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Perennials for Sun and Shade

Here are some of my favorite perennial combinations for use in sunny and shady garden beds and borders. Different light conditions will require different plants if you want your garden to thrive.

Full Shade

The back of my house faces northeast. It gets a bit of reflected light but virtually no direct sunlight. A five- foot-deep bed lies between a stone walkway and the house. I have had success edging this bed with shiny-leaved European wild ginger (Asarum europaeum) and fuzzy, ruffle-leaved lady's mantle (Alchemilla mollis). Lady's mantle sends up drifts of chartreuse flowers in early June. This bed also contains coral bells 'Purple Palace' (Heuchera), twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla) and several varieties of hosta. Coral bells 'Purple Palace' flowers are not significant, but their leaves add an accent of bronzy red. Twinleaf's eight-petaled, white flowers appear in late May for just a day or two. Twinleaf's double leaves add a quirky interest to the bed, fluttering daintily like butterfly's wings. Watch for their seed pods, which look like tiny lidded trash barrels. As their seeds spread, little groupings of twinleaf will appear throughout the bed. Miniature goatsbeard (Aruncus aethusifolius) has delicate, lacy foliage. It has also produced many offspring. Old-fashioned bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis) creates a sensation of pink and white blooms from early May to mid-June. White false indigo (Baptisia leucantha) grows into a large mound and balances the wide-spreading bleeding heart. The vivid green foliage is worthwhile even after the white, pea-shaped blooms are spent.

Medium Shade

  Foam flower photo by Beth Schroeder

Like many houses in Newton, my property is bordered by trees. These trees create a woodland atmosphere with dappled sunlight. Wildflowers thrive in these conditions. Edging plants include Canadian wild ginger (Asarum canadensis), bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), and lungwort (Pulmonaria saccharata). Wild ginger produces maroon flowers close to the soil. It is thought that beetles pollinate this plant. Two of my favorite lungwort varieties are the silver-leaved 'British Sterling' and the silver-spotted leaves of 'Mrs. Moon'. Lungwort blooms in early spring. The flowers begin as pink and turn to sky-blue. When lungwort is happy in its surroundings, you will be gifted with many little lungworts to transplant. Epimedium grows in dry conditions where little else will survive. It comes in many varieties, from the larger red-blooming Epimedium rubrum to the more delicate white-blooming Epimedium x youngianum. Foam flower (Tiarella) is one of my favorite shade plants. Many attractive varieties are available including "Jeepers Creepers' and 'Tiger Stripe'. Their pinkish-white flower spires create a wave of loveliness in the spring. Wild bleeding heart's (Dicentra eximia) pink blooms appear from late spring until fall. False Solomon's seal (Smilacina racemosa) puts on a show in the spring with clusters of fragrant white flowers at the ends of their arched stems and with berries that turn bright red in the fall. Background plants include four-foot tall, white-blooming goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus), three- to six-foot tall snakeroot (Cimicifuga racemosa, renamed "Actaea") with its white flowering spires, and five-foot tall great Solomon's seal (Polygonatum cummutatum) .


The horseshoe-shaped bed in the middle of my backyard receives the most sun. This is where two groupings of peonies flourish. One group of an unknown variety, inherited with this property, has flowers that are soft pink edged in red. The other grouping is Paeonia 'Festiva Maxima' with white petals edged in red. Wild geraniums (Geranium maculatum) and many varieties of columbines pop up in different locations. I've "borrowed" columbine seeds from many neighbors and friends to scatter in this bed. Red Oriental poppies, also inherited with the property, create a big splash of color in the beginning of June. Siberian iris (Iris sibirica), bearded iris, daylilies and Sedum 'Autumn Joy' fill out the bed. False blue indigo (Baptisia pendula) creates a shrub-like mound, and a big stand of switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) creates an off-centered exclamation point behind the sedum. Of course there are far too many perennials to mention or include in any one particular garden, so I wish you all happy hunting at your local garden centers. Enjoy the many possibilities and be sure to read the plant tags to see what light conditions your new plants prefer. There are many excellent perennial reference books. Native Plants for North American Gardens by Allan M. Armitage and Gardening with Perennials Month by Month by Joseph Hudak are two of my favorites.

Beth Schroeder


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