Heirloom Expert: Best Plants for Garden Shade

Want to know what to do with that extra garden space, under the trees where nothing seems to grow? Doug Oster has some suggestions.

By Doug Oster


Fall 2012

Corydalis lutea

Corydalis lutea grows in front of a container of caladiums and torenia.

Photo courtesy of www.RareSeeds.com

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I’d like to have some blooming flowers under my eucalyptus trees, but I’m having a hard time getting anything to grow there. Any suggestions?

That’s a question just about every gardener has. Whether it’s eucalyptus, maples, pines, or some other tree, there are some places that are just better suited for mulch instead of plants. I often tell gardeners to create a sitting area under the trees. A nice table with two chairs is the perfect garden getaway for a couple. Add a few statues, maybe a birdbath and you’ve got a new garden room.

There are plants that will survive under these trees, but they’ll need work from the gardener to thrive. Hostas, epimediums and sweet woodruff are just a few to try.

One of my favorite perennials for dry shade is Corydalis lutea, common name Cordyalis. It’s indestructible, deer resistant, and beautiful. The plant sports gray, greenish foliage which only reaches 18 inches tall. It’s covered with little yellow blooms most of the season in my zone 6 garden. Having a perennial that blooms happily from April to October is a miracle for any gardener — most perennials only bloom for several weeks. Because of its long bloom time, it’s great for containers too. The plant will form a nice colony in a few years. It spreads by throwing seed, not underground runners, so it’s not invasive. It will sprout just about anywhere, showing up in the cracks of a stone wall or in a pot that was its neighbor the season before. I pot up seedlings in the spring and move them to other parts of the garden or give them to friends.

The roots of the trees will take most of the water and nutrients, so it’s the gardener’s job to supply both. Water early in the morning and soak the plants. They will need to be fertilized every other week with a good liquid organic fertilizer too.

Another option I often recommend under trees is containers. Shade-loving annuals and perennials will be easy to grow as long as they get the water and fertilizer they need. Combine that table set with an area filled with containers and you’ve got the perfect shade garden. The bigger the better when it comes to pots in my opinion. The more growing medium in the container, the slower it dries out, and therefore the less it needs watered. I fill mine with a 50/50 mix of compost and planting mix.

I’ve fallen in love with a ‘Gryphon’ begonia. It’s grown for its green and bronze foliage. The plant loves a shady spot and is the perfect anchor for the center of a big container, growing 3 feet tall by the end of the season. The plant can also be saved inside over the winter. It’s a plant to look for at nurseries and garden centers at the end of the season to scoop up cheaply and either put into dormancy or grow on the windowsill for the winter.

Think about your site, how much shade there is and how dry it gets during the season, and then decide what you would like to try and grow under your trees. 


Doug is the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Backyard Gardener (www.post-gazette.com/gardeningwithdoug) and co-host of The Organic Gardeners radio program on KDKA.