If Rogue Valley residents have a love in common it's being outside. In springtime we soak up the sunshine. Once the weather heats up it's a different story: staying outside means staying in the shade. So, it makes sense to put a garden in your shady corner — but be careful. Not all plants agree with us about staying out of the sun. Fortunately, plenty of interesting plants are made for the shade and will happily keep you company on those hot, summer days.
Many shade-loving landscape plants have been developed from forest understory plants, or grow in the margins between woodland and meadow, including ferns, rhododendrons, Oregon grape and many groundcovers. Two understory trees make the "must have" shade garden plant list of landscape designer Jani Lockwood, co-owner of Medford's Lockwood Landscape Designs. The flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) and the redbud (Cercis canadensis) 'Forest Pansy.' Both stay small and are interesting all year.
Jani Lockwood, co-owner of Medford's Lockwood Landscape Designs, insists on planting a Daphne odora in shade gardens. Commonly known as winter daphne, this plant is divinely scented, blooming in March here. These shrubs can be finicky, so plant where they get shade or morning sun in well-drained soil. To enhance the number of blooms, water only minimally in the summer. This will decrease the chance of disease especially in clay soil, where you might also want to plant it 1 or 2 inches above the soil line.
A plant that performs with much less drama is Pieris japonica. This slow-growing shrub prefers acidic soil, so if yours is not doing well, check the pH. Mulching with wood bark, adding sulfur or using a fertilizer formulated for rhododendrons and camellias will improve its looks slowly.
Valley View nursery manager Patricia Carbone likes salal (Gaultheria shallon) in the shade. A northwest native, this glossy leaved shrub will grow in most soils, but likes organic matter, acid pH and water in the summer. In sunny spots, it never gets as tall as it does in the shade, where it can reach 4 feet or more. Small, bell-shaped spring flowers give way to deep indigo berries, which attract birds. Branches make a nice addition to flower arrangements.
If you don't have much time for gardening, using native plants is a smart way to go. "The worst thing you can do is go gung ho on your garden, put in all your plants and then not have the time to take care of it," says Lockwood. "If you think that's the situation, then choose low-maintenance plants."
Another way to insure success and minimize maintenance is to choose plants with similar cultivation requirements, especially for pH, drainage and summer watering needs. "The soil is absolutely essential to the success of a shade garden, or any garden for that matter," says Lockwood. Test the soil pH of your location and choose plants that will succeed in it, or add amendments. Don't forget soil consistency: clay or decomposed granite will either limit your plant list or need improvement. Check with nursery personnel.
"I love shade gardens," says Patricia Carbone, manager of Ashland's Valley View Nursery. "They're my favorite."
Carbone adds azaleas, camellias and Japanese maples to our list. For ground cover, she likes sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) a spring flowering plant with a whorl of green leaves at the top of 8 to 12-inch stems. It likes regular watering, and will spread in the right conditions, but "it's easy to get rid of, not like vinca, where you are stuck with it for life," she says. Lockwood suggests bleeding heart (Dicentra). Its heart-shaped flowers dangle from arching stems in late spring.
Hostas, which also like regular water, are a favorite of both our experts, the more plants and the more varieties, the better, says Lockwood. The range of colors and leaf shapes creates the interest. Her own favorite is 'Aphrodite' (Hosta plantaginea) with its deeply veined glossy green leaf and highly scented white flowers.
Bright annual flowers like begonia, impatiens and fuchsia add a burst of color in the summer, says Carbone. Or choose white. "They act like little lanterns and light the place up," says Lockwood. This includes the oak-leaf hydrangea, which has white flowers that will age to pink and good leaf color in fall. This hydrangea can tolerate drier soils than its cousins, but must have good drainage. These can grow quite large so choose a variety that fits your space.
Make sure to give your plants enough room to grow to full maturity. "Be patient. They will grow fairly fast," Lockwood says. In a new garden, consider the first year an experiment and be prepared to move plants. "If it looks sick and it's barely growing or the leaves have burn spots, you know you need to move it," she says. "There's always that one spot that gets too much sun."
Certainly that won't be where you'll be sitting, either.