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Container Gardening: 12 Shade-Loving Plants in My Backyard

Container gardening in my Brooklyn backyard is complicated; much of my north-facing garden enjoys (I use the verb with gently gritted teeth) a lot of shade.

From fall through early spring the shade is complete. The pots receive no sun at all, as it dips below a tall townhouse which casts a long shadow. But, from mid spring through late summer, the amount of welcome sunlight increases from less than one tentative hour to a solid five at the sun’s zenith, before dwindling again as the year turns.

The good news is that my garden is lush, beautifully textured, and a rainbow of green hues. Here are 12 tried-and-tested shade-loving plants that thrive in my USDA zone 7b backyard:

Photography by Marie Viljoen.

Hosta flowers in a shade garden by Marie Viljoen

Above: A surprisingly diverse range of shrubs, perennials, and annuals thrives under these conditions. Some of them have tricky little secrets and sulk unhappily if they are misunderstood, but once divined, the plants flourish. The key to successful shade gardening is observation.

Oakleaf Hydrangea

container gardening in shade Oakleaf hydrangea by Marie Viljoen
Above: Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), a native of the southeastern US, is familiar to most gardeners. Despite its ubiquity, I appreciate its shapely leaves and its extraordinarily long lasting flowers.

Planted in a sturdy pot three feet tall by 20 inches wide, this dwarf cultivar stays relatively compact and is crowded with blooms from late spring. It receives the full five hours of direct sun by midsummer, but can handle less.

container gardening in shade Oakleaf hydrangeas make more plants by Marie Viljoen
Above: Another aspect of the oakleaf hydrangea that I value is that the shrub sends up discrete suckers in its pot—in effect, baby plants. When I see that they have their own little root systems, I carefully sever them from the mother plant and repot them.

In two years of growing this hydrangea, I have propagated three additional shrubs. Free plants! And an excellent return on investment.

container gardening shade Oakleaf hydrangea flower by Marie Viljoen
Above: Another reason to love the oakleafs is that their flowers are transformed gently over months to a pale, spotted pink, before turning rusty red by late fall. In a small garden having this much interest in a single plant is very important.

Bush Honeysuckle

container gardening shade Bush honeysuckle by Marie Viljoen
Above: Another shrub native to the southeastern states is Diervilla sessilifolia ‘Cool Splash’, also known as bush honeysuckle. This cultivar has variegated leaves, a boon for dark corners. Most literature puts it in full sun, but this particular plant (which has moved with us) has thrived in as little as three hours of direct sun in the growing season (and none in fall through spring). Bonus? Pollinators love the nectar filled, lightly scented flowers.

The shrub is useful in water-wise gardening, as it actively dislikes being moist, and is one I frequently pass over on my daily watering rounds in summer.

Aralia ‘Sun King’

container gardening shade Japanese spikenard by Marie Viljoen
Above: This gorgeous Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’ is my faux shrub. Also known as Japanese spikenard, the plant dies back completely in the shadow of winter, but by late spring has sent up tall stems richly attired with attractive leaves.

It provides substance to the back of a row of pots, and practically glows in the dark. It receives a maximum of three hours of direct sun in summer.

Aralia cordata Sun King leaves by Marie Viljoen
Above: The aralia is an Eastern Asian native and the forager in me planted it for its edible spring shoots, known as udo in Japan. This is a thirsty plant, one of the handful of Asian perennials that follow which require frequent and deep watering, to mimic the conditions in which they evolved.


container gardening shade Ligularia japonica by Marie Viljoen
Above: Another thirsty beauty that despises drying out is the statuesque Ligularia japonica. Its bright daisy like flowers shoot up on tall stems and open...

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