Made In The Shade

Hosta happen to tolerate a bit of partial shade.

Modern gardens are shadier now than they ever have been. Ranch houses that were popular through the middle of the last century had those classic big eaves that shaded wide margins close to the homes. Prior to that, tall Victorian houses made big shadows. Modern houses though are even bigger. To make matters worse, lots and garden spaces are smaller and surrounded by ominously tall fences; so there is less space that is not shaded by something sometime during the day.

This is why small trees, sometimes known as ‘micro-trees’, are so popular. They are all that fit into some small gardens without creating too much shade for other plants. Large shrubbery, like some of the larger types of pittosporum, and some of the smaller types of podocarpus, often function quite nicely as small scale trees. Where not too shaded, pineapple guava and New Zealand tea tree are just as effective. They only need to be allowed to develop upper canopies with adequate clearance, while their lower limbs get pruned away, instead of getting pruned to stay down low as shrubbery typically does.

Camellia, hydrangea, aucuba, Japanese aralia, Oregon grape and Heavenly bamboo (Nandina spp.) are appealing shrubby plants for shady locations. Camellias and hydrangeas of course provide impressive blooms during their respective bloom seasons. Camellias also have the advantage of excellently glossy dark green foliage all year;  but hydrangeas are bare and need pruning in winter. Oregon grape and Heavenly bamboo, which are actually related, are more subdued but look more woodsy in bloom, and sometimes provide interesting berries afterward. Aucuba and Japanese aralia do not need showy flowers because their foliage is so bold. Japanese aralia has bigger and bolder leaves, but common types of aucuba are spotted with gold.

Balsam (Impatiens spp.), which is already one of the most popular warm season annuals that is beginning to get phased in as the weather gets warmer, is not quite as colorful in the shade as it is with better exposure, but can be impressive nonetheless. Cyclamen takes shade as well, but will actually be getting phased out through late spring and summer. Cyclamen is actually a perennial that can stay in the garden (if it is not in the way of anything else) to regenerate next autumn. As weather gets warmer in spring, caladiums and coleus can provide remarkably colorful foliage for shady spots through summer and early autumn.

Various types of ferns, although devoid of flower color, provide distinctive and often bold form and foliar texture. Australian tree ferns can actually get quite large and eventually function as small trees. Baby tears is a finely textured perennial ground cover that spreads as far as it has moisture. It can actually get to be invasive.


Mexican Orange

Mexican orange does not actually produce any fruit.

Remember when gardening took advantage of the great climate and soil of the Santa Clara Valley? Single story suburban homes with low suburban fences had generous sunny garden space. Now, multiple-storied homes on smaller parcels surrounded by big fences leave only minimal space for shady gardening. Rhododendrons, azaleas, hydrangeas and all sorts of ferns are more popular than the many fruit trees that were so much more common only a few decades ago.

‘Washington’, ‘Robertson’, ‘Valencia’ and ‘Sanguinelli’ oranges that have quite a history in local home gardens are now not much more common than the previously rare Mexican orange, Choisya ternata, which, although related, provides only mildly fragrant flowers without edible fruit. The modest white flowers are only about an inch to an inch and a half wide on loosely arranged trusses, but show up nicely against the rich glossy green foliage. They can bloom anytime, and happen to be blooming now because of the pleasant weather. Otherwise, they prefer to wait until late spring and early summer.

The trifoliate leaves (which are palmately compound with three smaller leaflets in a palmate arrangement) are about two or three inches long and wide. The individual leaflets are about one and a half to three inches long and nearly an inch wide. Foliage can get sparse on big old plants, as they eventually reach lower floor eaves. Occasional pruning of lanky stems can improve foliar density and keep plants as low as three feet. Mexican orange does not actually resemble real orange trees much, but provides nice glossy foliage that is occasionally enhanced by simple softly fragrant flowers.

Tasmanian Tree Fern

Tasmanian tree fern is more tolerant of significant frost than Australian tree fern is.

