GARDEN THERAPY: Shady Characters – Trees & Shrubs— April 2018

By Mel Bellar

In February I wrote about some aspects of shade gardens and their creation, and promised to follow up with more thoughts and favorite woodland plants. I got a little sidetracked last month with a trip to Mexico, but now I am back to work and thinking about some new projects with woodland areas.

When I think about making a garden or landscaping a new area, sun or shade, I generally start with the structure. I lay out the walkways and seating areas and then move on to the larger plantings. Keep in mind, with paths and seating areas in a woodland garden, woodchip or gravel paths are great; softer edges work really well in this context. There is generally no turf grass struggling to take over, and the weeds are not as voracious in shadier areas. This makes paths much easier to maintain. I could go on about paths and seating areas—there could be an entire column on this alone—but today I am going to talk about plants.

There is a plethora of cool perennials and groundcovers for shade gardens but trees and larger shrubs can be a serious challenge. Firstly, you have to consider my arch enemy, the deer, and the various other pests that cause trouble in conjunction with the lack of sun. One of my favorite native trees is the pagoda dogwood which has a beautiful habit, great early spring flowers, and does really well in the shade. I often see them in the wild, looking healthy and beautiful, but sadly I have had bad luck with ones that I have planted. They tend to get this orange fungus called Golden Canker which I have found to be detrimental, and the deer can also do some damage. However, I love them so much that I am still on the lookout for a solution to the fungus.

Another favorite is our beloved Amelanchier. There are a couple types of Amelanchier that grow here that we see blooming on the edges of the woods before any trees have really leafed out. They have various names around here: shadblow, serviceberry and juneberry. They are beautiful in nature, but again I have had less than stellar success trying to get them to thrive where I want them. Still, they are certainly worth a try.

I love the broadgreen evergreens that grow naturally in the woods, like the native rhododendron, (Rhododendron maximum), mountain laurel and pinksters, but the deer love them SOOO much (sense a theme here) and I have had a hard time getting them established as well. They seem to only want to grow where they choose to put themselves. Another favorite of mine that likes the shade is the andromeda, Pieris.  There are several varieties of this, but the only one that is really hardy in Andes is the Pieris floribunda which is impossible to find and the Pieris “Brouwers Beauty” which is a cross between the Asian and native species. This plant is totally deer resistant, but my average for success with the plant is about 2 out of 5. With these odds I do not plant them for clients anymore, but I do think that they are an amazingly useful plant if you can get one established.

Still, not all is doom and gloom! Now for some better news and a few shady characters that have worked for me: Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is a cool native woodland plant that can take a lot of shade and blooms yellow in the Spring.

It is not a flashy plant but offers some color in the Spring, shiny green leaves and some red berries in the Summer, and nice yellow Fall color.

Bottlebrush buckeye

Bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) is a favorite of mine and prefers at least dappled shade. I have had success with it under the canopy of large sugar maples. It has a very nice habit: beautiful, vertical bottlebrush-like flowers in the Summer and beautiful Fall color. The deer will nibble these on occasion, but I have never had disturbing damage.

Fothergilla blooms white in the early Spring before it leafs out and has beautiful Fall color. This is kind of a real gardener’s plant and not very common, but I love it and you could too. Unfortunately the rabbits love them as well, so they may need some protection if Peter and friends find them.


Witchhazel (both the native, virginiana, and the Asian, vernal, varieties) can take shade and can grow into small trees with a nice habit. The native species blooms in the late Fall and the Asian blooms in the late Winter to very early Spring. Their blooms are not big and flashy, but my colleagues tend to fawn all over them.  They frequently post photos because they come in a variety of colors in the yellow to red range, and are always the only thing blooming. They are very cool “Instagram-worthy” plants, but unfortunately I have little experience with either; I am going to have to change that.

There are, of course, many more choices for slightly warmer areas, but I don’t like to write about plants that won’t live right here in Andes. Stay tuned! Next month I will finally talk about all of the wonderful perennials and groundcovers that will thrive in the shade.~


Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener.