Got Shade? Are you living in a shady spot but craving a beautiful wildlife garden where you can support and enjoy birds, butterflies and interesting pollinators? Are impatiens and begonias the only flowers you know that grow in shade? You know that impatiens and begonias have zero wildlife value, but wonder which native plants look good in the shade and give the birds some food, too? Good news! Shade is a natural component in many ecosystems, and there are wonderful, functional, native plants that have adapted to thrive in the lower light conditions that are common in many suburban and urban settings. Let’s talk about them!
Kathy Landis, a Landscape Architect and Master Naturalist in Arlington, VA, was generous in sharing her expertise for this post. Kathy recently designed a shade garden expressly for showcasing the plants we are interested in here, native shade lovers. The entire plant list can be found at the bottom of the post, and of course, the Mid Atlantic palette is made of plants that can be found growing in a wide range of planting zones. The garden itself can be visited at Potomac Overlook Regional Park, also in Arlington.
Plants that made Kathy’s list had to:
- be able to get along without supplemental watering after becoming established
- look good in a typical homeowner setting
- be well-behaved, not overly aggressive
- be somewhat deer resistant, or at least, not a deer favorite
- have wildlife value
Kathy had some general advice for getting started, which included the license to experiment. Each spot, even within one garden, can have differing amounts of shade, types of soil, and abilities to receive and retain moisture. So don’t be afraid to experiment. If you are unsure of suitability, go ahead and put in a few plants for a trial before you commit to a plan. See what is easy for you to care for, what you like to look at, what attracts the most things to your garden. Your ultimate choices will depend on your goals.
Two structural elements Kathy emphasized for the beautiful wildlife garden:
- layering – using plants at three levels
- massing – using enough of a single plant to make a visual statement
Layers are necessary for two reasons: fullness in the design, and utility for the wildlife.
The layers of groundcover, shrubs and canopy fill in the bottom, middle and top of the picture, and give niches for different creatures to rest, eat, hide.
Let’s take a walk through the garden, and focus on some individual plants in these layers.
The garden entrance is framed by a willow oak, and you can see that it truly is a shady garden
The groundcover forming the crescents behind the rock border is Golden ragwort, an awful name for an awesome plant. In spring they sport cheery yellow flowers held aloft on stalks from one to three feet. They colonize underground from rhizomes, so they are spreaders. (See more groundcovers in the list at the bottom.)
Shrubs are perhaps the heart of a garden, and here are a couple of native gems. The Spicebush, Lindera benzion, has small yellow flowers in spring, leaves that turn yellow for color in fall, and red berries, or more properly, drupes, loved by many birds. These bushes are dioecious, so you need a female for berries. Wildlife Garden blogger Ellen Sousa has a great post with more information about Spicebush.
Calycanthus floridus, and Latin is important in identifying this bush because it has many common names, including Sweetshrub and Carolina allspice (talk about confusing!). It has glossy green leaves and outstanding fragrant flowers in spring. In fact the leaves, twigs and flowers are all fragrant.
Two viburnums are also recommended for the native shade garden. One is the Viburnum acerfolium, or mapleleaf viburnum, and the other is Viburnum dentatum, or arrowwood viburnum. The mapleleaf, at four to six feet, will stay lower than the dentatum, at six to ten feet; but both have the same lovely white flowers.
I hope you are getting the idea that a beautiful wildlife garden is quite possible in the shade. Time grows short, but you can continue the walk through the garden by perusing the list below. All gardening is an adventure, but your native garden is also an investment in a sustainable future. Native plant sales are a great place to get plants, support your native plant nursery if you are lucky enough to have one, and happy gardening till we meet again!
~all photos by author~
Comprehensive Native Plant List in Shady Garden
Potomac Overlook Regional Park
++ denotes spring/early summer interest
** denotes later summer/autumn interest
Amelanchier arborea (Shadbush)++
Cercis canadensis (Eastern Redbud) ++
Cornus florida (Flowering Dogwood)++and**
Hamamelis virginiana (Common Witchhazel)**
Ilex opaca (American Holly)++ and **
Juniperus virginiana (Eastern Red Cedar)++ and **
Magnolia virginiana (Sweetbay magnolia)++
Prunus serotina (Black Cherry)++
Calycanthus floridus (Sweetshrub)++
Lindera benzoin (Spicebush)++
Myrica pensylvanica (Bayberry)
Physocarpus opulifolius (Ninebark)++
Viburnum acerfolium (Mapleleaf Viburnum)++
Viburnum dentatum (Arrowwood Viburnum)
Native Perennials and Ground Covers
Asarum canadense (Wild Ginger)++
Aquilegia canadensis (Wild Columbine)++
Chrysogonum virginianum (Green and Gold)++
Dicentra cucullaria++ (Dutchman’s Breeches)
Dicentra eximia++ (Wild Bleeding Heart)
Eurybia divaricata (White Wood Aster)**
Fragaria virginiana (Wild Strawberry)++
Geranium maculatum (Wild Geranium)++
Helianthus strumosus (Woodland Sunflower)
Iris cristata (Crested Iris)
Jeffersonia diphyllum (Twinleaf)
Liatris spicata (Blazing Star or Gayfeather)**
- Tiarella in spring bloom
Mitchellia repens (Partridgeberry)
Packera aurea (Golden Ragwort)++
Phlox divaricata (Woodland Phlox)
Phlox stolonifera (Creeping Phlox)++
Pycanthemum incanum (Hoary Mountain Mint)**
Sedum ternatum (Wild Stonecrop)
Solidago flexicaulis (Zigzag Goldenrod)**
Tiarella cordifolia (Foamflower)++
Carex flaccosperma (Bluewood Sedge)++ and **
Carex granularis (Grain Sedge)
Carex plantaginea (Plaintain Sedge)
Carex intumescens (Greater Bladder Sedge)
Adiantum pedatum (Northern Maidenhair Fern)++ and **
Athyrium filix-femina (Lady Fern)
Diplazium pycnocarpon [formerly Athyrium pycnocarpon] (Glade Fern)
Dryopteris goldiana (Goldie’s Fern)
Osmunda cinnomomea (Cinnamon Fern)++ and **
Osmunda regalis (Royal Fern)
Polystichum acrostichoides (Christmas Fern)++ and **
Woodwardia aerolata (Chain Fern)
Sunny strip (from 11 to 4)
Batisia australis, Liatris spicata, Rudbeckia,
Ruellia caroinensis, Aesclepias tuberosa
Coreopsis verticillata, Lonicera sempervirens, Gelsemium sempervirens
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