The trunk of a tree fern is really just tough compressed roots growing downward through dead organic material left behind by earlier growth. The foliage and terminal shoot high on top is just like any other fern that never leaves the ground. Because such a trunk is porous, it is ideal for epiphytic plants that, in the wild, mostly cling onto trees instead of growing on the shadier forest floor. Even though most epiphytic plants are able to cling to just about anything, many prefer tree fern trunks because they can actually root into them.

The shaggy trunks of Tasmanian tree fern, Dicksonia antarctica, take decades to grow tall enough for smaller plants to be visible below the lush foliage, but are plump enough to host a rowdy party of  clinging epiphytes. Most get only about four or five feet tall, with the foliage standing a few feet higher, although some old specimens in Golden Gate Park are more than fifteen feet tall, and very old specimens in their native Tasmania can get nearly fifty feet tall.

The big lacy leaves spread about six feet wide, and can reach twice as wide in shadier spots. Shade also makes the foliage darker rich green. Like almost all ferns, Tasmanian tree fern like relatively rich soil and regular watering. Unlike other tree ferns though, it tolerates frost.

Mondo Grass

This simple green (unvariegated) mondo grass has been doing well.

The thick clumps of evergreen grass-like foliage of mondo grass, Ophiopogon japonicas, make a nice lumpy ground cover for small spaces. Because it is rather tolerant of shade, and actually prefers partial shade to full sun, it works nicely under Japanese maples or highly branched overgrown rhododendrons. It gets only about half a foot deep. Narrow stems with small pale purplish blue flowers that bloom in summer are not too abundant, and are generally obscured below the foliage, but can actually get taller. ‘Silver Mist’ is variegated with white.

New plants are easily produced by division of large clumps. Overgrown or tired looking clumps can be shorn down at the end of winter, before new growth begins. Slugs and snails can be problematic.

Dragon Wing Begonia

White blooming dragon wing begonia are still quite rare.

The modern hybrid of wax begonia and angel wing begonia, known as dragonwing begonia, wants to be out in the garden like wax begonia, but like angel wing begonia, needs to be sheltered from direct sun exposure in summer. This time of year, it also needs shelter from frost. It gets two or three feet high and wide, and makes quite an impressive display with abundant red or pink flowers against glossy foliage. A white blooming cultivar became available only recently. Pruning scraps are easy to root as cuttings.

Ferns Are For Distinctive Foliage

Rich green ferns provide distinctive texture.

Ferns are an odd group. They lack the color or fragrance of flowers, or the branch structure of shrubbery, trees or vines. Very few turn color in autumn. They provide only green foliage. Yet, as simple as this seems, the generally evergreen foliage that ferns provide is some of the most distinctive foliage that can be found in the garden.

With few exceptions, ferns are richly deep green. Only a few are lighter green or almost yellowish. The leaves, which are known as ‘fronds’, can be soft and papery, or coarse and tough. The fronds of most ferns are pinnately divided into neatly arranged leaflets; and many ferns have leaflets that are intricately lobed. Some ferns have leaves with more palmate symmetry. A few ferns actually have undivided leaves.

(Pinnate symmetry involves a central midrib or midvein to each leaf, or a central rachis that supports lateral leaflets. Radial symmetry involves multiple midveins or rachi that radiate outward from the centers of individual leaves.)

The Australian tree fern is the largest of the common ferns. It develops a broad canopy of long fronds on top of a trunk that can launch it as high as a two story home. Both the fronds and trunk of the Tasmanian tree fern are shorter and stouter. Other tree ferns are rare. The trunks are not really stems, but are thick accumulations of roots dispersed through decomposed stem tissue.

The staghorn fern is an epiphyte that naturally clings (nonparasitically) to trunks and limbs of trees. The flared upper fronds collect foliar litter that falls from the trees above to sustain the roots within. In home gardens, it is popularly grown on wooden plaques or hung like hanging potted plants, but without a pot.

Some ferns can be grown as houseplants like the classic Boston fern, which cascades softly from a hanging pot. Maidenhair fern is popular for intricate foliage on wiry rachi (leaf stems). Squirrel foot fern has lacy foliage and interestingly fuzzy rhizomes that creep over the edge of a pot.

