A lot of people have been asking me lately how to make their shaded yards more attractive and interesting. Most plants, especially vegetable plants, want full sun. The same is true for many fruit trees, flowering shrubs and perennials.

After a while, I began to wonder why the questions about shade gardens seemed to be increasing. Eventually, I put the blame on Doug Tallamy, professor, conservationist and author (“Bringing Nature Home,” among others). He stresses that backyard gardeners should grow five keystone species in order to support moths, butterflies and other important insects that, if lost, would imperil life on Earth. The key trees on his list are led by oaks, followed by willows, cherries, birches and poplars. Other helpful plants, though not in the top five, are maples and hickories.

In addition to supporting wildlife, what do those plants have in common? They are big trees that block the sunshine, thus creating shade gardens. Shade is also created on the north side of houses, walls and other structures.

Which brings me back to how to create an attractive shade garden. Here are a few of some of my favorite shade plants.

Spring ephemerals finished blooming a couple of weeks ago. After the snow has gone but the ground is still too soggy for garden work, gardeners need that splotch of happy color.

Columnist Tom Atwell was lucky enough to find native trout lilies in a shaded part of his garden. This plant was growing in a wild wooded area in Portland. Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

In our garden, we have trout lily, which has small yellow flowers and bicolor lance-shaped leaves. It’s native and was here when my wife Nancy and I moved in. We inherited the bloodroot, too, but added more of it in a different section of our yard.

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Another early spring flower is pulmonaria, or lungwort. Its polka-dotted bicolor leaves and blue-to-purple or pink flowers just makes me happy. Admittedly, it isn’t native. But because we are taking care of the moths, butterflies and such with Tallamy’s key species and other natives, I say we can accept a few well-behaved immigrants with open arms.

We recently planted wintergreen (Gaultheria), a low-growing, slowly spreading ground cover with shiny leaves and red berries; it’s Maine’s official state herb. Wintergreen has inconspicuous white flowers in the summer, which are pollinated by bumblebees. The leaves and berries last all winter, although wild turkeys, chipmunks, deer and other animals like to eat the berries. With the increasing number of snowless winter weeks we’ve experienced in recent years, the wintergreen offers something interesting to look at in the cold months in our otherwise barren yard.

We also have been growing more cranesbill geranium. This is not the geranium (pelargonium) you often see marking gravesites in cemeteries, but a native perennial; the flowers come in many different colors. Give cranesbill geraniums room to sprawl, as they can be aggressive.

If you are a regular reader of this column, you know that I love peonies. Most of them prefer full sun, but an exception that we grow in our garden is a white Japanese peony. It’s shaded by our red maples and oaks and a neighbor’s Norway maple. Our Japanese peony produces huge, white blossoms for a couple of weeks in May, earlier than the other peonies bloom.

Non-native plants that do well in shady and partially shady gardens are hostas and daylilies, and they are the first plants that many people recommend. We grow them, but – I hesitate to say this because it might change our luck – we don’t get many deer. If deer like to visit your yard, you probably want to avoid hostas, which deer will eat to the ground.

Other perennial natives that do well in shade – I used Maine Audubon’s website as a source for these – include many ferns, goatsbeard (aruncus), foam flower (tiarella), blue-flag iris, lobelia and columbine.

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You will also need some shrubs. You have Tallamy’s big trees that are causing the shade in the first place, and some attractive plants along the ground. You need something in the middle.

With flowers this lovely, who can resist a rhododendron? Staff photo by Jonathan Adams

The classic choice is rhododendrons, and we grow dozens of them. Some are native, but many are hybrids, which the purists say are not as helpful for wildlife. They come in many different colors, and can be as small as 2 feet or as large as 20 feet. Ask me, if you have a shade garden, you will need rhododendrons. There is a native Rhodora, but it can be difficult to find and is much smaller.

Also consider red-twig dogwood, serviceberry, pagoda dogwood, clethra, sweetfern and mountain mint. Some viburnums also do well in shaded areas, but many of them, especially the high-bush cranberry, won’t survive being eaten by the viburnum leaf beetle.

Aronia is a native shrub that will grow in full sun to full shade and produces highly nutritious though very sour berries. We planted our first one May 1, and I’ll let you know how it does.

Okay, I’ve given you a list of plants. Your job is to mix them into an attractive design.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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