GARDEN THERAPY: More Shady Characters – Perennials and Groundcovers — June 2018

Mel Bellar

As I start writing this, I intend for it to be the last installment in this woodland garden saga. But then I never planned for it to be a serial in the first place, so who knows? Originally, it was all about my excitement for the plants in some gardens I was designing.  Then I realized that there was much more to it than just thinking about cool plants.  To date we have covered some characteristics of design consideration and issues with creating a woodland garden. Then we addressed the “bones” or structural elements, which include trees, shrubs, a canvas of ferns (and rocks of course).  Finally, we will talk about the perennials, which are like putting the icing on the cake, or the knobs and pulls on the new kitchen cabinets. Maybe that is a bit dramatic, but you get the idea.

For many, when we think of perennials, we think of flowers.  However, the woodland is challenging when it comes to flowering plants. The blooms on shade plants tend to be smaller, sparser, paler and are usually white, or somewhere between pink and blue. There are exceptions, and you can certainly have flowers in the woodland garden; but using interesting foliage and textures is more important than ever in this setting.

Let’s start with some plants in the red to yellow range; sadly there aren’t many. I love our native columbine, Aquilegia canadensis, which has an orange-red flower with yellow stamen-like centers. There is a cute dwarf version as well called “little lanterns.” It blooms in mid-spring, and the deer don’t eat this native. There are many other columbines with a variety of colors, but I am not intimate with any of them. There are a couple of yellow blooming plants that I like, including the native celandine poppy and the marsh marigold. Both are quite abundant in our area and I have rarely planted one on purpose and have never purchased one. I have recently gotten excited about golden ragwort, Packera aurea, not because of the yellow flowers (which I consider kind of weedy-looking) but because it makes a nice groundcover and spreads quickly.

There are lots of plants with pink to purple flowers that I like and that do well.  Astilbes come in a variety of colors, some bright and some pale. My favorite astilbe is Astilbe chinensis “Pumila” which, you got it, also serves as a groundcover. It is extra-cool because it spreads quickly, AND it blooms in September when most flowers are winding down. I also like the mauvy-pink color.  Jacob’s Ladder, blue wood aster, dwarf crested iris (Iris cristada), Robin’s Plantain and creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera) all have bluish to purplish flowers and are plants that I like. The crested iris is a great accent plant and spreads readily, as does the Phlox stolonifera which is another great groundcover. Unfortunately, on the blue list, the phlox is the most appealing to the deer as well.  A couple of my favorite flowering woodland plants are the bleeding hearts, Dicentra spectabilis and Dicentra eximia. The spectabilis is very cool with its classic little hanging hearts but the eximia is native and blooms for most of the seasons; both are deer proof.

White is a popular color in the woodland; everything from wood aster to May apple.  Many of the white flowering plants are more valuable to me for their form or texture, like the May apple (Podophyllum peltatum) for instance.  I love big leaves and this one has a nice umbrella leaf: it is native without deer interference.  I also love Solomon’s seal (so do the deer) for its lilting stalks. Fortunately deer do not eat the variegated one. Foamflower, Tiarella, is a wonderful native groundcover with white flowers and goat’s beard (Aruncus dioicus) is a dramatic sizeable plant with beautiful feathery white flowers. Both foamflower and goat’s beard have numerous interesting cultivars. One other mention is black cohosh which has a rather large presence and tall stalks with very fragrant spikey flowers. There are a couple of cultivars with dark foliage that are beautiful.

Now for some unabashed foliage and texture! My new favorite: spikenard “Sun King”, Aralia cordata has chartreuse foliage and reaches 4 feet plus in size making a bright spot in any shady place. Ligularia dentata has big round leaves and the Britt Marie Crawford cultivar has wonderful very dark leaves. It happens to have yellow flowers as well, which I do not like and cut off very quickly.  Coral bells (Heuchera) come in many foliage shades; I prefer the deep purple to burgundy standards like purple palace and plum pudding, which are also very reliable.  I also like caramel which provides a peachy-orange color, and my favorite, autumn bride, has very light green foliage and beautiful white flowers. It blooms in the Autumn, providing another welcome accent to the late season.  There is always hosta, which comes in a plethora of shapes, sizes and shades of green. However, I almost never plant it because the deer love it and I personally don’t care for the flowers. I like trout plant (Pulmonaria) – nice foliage and little purple/pink flowers in the very early Spring;  brunnera – great heart-shaped leaves, little blue flowers in the early Spring and a variety of green, silvery and variegated foliage cultivars.

I am way over my word count, but I am determined to put the lid on this shady novella. I can’t sign off without mentioning European and Canadian ginger and my favorite sedges which add softness and quiet spaces in the shade garden:  Appalachia, Pennsylvania, “blue zinger”, evergold, banana boat and creeping broad-leafed.

Saving the best for last:  If I could only use one plant in all of my gardens it would be the big root geranium, Geranium macrorrhizum.  It makes a dense groundcover that really beats back the weeds; it has pink to purple flowers in the Spring, great Fall color and the deer don’t eat it. ~

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