Growing Green: Color and Texture in Shady Spots

By Robin Trott 3-25-2014

Gardeners face many challenges, from soil type and slopes to standing water and weeds. For those that have more shade than sun, plant selection can be a significant limiting factor.  If you are tired of hosta, ferns and impatiens, and want to add something that adds more color and texture to your shade garden, here are a few of my favorites:

Astilbe: This perennial plant comes in a variety of sizes and colors, and can bloom in late spring through mid-summer. Astilbe has a graceful, feathery look with stunning plume like flowers and deeply cut, lush foliage that can vary from bronze to pale green. Astilbe prefers rich, moist soil, and will bloom in light shade.

Columbine (Aquilegia) is a hardy (zone 3) shade perennial that also has many native Minnesota cultivars. Columbine blooms in late spring early summer, and comes in many colors and sizes. The delicate flowers form a star of outer petals surrounding an inner ring with yellow centers. Some flowers have spurs that project out behind the blossoms – others are spur-less with double blossoms. All Aquilegia self-sow without being annoying and will yield interesting hybrids if others are close by to pollinate.

Bleeding Heart (Dicentra Spectabilis) is an exquisite, old-fashioned flower that blooms early in the spring. Hardy to zone 3, this plant can reach 3 feet tall and just about as wide. The pink and white heart-shaped flowers hang in arching sprays. Plants form a bushy, upright mound of light green foliage, with a somewhat ferny appearance.

Autumn Magic Chokeberry (Aronia Melanocarpa) is a flowering shrub with beautiful fall color that grows 4-5’ tall in full sun to heavy shade. Chokeberry likes average, well-drained soil and birds will eat the fruit in the fall.  Aronia has also become the new “Super-fruit” and can be used in bread, jam, juice, wine, soap and lotions.

Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago) is a small (12-18’) tree that tolerates filtered shade and is hardy to zone 2. It is well suited for conservation windbreaks, and provides food and shelter for birds in the winter. The fruit of the nannyberry can be eaten raw, stewed, or baked. Once harvested, the berries will only remain fresh in the refrigerator for about three days. These berries can be stored by freezing, canning, or drying.

Shade doesn’t have to be a detriment to ornamental gardening.  You can still have a verdant landscape if you’re willing to experiment with a variety of plants.  For more information on selecting plants for challenging sites, and download the publication “The Best Plants for 30 Tough Sites.”


Robin Trott is a Horticulture Educator with University of Minnesota Extension. 

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