Hosta la vista: Plants that make the most of shady spots

Hosta la vista: Plants that make the most of shady spots

Making the most of shady spots is all down to knowing your fatsias from your hostas, says Peter Dowdall.

Nearly every garden has an area which sees little sunlight as it is in shade for much, or all, of the day. Don’t just give up on these spaces as, with carefully chosen plants, they can still be turned into attractive and useful parts of the garden.

Top choices

As with everything in the garden, if you choose the right plants for the right place then you should be successful. Failure happens when not enough thought is given to the correct plants for the conditions.

For instance, if you choose a plant that is native to the warm and sunny Mediterranean region (such as lavender) and try and grow it in a dark and damp corner in Ireland, it’s not really going to thank you or thrive there.

In truth, you probably don’t have as many plants to provide a floral display in a shaded garden as you would for a garden in full sun but that’s not to say that you can’t grow anything.

Look at other features which plants offer such as texture and foliage colour.

Canny contrasts

Use contrasting textures to provide interest. Hostas, astilbes, rodgersias, fatsias, ferns, and some grasses all love shaded areas. Hosta ‘Halcyon’ is one of my favourite of the genus, producing very glaucous, blue leaves which grow to about 30cm in height and these are topped from mid-late summer by pale lavender/pink bell-shaped flowers.

For a more dramatic effect, use Hosta ‘Patriot’ or ‘Reversed Patriot’ to brighten up the area like a horticultural lightbulb. The green leaves of ‘Patriot’ are edged with an irregular variegation of cream and ‘Reversed Patriot’ has it the other way around with the cream variegation in the centre of the leaf.

Both will grow to about 50cm in height and the foliage isn’t as smooth as ‘Halcyon’, being more ruffled or puckered in texture. The flowers which are also produced during mid-late summer are taller, reaching up to 70cm and are a brighter, more vibrant pink than ‘Halcyon’.

Even if they never flowered, hostas are worth growing for their foliage colour and texture and, in my opinion, to get the best

effect from texture in the garden, you must use plants with contrasting textures, — a bed full of hostas, while beautiful, doesn’t for me work as well as a bed of hostas mixed with other plants.

Hosta leaves are oval and rounded to varying degrees and dimensions — depending on the variety — and they are normally flat and quite wide.

Dramatic effect

They contrast fabulously with the dissected and airy foliage of astilbes. ‘Sprite’ is my variety of choice. A dwarf form growing to only about 25cm to 30cm in height, it will, like all astilbes, clump up quite quickly to a decent-sized plant.

The finely cut foliage is dark green, combining beautifully with one of the brighter hostas such as ‘Patriot’ and very open, baby pink, feathery flowers are produced freely right into autumn.

Hosta la vista: Plants that make the most of shady spots

Astilbe ‘Fanal’ is a far more dramatic and showman-like plant, reaching up to 80cm with bright red flowers produced above foliage which is more bronze than green.

There are several rodgersias available and all will do well in moist, shaded gardens but do keep a lookout for a variety called ‘Bloody Mary’. The foliage, like all rodgersias is similar to that of the horse-chestnut tree, though R. ‘Bloody Mary’ is a herbaceous plant which grows to about 70cm in height each year.

The leaves are bronze in colour unlike the other forms which are more green and the flowers, which come during the summer months, are pink-red.

Seasonal success

All of the above are herbaceous perennials which means that they will die back each winter and burst forth each year to give of their best during the summer. To create interest throughout the year, fatsias — and in particular the form ‘Spider’s Web’ — will give drama, foliage colour, flower and berries.

‘Spider’s Web’ has a lovely white mottling on the leaf which makes it more interesting than Fatsia japonica but do bear in mind that you will need a lot of space to grow a fatsia for it can grow as high as 4m with a similar spread.

Many of the euonymus genus will tolerate high levels of shade and ‘Emerald’n’Gold’ and ‘Emerald Gaiety’ are still two of the best and brightest foliage plants you can grow in a dark corner of the garden.

Both will stay relatively low and are best grown as ground cover — perhaps in between the perennial delights so the space won’t be bare of colour during winter and the foliage of the euonymus will act as a perfect foil for the summer-flowering beauties during their season.

Horticulture as therapy

The social, community and therapeutic Horticulture Ireland group (, supported by Technological University Dublin, is hosting a symposium on September 6 at the Linc Building at the Technological University in Blanchardstown.

The theme is “Therapeutic Use of Horticulture; Research, Practice and the Future” and it will focus on the therapeutic use of horticulture in clinical, social and community settings.

Tickets are €45, which includes a hot lunch. Spaces are limited so book early to avoid disappointment.

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