wild day lilies
Image by Sandy Repp

Wild Day Lilies

Color in a Shade Garden Q&A

Adding Color to a Shade Garden

By Pat Curran, Horticulture Educator, Tompkins County Cooperative Extension

Question: My shady flower garden is all green leaves. I'd like something more interesting, but I have too many deer to grow Hosta.

There are many plants with variegated or colored foliage that thrive in partial shade and are also deer resistant. Mixed in with green foliage, they add sparkle and interest. It's effective to repeat them throughout the garden, but don't use too many, or the effect will be too busy.

Brunnera is now available in new varieties. 'Jack Frost' reminds me of a caladium with its white leaves with green veins and edging. 'Looking Glass' is almost all silver. An older variety, 'Variegata,' has large white leaf borders. All have sprays of tiny true-blue flowers for several weeks.

Heuchera, coral bells, has been hybridized to come in every foliage color from peach to darkest purple. Heuchera should be planted soon, as it is relatively shallow-rooted and prone to heaving from winter freeze and thaw cycles. Foamflower (Tiarella), a handsome native related to Heuchera, also has some variegated varieties. Breeders have crossed Heuchera and Tiarella and produced the hybrid X Heucherella, many varieties of which have variegated foliage.

Lungworts, Pulmonaria, are available with different amounts of silvery variegation and different leaf shapes. Flowers are usually blue or pink except for 'Sissinghurst White.' Ferns are usually deer-resistant. The Japanese painted fern is available in several varieties with different amounts of red, gray, and silver. Maidenhair fern is light green with black stems. Autumn fern's new fronds are coppery-red. Astilbe 'Color Flash' foliage also has red tones.

Other partial shade plants available in variegated varieties or species include Jacob's ladder, violets, Cyclamen hederifolium (a fall-blooming corm), and sedges such as Carex morrowii 'Ice Dance' (green with white edge). The cream-edged Solomon seal, Polygonatum odoratum 'Variegatum' is extremely drought-tolerant once established, as is Arum italicum 'Pictum' with its striking foliage until midsummer, followed by bright orange berry clusters, followed in turn by new foliage in fall. The overwintering foliage is amazingly durable and was completely unfazed by last winter's wild temperature swings and lack of snow cover.

Groundcovers such as Pachysandra, Lamium/Lamiastrum, and Ajuga are available in variegated varieties for those with a lot of space to cover (do not try to keep them confined to a small area!)

Yellow/golden foliage can be found in sedges such as Carex elata 'Bowles Golden', in Filipendula ulmaria 'Variegata', in Astilbe 'Color Flash Lime', and in Japanese forest grass, Hakonechloa.

Foliage with blue or purple tints can be found in some fringed bleeding hearts, in 'Misty Blue' baneberry, in dark snakeroots like 'Hillside Black Beauty, in Anthriscus sylvestris 'Raven's Wing', and in several varieties of Ligularia for moist or even soggy shade.

Chocolate foliage is available in perennial geraniums such as Geranium phaeum 'Samobor' and the native Geranium maculatum 'Espresso,' and in Rodgersia 'Chocolate Wings' (another plant for that damp spot).

For fall flowers in partial shade, plant toad lily, fall monkshood, and hybrid anemones, all with nice foliage.

Another element that will relieve the "all green" look is to mix different textures and growth habits. 'Ferny' texture is available in some perennials as well as ferns, and it combines well with coarse-leaved plants. Upright plants combined with rounded shapes add interest, too. Different shades of green can be eye-catching. Glossy green can be found in European ginger, in Pachysandra 'Green Sheen,' and in the star astilbes such as 'Sprite.'

For more information on gardening, including shade gardening, consult the Cornell gardening website or call the horticultural hotline at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County at 272-2292.

Last updated January 29, 2021