The Garden Guru: These plants are cool in the shade

Posted Sunday, Aug. 18, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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When your landscape is basically all shaded, your whole game plan changes. Dreams of the perfect turf, croquet and running around barefoot pretty much go by the boards. No self-respecting lawn grass will put up with full shade. Neither will most flowering plants.

And that’s about when many gardeners throw up their arms in despair. “Oh, what can I do? I thought I wanted shade, and now I can’t get anything to grow.” (Insert image of wringing hands here.)

The good news is that you have lots of options. In fact, shade becomes a grand opportunity for you, the hero of all fine designs. You just have to reset your sails, and like Columbus, set off for a New World.

Let’s start with shrubs. Some must have full or nearly full sunlight. As with lawn grasses, that translates into a requirement of 6 or 8 hours of direct sunlight daily. The list of sunny shrubs includes many of our most common evergreen types and most of our flowering shrubs.

But there are other shrubs that do famously in areas that have little or no direct sunlight. Among the best are the many types of hollies, including (in order of increasing height at maturity) dwarf yaupon, dwarf Chinese, Carissa, dwarf Burford, Needlepoint (Willowleaf), Burford, Robin, Oakland and Oak Leaf, weeping yaupon, Nellie R. Stevens, yaupon and Warren’s Red possumhaw.

Varieties such as Foster’s, Savannah and East Palatka, although sometimes seen in the local trade, are not well suited to our alkaline soils.

There is so much variation in the growth forms and looks of the hollies, that many gardeners have done entire landscapes using hollies almost exclusively.

Let’s assume, though, that you want something more than just hollies in your surroundings. Pittosporums do well in part shade (but can be hurt by extreme cold). The several types of nandinas grow well in the shade, and if trees go bare in the winter to let the sun reach the nandinas’ foliage, you’re likely to see rich reds and maroons in their leaves. Aucubas must have full shade, and that’s the best lighting for Japanese maples as well. Oakleaf hydrangeas are large and bold shrubs that are noted for their giant white floral heads in late spring and their rich red fall color each November. They do well in any moist, shady location. Rusty blackhaw viburnum, sweet viburnum (another winter-vulnerable plant) and Eastern snowballs add to the list of shrubs that perform best in the shade.

But none of these addresses what we might do in lieu of lawn grass. Even St. Augustine won’t hold up to the lack of direct sunlight, and so we’re still left with bare soil. What low plants might we consider to cover the soil?

Easiest of all the shade ground covers is mondograss, also known as monkey grass and lilyturf. It grows to 6 to 8 inches deep and has a soft, grasslike appearance. It’s good on slopes, and tolerates anything from heavy shade to half a day (morning) of direct sun. Its flowers are inconspicuous.

Liriope is the big sister to mondograss. Liriope’s bolder blades are as wide as a pencil, and its summer flower spikes are lavender (a couple of varieties are white-flowering), followed by large purple-black berries. It makes a nice ground cover or edging if you want something a bit taller than mondograss.

Dwarf mondograss goes the other direction. It stays less than 3 or 4 inches tall at maturity, making it probably the lowest ground cover we grow. But it’s also slow to spread, so it’s best used as a low border in rock gardens and other smaller spaces where an extremely sculptured look is desired.

Two of our best full-sun ground covers also do quite well in the shade. Asian jasmine and purple wintercreeper euonymus are good choices when you want a sprawling, spreading type of plant. Dead nettle (Lamium) is an unusual but dependable option. Ajuga and English ivy are both candidates, but because of disease problems, each should be planted in limited areas.

Wood ferns and aspidistras are two knee-high clumping plants that can be used as tall ground covers. But that’s where any similarity between the two plants ends. Ferns bring the lightest, airiest texture to their surroundings. Aspidistra leaves are 18 inches long and 4 inches wide. They are ultimately bold-textured. In fact, the two plants are so different that they look good when planted alongside one another.

The surfaces you choose for paths, walkways and patios will also provide a great deal of visual interest, as can garden art and garden containers. Spotlight your shade with colorful foliage (crotons, coleus, caladiums, sansevierias, aglaonemas, peperomias, etc.) and shade-tolerant flowers such as begonias, columbines and summer phlox, among many others.

Neil Sperry publishes “Gardens” magazine and hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sunday on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227.

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