A Shady Perennial Garden

Source(s):  Rebecca Pickett


Herbaceous perennials usually die back in winter and reappear each spring to thrive and bloom again. They don’t always live forever, nor are they free of maintenance.



  • Good bed preparation is essential for the growth of healthy perennials. Prepare all beds in the summer for fall planting and in the winter for spring planting. Correct drainage problems before planting.
  • Check the drainage by running a percolation test. Dig a 10″ hole and fill it with water. The next day, fill the hole with water again and time how long it stays in the hole. If the water is gone in 8-10 hours (1″ per hour), this site is suitable for most perennials.


  • Dig or till your soil 8 inches deep.
  • Remove all this worked soil and set it aside (your topsoil). -With a spading fork loosen the next 8″ of soil and work in coarse (granite) sand or wood chips.
  • Replace your topsoil and mix in 4″ of coarse sand or granite dust and 4″ of organic material (compost, shredded bark, etc.). This results in a 24″ thick layer of improved soil.
  • Add lime and fertilizer as recommended by your soil test. (Barbara Allen)

Resist the urge to plant one of each kind. Use odd numbers of plants (3,5,7) and plant them in asymmetrical groups or “drifts.” The visual effect of this type of planting will be more effective than a polka-dot or geometric design.


FOR PARTIAL SHADE: (Afternoon shade or dappled light under trees)





Ajuga reptans (bugleweed) ‘Burgundy Glow’,


blue, lavender,

pink, white

4-12″, late spring Ground cover grown mainly for foliage. Several types available.
Anemone vitifolia (grapeleaf anemone)


pink 11/2-3′, early fall Spreads rapidly. Nice foliage all

summer. Also try A. japonica.

Aquilegia canadensis (Canadian columbine) red & yellow 1-2′, spring Better here than the hybrids.
Astilbe arendsii ‘Deutschland’; ‘Fanal’;

‘Rheinland’, ‘Finale’

white; red;
1-3′, late spring Lovely feathery blooms. Needs lots of water. Watch for spider mites.
Astilbe chinensis ‘Pumila’ pink 1-2′, spring Needs less water than arendsii.
Digitalis mertonensis (strawberry foxglove) rosy pink 3-4′, summer Lasts 2 or 3 years. Very pretty.
Heuchera americana (alum root)


greenish white 1-11/2‘, summer Does better than hybrids.
Heuchera micrantha (alum root)
‘Palace Purple’
creamy 1-11/2 ’,summer Grown for its purplish foliage.
Lobelia cardinalis
(cardinal flower)

(big blue lobelia)



2-4′, late summer Must have rich, moist soil. Likes stream banks. Reseeds like crazy.
Phlox divaricata (woodland phlox) ‘Fuller’s White’


12-15″, spring Evergreen, spreads slowly. This native should be used more.
Tiarella cordifolia (foamflower) white 6-12″, spring Rich, moist soil, not much sun.
Tradescantia virginiana (spiderwort)
‘Snow Cap’
‘Zwanenburg Blue’

deep blue

1-2′, summer Blooms mornings & cloudy days.
Will take a good bit of sun.
FOR FULL SHADE: (meaning little if any direct sunlight)
Begonia grandis (hardy begonia) pink 2′, late summer Angel-wing leaves. No dividing.
Brunnera macrophylla (heartleaf brunnera) light blue 18″, spring Forget me-not flowers, big heart­ shaped leaf. Goes dormant in heat
Chrysogonum virginianum (green and gold)


yellow 6-9″, spring Thick mat of foliage. Blooms on and off all year. Evergreen.
Dicentra eximia (fringed bleeding heart) pink, white 1-1½’, spring Better than spectabilis for heat.
Dicentra spectabilis (common bleeding heart pink, white 1-1½, spring Beautiful sight in spring.
Helleborus orientalis (Lenten rose) shades of deep rose to white 18”, February Evergreen foliage. Flowers las a long time. Reseeds prolifically.
Hosta (plantain lily, funkia) hundreds White, lilac 6” – 4”, summer Grow different kinds for contrast of foliage. The shade plant here.
Iris cristata (crested iris) Blue with yellow crest 6”, late spring Spreads quickly. Charming dwarf.
Mertensia virginica (Virginia bluebells) Blue 1-2’, early spring Dies back after early bloom. Nice.
Sanquinana canadensis (bloodroot White 6”, early spring The harbinger of spring
Trillium grandiflorum (wake-robin) None 1-2” early spring Spring delight. Cutting will kill.
Ferns Japanese Painted Fern,
Christmas Fern (evergreen),
Maidenhair Fern (evergreen),
Japanese Shield Fern
None 12” and up There are various textures and heights to try. They offer a pleasing contrast to the leaves of hostas and can fill in where early spring bloomers have died back


  • Best planting time in Atlanta is near Oct. 15 or April 1.
  • Loosen root balls and set the crown no deeper than it was before.
  • Firm soil gently around roots and water deeply.
  • Markers will help identify and protect. Put stepping stones in wide beds to limit soil compaction caused by footsteps.
  • Heavy winter mulch is not recommended here; it encourages crown rot. A 1 1/2 to 2′ summer mulch of pine straw, bark or wood chips is necessary to hold moisture in and keep weeds out.
  • Once established, fertilize your bed with 1 1/2 lb, of 8-8-8 or 10-10-10 per 100 sq. ft. in early spring and again during late spring and/or midsummer. A pound of granular fertilizer is equal to about 2 cups.
  • Water deeply once a week during dry spells. Avoid frequent, shallow watering or watering late in the day. Wet foliage promotes disease problems.
  • Keep weeds, dead foliage and spent blooms removed.
  • Some plants will need staking. Try bamboo stakes and soft jute twine, or cut up tomato cages.
  • When foliage dies in fall, clean it out and do not let leaves pile up in winter. Yep, crown rot again! Give the bed a good cleanout in spring and add new mulch as summer heat approaches.
  • Some plants will need dividing every two or three years, others will not. Divide and share with friends.


  • Snails or slugs: They eat leaves and leave a slime trail. Try beer in saucers or crushed eggshells around plants.
  • Spittlebuq: Deposits foamy ‘spittle’ in crown or leaf joint. Try rotenone or recommended insecticide.
  • Mealybug: Small, cottony spot on stem. Blast off with hose or touch with alcohol swab.
  • Leafminer: Leaves trails in leaf of columbine. Pick off leaf or use appropriate pesticide.
  • Aphids: Clusters of oval green/black/brown specks on leaf or stem. Blast with hose, use insecticidal soap or an insecticide.
  • Thrips: Cause malformed, brown flower buds. Pick off affected buds or use insecticide.
  • Spider Mites: Cause a stippled white or dried out look on leaves. Daylilies turn bronze or yellow. Blast with hose or use a miticide.
  • Powdery Mildew: A white haze develops on leaves, especially phlox and crepe myrtle. Use a recommended fungicide for both prevention and treatment.
  • Crown rot, Root rot: Just about any plant will succumb to these if planted too deeply or allowed to have wet feet for too long.

Many thanks to the following for the benefit of their ideas:

  • Barbara Allen, Master Gardener (Her ‘Recipe’ for preparing a bed is one of many methods.)
  • Allan M. Armitage, The University of Georgia
  • Jane Bath, Land Arts, Inc,, Monroe, GA
  • Jimmy Stewart, Garden Designs, Atlanta, GA
  • Chuck Zdeb, Master Gardener

Resource(s): Flowering Perennials for Georgia Gardens

Center Publication Number: 1

Rebecca Pickett
Latest posts by Rebecca Pickett (see all)

Leave a Comment