Miss Floribunda: Flowers for shade

Hyattsville's tree canopy can present challenges to gardeners, but many experienced local gardeners know how to bring their "shade gardens" to bloom.

Dear Miss Floribunda,

I know where you live! Now that I have your attention, I want you to know this is not a threat. But I do know where you live because someone pointed your yard out to me, and I also know that you are gardening all wrong but getting away with it. Your yard is full of trees and shaded by trees from neighbors, yet you have irises, peonies and roses blooming their heads off, and lilies in bud. I know enough about gardening to know these plants need full sun. Please tell me the secret. I spend my time weeding out unplanted vines and wishing I could get rid of some of the things I did plant.

Impatient with Impatiens, Hostile to Hostas, Weary of Periwinkle and Tired of Liriope on Livingston Street

Dear Impatient, Hostile, Weary and Tired,

I’m almost afraid to tell you this, but you will need to make a little effort to find out what specific varieties of sun-loving flowers can tolerate partial shade. Because of your lassitude, I will share what I’ve learned from experience, research and — most of all — the knowledge of fellow gardeners.

A wonderful Chinese proverb states, “A conversation with a wise person is worth ten years of study.” The most valuable advice I’ve gotten has come from members of gardening groups, most notably the Hyattsville Horticultural Society. My shade garden mentor is Dr. Fox-Glover, whose garden is beautiful every season of the year, although it lacks full sun.

After viewing his garden when his majestic tree peonies were in bloom, I decided to acquire some, and they are the royalty of my April garden. Tree peonies, which bloom before the herbaceous ones do, have enormous but delicate blooms that full sun will blight. Partial shade prolongs their blooms a full week longer. While their bloom time does not go beyond two weeks, the spectacular early spring show is worth it, and the foliage they retain after their flowers fall makes them attractive till winter. They can grow up to 10 feet tall, so give some thought to where you place them.

The herbaceous peonies that bloom in May will die back after flowering, so size is not a problem with them. Some charming varieties, such as the white Shirley Temple, the red Karl Rosenfield, and the pink Sarah Bernhardt, do fine in light shade. You will notice I have my peonies blooming under a crepe myrtle, not under the heavy shade of the maple.

The irises in the shady areas of my garden are Japanese rather than the bearded German irises that require much more sun. The lilies in bud are not the sun-loving Oriental lilies but the shade-loving Asiatic lilies. By the time the Asiatic lilies finish blooming, Turk’s cap lilies and certain shade-tolerant daylilies will begin to bloom. Multicolored daylilies look particularly striking placed near the deep blue hydrangeas that bloom simultaneously with them.

Both Dr. Fox-Glover and I grow the David Austin English roses, which often do better in light shade than in full sun. Full sun bearing down on a Hyattsville garden is much harsher than the gentle sunlight this variety is accustomed to in its native England, and is a source of stress. I also cultivate the OGR (Old Garden Roses), many of which tolerate considerable shade and even thrive and bloom where tree roots compete with them. I have a Lady Banks rose that is actually climbing my maple and a Zephirine Drouhin embracing my redbud tree. However, few Old Garden Roses will bloom continuously through the summer, though quite a few will recur in the autumn. There are exceptions, notably polyantha roses like The Fairy, which is loaded with frothy pink blooms from May till frost. The Knockout roses are also pretty shade tolerant, and they bloom continuously.

However, most plants that bloom beneath trees only do so in the spring. Before sprouting leaves get big enough to block the sun, the plants have enough light to flower. Some just die back into the ground after flowering, while others, such as Solomon’s seal, retain attractive foliage. I am thinking of the collections I acquired through the plant exchanges at the home of  Dr. Fox-Glover: multi-colored foxgloves, hellebores and columbine; ethereal blue Jacob’s ladder and cranesbill geraniums; red, white and pink bleeding hearts. From other sources, I’ve added the exquisitely scented lilies of the valley, whose white or pink flowers are followed by red berries; indigo in yellow, as well as deep purplish blue; salvias of different shades; and rose-, blue- and purple-flowering ajuga. Ajuga makes quite a handsome ground cover all summer, even after flowering, if you acquire varieties whose leaves are marked in different patterns of purple and red.

As the summer progresses, you might forego flowers in favor of shade plants with colorful foliage. Artfully placed Japanese painted ferns, coleus and caladiums can create a veritable tapestry of rich color and intricate design by late summer. Elephant ears, if you have the room, can bring the exotic jungle to your garden. The search for shade garden interest never ends, and new wonders appear all the time.

Just keep your ear to the ground, so to speak, and associate with gardeners who are happy to share plants with you. A good way to start is to come to the next meeting of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society on Saturday, June 15, at the home of Gina de Ferrari, 4306 Oliver Street. The meeting will start at 10 a.m.   

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