Shaded gardens: A blessing or a curse

Published 9:00 am Sunday, December 27, 2015

Shade-loving plants like fuchsia, astilbe, impatiens and wildflowers have had to adjust to the continually changing sun/shade conditions. - Carol Hegel Lang/Albert Lea Tribune

Shade-loving plants like fuchsia, astilbe, impatiens and wildflowers have had to adjust to the continually changing sun/shade conditions. – Carol Hegel Lang/Albert Lea Tribune

Serendipity Gardens by Carol Hegel Lang

Had this been a topic I was writing about some 40-plus years ago, my answer would have been that shade gardens are a curse. You see when I started gardening our entire yard was covered under the arms of a magnificent oak tree that draped its branches across not only our yard, but the neighbors on either side of us. At that time, if I wanted to grow geraniums or any other sun-loving plant it was in a container next to the front of the garage doors or in a whiskey barrel up against the south side of the house between the driveway and the house where the sun beat down relentlessly.

Carol Hegel Lang

Carol Hegel Lang

In the back yard, which had a privacy fence on three sides of it, I could grow impatiens in pots or hanging baskets of fuchsia or asparagus fern off the hooks on the fence that my husband put in for me. Begonias were really the only other plants that got enough filtered light to bloom in this landscape. At the time I wasn’t a very experienced gardener. Just dealing with the shade and the clay soil almost made me rethink gardening. My husband worked for the utility company and when they would dig holes they often found old bricks. He would toss them in the back of his truck and bring them home for me. Ever so slowly the pile of bricks grew, and one day we had enough to make a small area where I could sit pots of flowers that were in a less shady spot.

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It was like winning the landscaping lottery because I could have many more pots of brightly colored flowers in the yard. About that same time we also added a few landscape blocks to make small elevated gardens along the fence. In these tiny 4-foot-by-6-foot gardens I could plant more shade-loving flowers and the dogs wouldn’t trample them. The flower bed along the west wall became a wildflower garden with trillium, bleeding hearts, snow-on-the mountain, coleus, impatiens, columbine, Dutchman’s breeches, viola, Virginia bluebells and pulmonaria. The colorful flowers were a blessing to this beginning gardener.

As the years went on the oak tree had to come down. Numerous storms had wreaked havoc with the old gentlemen I didn’t know how wonderful it would be to finally have sun to grow any flowers I wanted. At this point very little shade was found in the backyard, and I went wild planting flowers that loved sunlight. Even the grass was finally able to establish itself and grow thick and green. I went crazy planting phlox, lilies, delphiniums, iris and daylilies.

During this time I expanded the gardens along the south privacy fence where they would have sun from noon until late afternoon. The shade-loving pagoda dogwood, which loves to be an understory tree, was faced with sun most of the day now and it was limping along trying to adjust to the new conditions. The Japanese maple was also getting full sun and it also preferred the partial shade the oak had provided.

After a few years I began to notice the trees in our neighbor’s yard had really taken off now that my oak tree wasn’t shading them. Late afternoon shade began to creep back into my gardens again, and I wondered how those sun-loving perennials would take to it. Now the only place with total sun was along the driveway.

It was amazing how the perennials and trees adjust to the conditions that are thrown at them and those sun-loving perennials have done just fine. Over the years I have added many more gardens and the sun/shade conditions are constantly changing just as I have in becoming a more knowledgeable gardener. I have come to know and love many lovely shade tolerant plants and added to the flower beds. Tiarella was a total unknown to me and now it graces my shade garden along with the astilbe, brunnera macrophylla, hydrangeas and many other shade lovers. I have to say I am obsessed with all of them. As new plants and shrubs are introduced to the gardeners I am sure many of them will be trialed in my gardens in the future. Some will stay while others will find homes in friends’ gardens that are better suited to them. Shade or sun, we have so many choices available to us.

“I try to avoid looking forward or backward, and try to keep looking upward.” — Charlotte Bronte


Carol Hegel Lang is a green thumb residing in Albert Lea. Her column appears weekly. Email her at