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Gardens Made in the Shade in Westchester

They are the most overlooked and underutilized areas in most Westchester landscapes. But, with a bit of imagination and planning, the shady pockets and corners 







most homeowners ignore–under trees, in side yards and in the shadow of rooflines and structures — offer an abundance of design opportunities and fertile ground for winning plant combinations.

Is there a spot in your garden that is tucked away behind a tree or behind a row of shrubs? Imagine it transformed from bare ground to a secret garden filled with shade-loving plants.  Add a bench or a small table and chair, and you’ve created a destination for reading or sipping a cup of coffee.  Introduce a focal point — a piece of sculpture or an urn amidst a cluster of ferns and perennials — and your shade garden becomes a quiet, contemplative place to relax and unwind.  Consider a gravel path or stepping stones set in grass or mulch. A path will “tell” your visitors which way to go; it will also beckon them beyond the path and introduce an element of surprise to the landscape.

There are plenty of broadleaf evergreens and foliage plants that will thrive and provide year-round form and structure in a shade garden, from boxwood, to hollies, yew, cherry laurels (upright and shrub form), Acuba, Sweetbox, drooping Leucothoe and flowering rhododendruns and andromeda.  Some of the most beautiful flowering shrubs, including numerous types of viburnum  and oakleaf hydrangea (which also boasts spectacular fall foliage) also thrive in shade, as do Itea and Fothergilla.

Several beautiful trees do well in the shade.  Japanese maples add an elegant, sculptural presence to any shady landscape as well as beautiful foliage and color.  One of the best four-season, shade-tolerant, multi-stemmed small trees for the landscape is serviceberry or Amelanchier.  This edge-of-woods tree offers dainty white flowers in the spring, fabulous fall foliage, bird-attracting berries in the late fall and beautiful branching structure in the winter.  Dogwoods and, redbud trees also do well in dappled shade.

If hosta and fern are the only perennial plants that come to mind when you think of a shade garden, think again!  From groundcovers such as sweet woodruff, liriope, Solomon’s seal, lily-of-the-valley and ajuga, to colorful perennials like purple-leafed Heuchera, white or pink bleeding heart, Astilbe, Lady’s Mantle and purple-flowering geraniums, there are numerous shade perennials to choose from.  Planted in drifts in the shade of a stand of trees, they make a showy statement.  Ferns and hosta, which grow in the deepest shade, offer a striking variety of foliage color and form, from petite, ruffled mounds of variegated leaves to shrub-sized plants with giant foliage.  Heuchera ‘Purple Palace,’ Japanese Painted Fern and Hosta ‘Blue Angel’ or ‘Sieboldiana’ offer a winning combination in shades of gray and purple, while the variegated yellow-green Hosta ‘Frances William’ shines alongside Japanese forest grass (Hakenochloa Macra ‘Aurea’).

With many of these shade-tolerant plants and shrubs arriving at local nurseries, now is the perfect time to take stock and re-imagine your landscape.  The possibilities are endless!


Andrea Kaplan, a New York Botanical Gardens-trained and certified landscape designer and the creative vision behind Hedgerow Landscape Design , has been designing residential landscapes in lower Westchester since 2006.



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catherine W
catherine W
May 28, 2010 11:46 AM

Great article. I love my shade gardens. You left out 2 of my favorite eastern natives flowering plants: Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), a wonderful groundcover with tiny white flower spikes. It is now crossed with Heuchera resulting in a spectacular shade hybrid called Heucherella.

The other is Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa), also known as bugbane for it’s insect repelling properties. Native Americans used the root for a host of medicinal qualities. We still use it today to alleviate menopausal symptoms. It has robust foliage and sends up 3-6 foot tall white flower spikes in late summer, really brightening a dark area.

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