Since almost all ferns are understory plants that naturally live on or near a forest floor below a higher canopy of trees, they are generally quite tolerant of shade. In fact, most prefer at least some sort of partial shade. This is quite an advantage for spots in the garden that are too shady for other plants. Also, many ferns can disperse their roots into soil that is already occupied by more substantial plants, even if the more substantial plants happen to also be making the particular spot too shady for other plants. In other words, they play well with others.

However, many ferns are more demanding than other plants are in regard to soil quality and watering. They perform best with rich and well drained soil, and regular watering. Sickly ferns generally respond well to fertilizer; but too much fertilizer can burn foliage. Old leaves may need to be groomed out if they do not naturally get overwhelmed by new foliage.

Rabbit Foot Fern


Rabbit foot fern has lacy leaves.

Rabbit foot fern, Davallia fejeensis, is one of those few plants that actually seems to be happier in pots, particularly unglazed terracotta pots that stay damp where its oddly fuzzy rhizomes creep over the edges. Besides, pots have the advantage of portability, so that appealing plants can be brought into the home as houseplants, even if only for a few months at a time. Rabbit foot ferns that lose leaves because the air in the home is too dry should recover if moved to a shady and humid spot out in the garden for a while.

The fuzzy rhizomes are as appealing as the foliage, and can creep a foot or even more if they wrap around a pot. They rot if buried, so should be spread out over the surface of the potting soil when small plants get put into larger pots. The very lacy foliage can get a foot deep in damp and partly shady spots. Foliage is shorter and more dense with more sunlight.

Scotch Moss

Sctoch moss resembles Irish moss, but is lighter yellowish green rather than dark green.

Too much water can be as much of a problem as not enough. Too much direct sun exposure can likewise be as much of a problem as not enough sunlight. Scotch moss, Sagina subulata ‘Aurea’, wants regular but not excessive watering, and only a bit of shade without darkness. To propagate, pieces with roots can be torn from healthy plants and ‘plugged’ (planted) as new plants where more are desired in early spring or autumn.

The remarkably finely textured and dense foliage makes a nicely refined ground cover for confined spots, or fills in the spaces between stones in a wall or walkway. It gets only about an inch deep, with tiny and obscured stems that get no longer than four inches. Stems develop roots where they touch the ground to creep any farther. The tiny and narrow leaves do not get much longer than a quarter inch. Tiny white flowers that bloom late in spring may not get noticed. What distinguishes Scotch moss from richly deep green Irish moss is that it is instead yellow or almost chartreuse.

Leopard Plant

Leopard plant looks like it would be at home in the garden of Kermit the Frog.

The differences between false ligularia (Farfugium spp.) and real ligularia (Ligularia spp.) are so vague that the the names are commonly interchangeable. Leopard plant happens to be a real Ligularia japonica. The round and very glossy leaves are dark green with random spots of sunny yellow. Mature plants form rather dense foliar mounds about a foot wide and nearly as high. Prominent floral trusses that bloom in late summer or early autumn are a pleasant surprise, even though the small and sometimes feeble daisy flowers are typically only dingy gold, and often have brownish centers. Both ligularia and false ligularia are understory plants that naturally prefer the shelter of larger plants, so they prefer partial shade. They also like relatively rich soil and regular watering, although once established, they can recover efficiently if they happen to briefly get dry enough to wilt.

Crested Ligularia

Crested ligularia is not what it seems.

There are so many excellent ligularia to choose from. Crested ligularia is not one of them. Although it is an excellent and distinctive perennial, it is not really a ligularia. It is Farfugium japonicum ‘Cristata’ (which actually sounds more like a hybrid of a Volkswagen and a Toyota). The slightly fuzzy and coarsely ruffled rounded leaves form grayish green mounds more than a foot high and wide. Gold trusses of small daisy flowers bloom late in summer or early in autumn. Regular watering and partial shade keep foliage full. Harsh exposure can discolor foliage during the warmest summer weather. Frost is not often a problem.