Horticulturist Arlene Welsh said that the Grand Ideas Garden in Grand Rapids gave her a lot of inspiration and knowledge about what grows well in a shade garden.

Horticulturist Arlene Welsh said that the Grand Ideas Garden in Grand Rapids gave her a lot of inspiration and knowledge about what grows well in a shade garden.

Photo provided by Arlene Welsh


Picking the right plants can make a shade garden a success

By: Joshua Gordon | C&G Newspapers | Published May 22, 2018

 Welsh speaks to about 30 people May 10 at the Burgess-Shadbush Nature Center in Shelby Township about growing a garden in the shade, which she said people can do at their own homes.

Welsh speaks to about 30 people May 10 at the Burgess-Shadbush Nature Center in Shelby Township about growing a garden in the shade, which she said people can do at their own homes.

Photo by Joshua Gordon

METRO DETROIT — Just because where you are planting your garden may be devoid of sunlight doesn’t mean it has to be without color.

Canadian horticulturist Arlene Welsh gave a lecture on the principles and design elements of a shade garden to about 30 people May 10 at the Burgess-Shadbush Nature Center in Shelby Township.

Welsh talked extensively about her visit to the Grand Ideas Garden at the Kent County Michigan State University Extension in Grand Rapids, in which she and her husband took time to study and explore a shade garden while there for a convention.

One thing that caught Welsh’s eye, she said, was the color that popped in the shade garden.

“There was intense care and thought put in here before anything was chosen for this garden,” Welsh said. “You can choose plants that have colors and play off other colors to look even more colorful.”

There are different types of shade gardens, but Welsh focused specifically on dry shade gardens. A dry shade garden is an area that is congested with dry tree roots.

As it was at the Grand Ideas Garden, Welsh said beech trees are a common culprit of dry shade gardens due to the trees’ big roots, but gardeners can take a few extra steps to make sure a garden can survive along with the tree.

“Beech trees have horrendous roots that are large and are surface roots,” she said. “You can cut a lot of those fine roots and they will regenerate, and you won’t lose your tree that will help a garden. But if you start cutting the large roots, you don’t want to damage the tree.”

One plant that Welsh said does well in dry shade and provides color is a Japanese maple. The plant can come in a variety of colors, from burgundy to gold. Japanese forest grass is another good shade plant, she said, which “shines in the shade.”

Ferns also do well in the dry shade, Welsh said, from the Japanese painted fern and the deer fern to the ostrich fern and the maidenhair fern. 

“Shrubs are bright in a shade garden and lighten up the area,” Welsh said. “Not only do they look nice, but they can help fill in large areas.”

Shelby Township Gardeners Club representative Ivy Schwartz said it was great having Welsh speak to the community, because shade gardens are a challenge for most. But it was the color that Welsh talked about that also stuck out to Schwartz.

“You normally don’t think of color in the dark, but she was listing all these colorful flowers you can put in a shade garden,” Schwartz said. “Rather than shades of green, you can have color in that garden in the shade.”

There are also several perennial plants that can help keep a garden looking full every year. Welsh said goatsbeard is a good perennial, but the best is rodgersia, a flowering plant.

If some plants do need a little sun, Welsh said that using pots is a good way to change things up and allow those plants to get a little sun.

“Use pots near the edge of where you are going to have some sunlight,” she said. “You want to look carefully at where you are having the deep shade and where you will have sun. At different times of the day you will have sun in different directions, so knowing that can help you plant different kinds of plants more effectively.”

The cheapest way to see what kind of shade you have in your garden and where sun will hit, Welsh said, is to buy a four-pack of petunias and plant them in different places one year. Over the summer, keep track of how the plants do.

Other plants that do well in shade gardens and add some color include spireas, licorice plants, Dutchman’s breeches, hostas and hydrangeas.

And if all else fails, Welsh said daffodils are a great staple.

“I have planted a lot of daffodils in my dry spots, and all they have done is increase,” she said. “They love it there in the shade because they don’t know they are in dry shade.”