Many gardeners and garden designers find it difficult to make successful borders in the shadier parts of the garden. While it’s true that a lot of the showier plants you can buy at the garden centre are sun-loving, actually there are hundreds of great flowering plants which are suitable for – and even prefer – a shady spot. Today I want to tell you about some of my favourites for a spring border. All of them will grow happily in ground which is partly shaded, and are easy to look after.
My first choice is the lungwort. Not an attractive name but a very attractive small plant, flowering in beautiful blues, white or pink. Its name comes from the mediaeval period, when it thought that the spotted leaves looked like lungs! The leaves were turned into pastes or lozenges used to treat lung ailments such as a chesty cough. There are lots of these Pulmonarias to choose from and all are easy to grow.
Epimediums make a useful low mound of evergreen all year, and are often grown for this reason. But they are also a choice plant for spring. This picture was taken in April when the slender flower stalks produce these glowing yellow flowers. The attractive heart-shaped leaves may be veined with red in spring as mine are – it depends on the cultivar. Many turn completely red in the autumn, and they make a good foil for other plants year-round. I grow them in both sun and part-shade in my own garden.
I love blue flowering plants and my favourites in the mid-spring garden are Brunneras and Omphaloides. The tiny, bright blue flowers look especially good next to narcissi such as Tete a Tete or to the fresh yellow leaves of Bowles Golden Grass. None of these plants are very tall, and the narcissi and grass need a fair amount of sun, so I like to grow these near the edge of my semi-shade border.
Planting spring-flowering plants not only brightens up the shadier parts of our own gardens early in the year but is a great help to insects – and to hungry birds such as bluetits that eat them. A good choice is the hellebore, which flowers as early as February in my garden. The beautiful flowers stand out well because the leaves don’t mature until after flowering. They come in shades of white, pink, purple and even green, and many have attractive freckling inside the flower. If they really like you they will slowly self-seed and spread into a lovely group.
Another great choice for mid-spring, if you have moist conditions, is to grow Snakeshead fritillaries, so-called because of the markings on the purple bell flowers nodding gracefully on their stems. I also have a white form. The bulbs aren’t expensive and will also sometimes self-seed, so that you get lovely drifts. They need some sun, but in my experience will also grow well in part-shade. They are very popular with the bees in my garden!
Yellow dead-nettle is another useful plant for a shady, woodland site as it copes really well with the dry conditions that many woodland areas suffer from later in the summer. It increases by sending out runners, so can be a bit invasive, but its easy to pull out unwanted bits and unlike the common nettle it doesn’t sting. You can see from the picture that it’s a much more attractive plant than the name suggests – and there’s a bee having a very happy time enjoying its nectar!
There’s still time to add these plants to your own garden this year. Just make sure that you prepare the soil well first, adding in lots of organic matter (whether your own garden compost, well-rotted manure, or multi-purpose compost from the garden centre). Water well a couple of times a week for the first couple of months to help the plants really settle in, and add a mulch such as chipped bark or compost on top of the surrounding soil to help keep moisture in over the drier summer months. After that, all these plants will pretty much look after themselves!