Shade gardening can be a challenge. Let’s face it; many of the most popular perennials with the prettiest flowers thrive on lots of sun. When I moved from house on a sunny hillside to one with a tree-covered lot, I worried I’d have to say goodbye to some of my favorite plants. But, instead of giving up, I tested some part-to full-sun perennials in the shade, and I was surprised by the results.
There are some sunny perennials that can handle a lot more shade than garden catalogs or horticulture books give them credit for. When I began pushing for shade tolerance, I discovered that, if I dialed down my expectations when it came to blooms, I could still happily grow some of my favorites in bright shade with as little as a couple hours of direct sunlight. Here are five surprising choices that made the cut.
You’ll most often see the majestic spires of delphiniums growing in full sun. I found that I couldn’t give up my delphiniums, so I put them in a mostly shady spot and hoped for the best. They did astonishingly well and, although the flowers weren’t as compactly spaced as on plants grown in full sun, they were still stunning in bloom. Delphiniums in shade will likely require staking, but it’s a small price to pay for the ability to grow a lovely plant where nature never intended.
Variety grown: Delphinium elatum ‘Magic Fountain’
Rudbeckia (Black-eyed susans)
When I first surveyed my shaded yard, I thought my cheerful golden favorites, rudbeckia, were a thing of the past. Then I happened to drive past a yard in my neighborhood where I saw a great big stand of rudbeckia…growing under an evergreen tree. I planted some in bright shade, and they never skipped a beat, blooming like crazy from late-summer until first frost.
Variety grown: Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm’
Brightly colored flower-making machines; that’s what penstemon are. The colors on my favorite variety range from electric blue to magenta, and they appear en masse in mid-summer. In the shade, my penstemon have been shorter than the variety is known to be (growing to a height of about 12-16″ rather than 24″), meaning that I’ve had to keep them at the front of the border so the petite blooms could show off.
Variety grown: Penstemon barbatus ‘Rondo Mix’
If ever there was a plant known to love the sun, it’s echinacea. And it’s true, they’re in their glory in full sun. But they’ll also bloom in a shadier spot, given enough indirect light throughout the day. There will be fewer blooms, and the plants will tend to be smaller than they would if grown in the light conditions they prefer, but they’ll still put on a surprisingly good show in part-shade. Their life span does seem shorter in the shade, but if you’re prepared to replace them every 3 or 4 years, you won’t have to give up echinacea because of a shady yard.
Variety grown: Echinacea purpurea ‘Pink Double Delight’, Echinacea purpurea ‘Coconut Lime’
If ever there was a plant considered a sun-lover, it’s sedum. Yet, in my neighborhood, I see one ever-popular variety growing in shade all over the place. The plantings in my garden existed when I moved in, and they receive just a couple of hours of direct sunlight per day. As with other sun perennials grown in less light, sedums do stay smaller in shade and may look less compact, but they still manage to bloom their heads off in the fall.
Variety grown: Sedum telephium ‘Autumn Joy’
The Experimental Gardener
Gardening is all about experimenting and finding out what works. The tag on the flowering perennial you just picked up may read “full sun to part shade,” but that doesn’t mean you can’t try pushing the limits. There are plenty of gorgeous sun perennials that will grow in shade, they’ll just grow differently, with shorter stature or fewer blooms. Keep your expectations realistic, and then go ahead and break a few rules.