Diarmuid Gavin's guide to the plants that will thrive in low light
Dark and dappled spaces can be challenging for gardeners, so follow my guide to the plants that will thrive in low light
Ask anyone who's known to have a knowledge of gardening what's the most common question asked of them and, I guarantee, in the top three will be: "What can I grow in the shade?"
It's a perennial issue for gardeners almost everywhere; a patch somewhere in their plot that they despair of because it's too dark - shaded by a tree, a shed or a neighbour's hedge.
There's a plant for every single position on earth and the good news is that shady places have many solutions.
Shaded areas are an ideal growing place for many of our most treasured plants. Think of the base layer of a deciduous or mixed plantation forest. It's teeming with life - maybe bulbs from winter through spring, and certainly clumps of ferns scattered around the floor. Add to that the hardy shrubs which provide cover for so much wildlife and you will discover a wonderful selection of possibilities.
Before you tackle your own dark spot, you first need to define its real situation. Is it wet shade or dry shade? At the base of a tree it's most likely the latter, but anywhere near a natural pond, stream or simply in an area that's badly drained will leave any planting with moist feet.
A damp soil can be easier to develop a planting scheme for, as it allows for a greater variety of plants.
The second thing to determine is your particular type of shade by the light levels. Is it all day, more or less permanent shade - for instance, under the canopy of evergreen trees or conifers - or might it be a north-facing border which receives but a few hours of sunshine? Perhaps your situation is a light-dappled shade all day long.
Occasionally shade is just for part of the year - deciduous trees don't regain their canopy until late spring, providing a great window of opportunity for colourful bulbs to flourish, so think about planting some favourites such as cyclamen, snowdrops, chinadoxa, anemones, daffodils and bluebells in woodland settings. Before the leaf canopy forms a huge umbrella above them, they can enjoy loads of light.
Whatever type of shaded soil you have, begin by giving your plants the best possible chance of success by conditioning and improving it before planting.
Add as much humus material as possible - composted green waste and well-rotted farmyard manure are to be recommended. The same applies not only to shaded areas but to any place you intend to undertake intensive gardening. Humus will improve drainage in soggy soils, helping to create a better structure and 'body'. For lighter soils, it improves water retention, acting as a damp towel around thirsty roots and improving their ability to absorb nutrients and trace elements.
After gaining an understanding of your site's shady peculiarities, you can consider the selection of non-bulbous plants available. The end result may lack the profusion of colourful flowers you would achieve in a sunny border, but there are still really gorgeous plants that actually prefer a bit of shade.
These may surprise you - who knew that beautiful cottage garden favourites such as aquilegia, begonias, primulas, foxgloves, lily of the valley, bleeding heart (Dicentra, pictured above), meconopsis, solomon's seal and astilbe will take shady conditions of one type or another?
And it's also here you find the top foliage plants: hostas, ligularias, gunneras, and a wide range of ferns. Contrast shapes and textures to create patterns that will entertain the eye.
Yellow wax-bells (Kirengeshoma palmata) have distinctive maple-like leaves that are held on dark purple stems up to almost a metre high. Rodgers' bronze leaf (Rodgersia podophylla) is great in a damp shade. Its leaves emerge tightly folded and gradually unfurling into deeply pleated, lobed leaflets in bronze-to-red shades, adding drama and beauty to the shade.
A lower-maintenance option for larger areas is to plant shade-tolerant shrubs such as box, skimmia, photinia, choisya, cherry laurel (prunus laurocerasus) and the sweet-smelling sarcococca. Choose shrubs with cream or gold variegation to brighten up dark areas - good performers are holly, euonymus, eleagnus, and aucuba.
But what if you have dry shade? This is the most challenging garden aspect but not impossible. Some ferns such as the soft shield (Polystichum setiferum) prefer this situation. Lady's mantle (Alchemilla mollis, pictured above) can flourish and self seed. I'd also try foxgloves, cyclamen, bluebells (pictured main), hellebore and heuchera - and what a delightful mixture they could make. Ivy and vinca are shade-and-drought-tolerant and good options for a difficult plot.
If you still need inspiration for that shady corner, take a walk in the wild woodlands and see what mother nature has planted there - nobody does it better!