Utilizing shade in the garden

Newly widened path with Coleus and tall Giant Blue Liroipe. 

I have been spending quality time with my rake – not like I have had anywhere to go! Slowly, one section at a time, the garden is returning to its natural beauty. I decided to concentrate on the sitting garden first. The husband and I enjoy early evenings in the sitting garden listening to bird calls and people watching. 

Two large, stately oaks shade the sitting garden and kept me busy dutifully applying my rake. I swear there are more leaves this year; maybe I’m just getting older. The husband has been good about emptying my large wheelbarrow – just hasn’t been willing to pick up the rake. 

After 16 years the pathways have narrowed with spider plants, exuberant ferns and giant liriope. The pathways were getting so narrow; it was hard to get my gardening wagon and large wheelbarrow down them. The enforced stay at home has provided a valuable commodity – time. I am using that time to reorganize and improve the garden. 

After raking, it was time to dig up errant plants encroaching on the pathways and relocating them to give the garden a much needed facelift. The newly-widened pathways needed a new layer of hardwood mulch. The mulch does two things – it dresses the path way and keeps my feet clean. 

To help with putting out mulch on my pathways and compost in the beds, the husband bought me a new toy for Mother’s Day. A dump wagon! It holds two bags of mulch at a time and rolls easier than a traditional wheelbarrow. It has speeded of the process of dressing the pathways. Of course, these days I’m only good for two loads in the new wagon.

Not only have I been raking leaves, I have been cleaning out the greenhouse. It has been a slow process, redressing the garden with repotted containers. Amazing how much stuff I thought I would use, but there it sat in the greenhouse for several years just taking up space. I freely admit I have some packrat tendencies. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when your dance card is empty.

The garden has 11 large oaks which provide a retreat from the heat of the day. On a hot summer day it will be many degrees cooler under the canopy of those oaks. Their dappled shade has been the site of many an afternoon shared with family and friends.

There are many degrees of shade ranging from full shade to partial shade. The edges of the shade garden where the sun will shine for a part of the day will allow blooming flowers. Look for dappled sun in the interior to place a plant that needs more light. One of the best parts of having large trees – they provide a little extra protection from freeze damage in the winter. 

To keep a shade garden from being boring, use plants with different leaf shapes, variegation and heights. Color isn’t always easy in our part of the country. Heat and humidity keep me from having that zone eight garden I dream about. The husband and I spent two years in East Texas at Martin Dies Jr. State Park. That is where I fell in love with redbuds, dogwoods, beauty berry and early spring violets. To get that amazing color, it is necessary to go tropical.

Luckily, I can have varieties of two of those plants in my garden. We are fortunate to be able to grow Mexican Redbuds (Cercis Canadensis). They are placed at the margins of the shade garden. In early spring they provide a bright splash of color followed by large, heart-shaped, light green leaves. Another Texas native, the American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) grows in dappled shade. It has delicate little pink blooms followed by clusters of magenta berries that birds love. 

Another shrub planted on the margins is Barbados Cherry (Malpighia glabra) which blooms in the spring through fall and has red fruit. It is attractive to butterflies and birds. Add to that an old garden favorite that blooms best in full sun but will perform well at the margins of a shade garden: Blue Plumbago (Plumbago auriculata). I remember billowing clouds of blue blooms in my grandmother’s garden. In summer it is covered in butterflies.

Mexican Turk’s Cap (Malvaviscus arboreus) grows in part sun and will provide brilliant red blooms. Hummingbirds love the nectar. It makes a large shrub. The only complaint I have is all the offspring it produces if happy. Mine are just a little too happy. The tropical variety, Malvaviscus drummondii will grow in more shade and still bloom. The native varieties’ blooms hang down while the tropical’s bloom points up. They are both good sources of nectar for hummingbirds and butterflies. 

For areas of denser shade plant Holly Fern (Cyrtomium falcatum). The Evergreen Fern performs well in shade. The large, leathery, dark glossy green fronds form an attractive mound providing interest in shade. Another tropical to add a pop of color to the garden is the Caladium. There are many leaf colors and shapes. They are grown for the amazing leaves not the blooms. Each year I plant containers with ‘Carolyn Wharton’ to place in shade garden to provide a pop of color. The advantage to planting containers is they can be moved around in the garden. 

Big Blue Lilyturf ( Liriope muscari) is a tall plant that forms a large clump. The grass-like leaves are as tough as nails and will bloom if plant receives more sun. Don’t forget Spider plant (Chlorophytum) with its variegated foliage. The low mounding clumps provide a different color to the shade garden. 

Other annuals and tender perennials to add to your shade mix include Wax Begonia (Begonia semperflorens). Be sure to plant en mass to get the most color for your dollars. Don’t forget Coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides) splashed, spotted or streaked in shades of chartreuse, pink red and deep purple. Be sure to keep the blooms cut off to keep them preforming at their best. Add Polka Dot Plant, Impatiens and Sweet Potato Vine and suddenly your shade garden has turned into a little piece of paradise!

Happy gardening.

Texas Master Gardener Columnist: Down the Garden Path