantle perennial
"The foliage is chartreuse and pleated and holds water droplets that shimmer in the light—it likes shade and nice moist soil conditions," says Baldwin. "It spreads via the root system and self-seeding, and can be prolific; new plant-growth is easily removed and discarded, or, if you wish, planted in other parts of your garden." Lady's Mantle grows about a foot tall and spreads 2-3 feet.
Pussy Willow perennial
To most gardeners, a blooming Pussy Willow announces the onset of spring. When this happens—furry catkins appear in late winter or early spring—before the leaves start to show. Note that catkins with male flowers are yellow and those with female flowers are greenish and a little less attractive. Grown as a large shrub or small tree, it can be planted as soon as it appears at local nurseries or garden centers, where root-systems are packed in average, damp soils. Pussy Willow flowers between February and March, it loves damp thickets and swamps in partial shade, and can grow to 20 feet under optimum conditions. Prune back as needed when the shrub becomes unruly.
This hybridized version of the wild, perennial True-forget-me-not is primarily grown from seed but can also be planted directly in the ground, once tender growth appears in pots at nurseries by early spring. Dense clusters of tiny blue flowers emerge by April and often form a carpet, which serves as an attractive underplanting to early and mid-season narcissus and tulips. Forget-me-nots grow to 8 inches in height, tolerate average soil, and love partial shade. But they fade fast, since they prefer cooler temperatures, says Baldwin. They're also prolific self-seeders and therefore always show up somewhere in the garden. When blooms and leaves begin to shrivel, just cut them back by hand.
Smooth Solomon's seal perennial
Displayed hanging from an arching stem (there are usually two or more stems) are flowers shaped like a bell. These are greenish-white in color with ovate light-green leaves that are smooth on both sides. This beautiful, old-fashioned woodland flower blooms by May or June in dry to moist woods. It may grow up to 36 inches in height. Variations of the species can also be found at local nurseries and garden centers.
Common Wood Sorrel perennial
A low-growing plant with clover-like leaves, bearing white or pink flowers from May to July, the Common Wood Sorrel produces clumps of flowers on each stem. These stems are mildly sour to the taste (but good in soup) and grow at least 3-6 inches tall in rich, damp woods or good garden soil. In undisturbed wooded sites, it often covers larger areas with its attractive foliage and dainty flowers, which a gentle breeze will make quiver on their thin stems. Should this plant drift into your garden setting, let it remain—just thin it out as needed.
Goat's beard perennial
Small cream-white flowers burst into bloom from May to July. They grow in elongated, spike-like clusters that form a tall flower-stalk, which grows 3-6 feet. At the height of bloom, showy flower clusters form a feathery profusion of blooms, resembling the appearance of a goat's beard. It thrives best in rich woods with dappled shade.