Planting for shade can be challenging. Shade, combined with soil that is damp most of the year, is almost enough to put you off gardening forever. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people say: “Nothing will grow there, it’s too shady.” Oh, really? Never been to the West Coast of the South Island? Or the forests of the far north? Something will grow there – you just haven’t figured out what it is yet. There are some fabulous perennials, shrubs and trees that revel in shade, and some even enjoy having their toes deep in the damp. As always, though, you need a plan. So here’s how to plant the perfect shade garden.
Rodgersia pinnata has lovely, crinkly leaves (think unshaven husband with two days of growth) that create a bold backdrop for the plumes of creamy pink flowers that appear in midsummer. In early autumn, the foliage turns a reddish bronze. The leaves are rough to the touch and there are stiff bristles along the stems.
Rodgersia makes a good under-story to taller shrubs, but it’s tall enough (it grows to around a metre) to allow for other planting in front of it. It doesn’t mind floods, but won’t do droughts, and will grow in clay loam, sand, peat, sandy clay and various other combinations of the above. Not too fussy, then!
Aucuba is one of those hard-to-kill plants that you see in all sorts of shady spots. The variegated ones are common, but I like the plain, dark green variety with the toothed leaves. They like shade and moist, composty soil with good drainage. Given the right spot, they’ll grow (slowly) to 1.8 to 2.5 metres. Another plus is that they’re evergreen. Evidently the males have purple flowers, but mine have never produced any blooms, so every now and then I buy inexpensive, artificial flower sprigs and push them in amongst the foliage.
Soften with grass
There are plenty of grasses around these days that’ll do nicely in the shade, and they look gorgeous planted around the base of a standout shrub. Carex dissita is a colonising green sedge found throughout New Zealand forests, scrubs and swampy areas. It’s good for shady situations under trees and shrubs, and it likes the damp. It will grow to 50cm x 50cm. Don’t forget astelias, either. They’ll do well in the shade and the little ones look gorgeous when they’re mass planted. Try to team them with dark green foliage, rather than lime or yellow.
Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’) is another good choice. It forms a gentle, golden waterfall that demands to be stroked. It will grow to about 40cm x 40cm.
Ferns are a must
No Kiwi shade garden should be without ferns. Many will thrive in shade, as long as there is plenty of moisture. There are several to choose from: Hen and Chicken Fern (Asplenium bulbiferum), Birds Nest Fern (Asplenium nidus), Black Fern (Dicksonia squarrosa) and Silver Fern (Cyathea dealbata).
Create a structure with three 100mm x 100mm posts, and grow a climber to provide eye-level interest. Climbers prefer a cool, moist root run and their heads in the sun. Options include: Chilean Coral Vine (Berberadopsis), Clematis and Chilean Bellflower.
Flowers to finish
Although foliage is likely to be the main course, there’s no reason not to have a few flowers for dessert. Cyclamen, clivia, violets or vireyas will all provide a burst of bright colour.
About Lee Ann McKenzie
Lee Ann wasn’t always a gardener - she lead what she terms ‘a normal life’ as a newspaper journalist and then television producer in Dunedin until the nineties, when she started moving north. Working on various lifestyle magazines in Auckland, Lee Ann eventually published her own garden design magazine, Alfresco, for 10 years.more of this author