A shady border is rarely the one a gardener is eager to show me when I’m out garden visiting. Areas that get little sun or, in some cases, none at all are usually viewed as difficult and often overlooked. Yet, by choosing the right plants for shade you can make something beautiful and interesting.
Just how much choice there can be is obvious when I visit ShadyPlants, a Cotswold nursery run by Tony and Sylvia Marden. Glasshouses and polytunnels behind their Painswick home are stuffed with plants suitable for the full range of shade from dark, dry spots through to those with dappled light and moist soil.
“There are some wonderful plants that can make a really nice garden,” says Tony. “You just need to think of woodland plants.”
One of the top choices is ferns and the beautiful pink-bronze tinged new growth on Dryopteris erythrosora is one that catches my eye.
“It has that colour all summer not just in spring,” comments Tony, adding that it would be ideal for a couple of challenging areas in my dry-as-a-bone sandy soil.
Dryopteris affinis ‘Cristata The King’, which can get to around 3ft tall, is another that would cope with deep, dry shade and Tony also suggests Polystichum setiferum ‘Plumosum Densum’, which has more delicate foliage.
Adding plenty of humus when they are planted and top dressing with leaf mould or old compost in the autumn will help keep them in good shape.
“Don’t bother to dig it in,” advises Tony. “Put it around the plant at the end of the season and the worms will do the work.”
When it comes to more dappled shade and soil with more moisture there’s a greater choice.
Podophyllum versipelle ‘Spotty Dotty’ is a particular favourite and, despite its exotic-looking mottled foliage, is quite hardy in a garden.
Tony also has several polygonatum, or Solomon’s Seal, including a variegated variety and one with a deep red stem.
There are Anemonella thalictroides with dainty flowers – white, pale pink and a lilac double – Impatiens omeiana ‘Pink Nerves’ from China with curiously veined leaves, trilliums, hostas and pots of Lilium ‘Kusha Maya’ just beginning to break through the soil.
“They have got beautiful flowers with a lime-green throat on maroon and are good for woodland.”
He began growing plants for shade about 20 years ago because he couldn’t find what he wanted for landscaping jobs. Then, about five years ago he retired but kept growing the plants.
Today, the couple sell their plants for shade mainly through plant fairs – they attend around 50 a year including Plant Hunters Fairs and Rare Plant Fairs – and also from the nursery, which is open by appointment.
Not everything I saw is available to buy yet; it’s taken several years to get some plants to either a big enough size or to have enough of them to put on the sales table; one that has taken Tony years to propagate successfully is Podophyllum pleianthum.
“You get them to germinate by putting them in the fridge over winter and then they germinate in February at about three degrees,” he explained.
He’s busy potting up arisaema that are just coming out of winter dormancy and beginning to shoot. One, that he’s had for around 12 years, is several centimetres in diameter. Nearby are some that were done earlier and are already showing their rather sinister hooded flowers.
Everywhere there are signs of new shoots and fresh green leaves appearing. It’s a time of year Tony loves.
“I open up in the morning and get that smell,” he says. “The smell of growing plants.”
For more details about ShadyPlants, visit the website.