The problem with shade gardens is that they dazzle the senses every spring with fragrance and flowers but by the time summer rolls around we are left with little but dormant perennials and boring green shrubs. A north-facing garden needn’t be a verdant monotone if you take the time to integrate a combination of foliar colour and later-blooming shrubs and perennials.
One obvious choice would be Hostas, which are flowering right now. Here I suggest bold variegation such as ‘Patriot’ and ‘Rainforest Sunrise’ (which have delicious-tasting flowers) or even blue Hostas, such as the ‘Halcyon’ I have in my backyard that's blooming its heart out. Not far from it I have an Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’ growing in a container on my north-facing patio. The bright chartreuse foliage pops all summer and it even managed to survive last winter’s severe cold.
For those of you who hate ‘green’ ferns, I have a succinct piece of advice…don’t buy green ferns! Look to the evergreen Autumn Fern (Dryopteris erythrosora) with its coppery-red new growth or one of the many cultivars of Japanese Painted Fern (Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’). The silver and purple highlights of the latter really stand out in a green garden and there are numerous cultivars to choose from, including ‘Godzilla’ (massive fronds), ‘Crested Surf’ (double-crested tips), ‘Regal Red’ (reddish-purple emerging fronds), and ‘Silver Falls’ (intense silver colouring).
Other perennials to consider for summer colour would be the ‘Aureola’ (variegated) and ‘All Gold’ cultivars of Japanese Hakone Grass (Hakonechloa macra), both of which have a graceful arching habit that looks great in the ground or containers. Even Bishop’s Hat like Epimedium x rubrum that has bloomed much earlier in the season has beautifully bronzed new growth that really stands out at this time of year. Another good investment might be the late summer flowering Toad Lilies, which despite their orchid-like appearance are quite durable and zone-4 hardy. The two most common species you are likely to encounter are Tricyrtis hirta and formosana, just be sure to plant them near a patio or pathway so that the smaller blooms can be appreciated up close.
If you are like me and you have a few hours of early morning and late evening sun, then Mountain Hydrangea (H. serrata) might be a good choice for you. ‘Bluebird’ is an old standard but newer compact hybrids are also available from Proven Winners including reblooming types such as ‘Tuff Stuff’ and ‘Let’s Dance Can Do!’. Even common shade plants like Aucuba japonica have cultivars such as ‘Picturata’ with its heavy inset gold variegation, and Periwinkle (Vinca minor) has its ‘Illumination’ — both of which can do a lot to brighten your shade garden.
For bedding plants, the best place to start is with the jewel-toned foliage of Coleus as the intense burgundy, lime, orange, and golden leaves provide an instant focal point — just be sure to deadhead the flowers and these should last until the frost. Of course, other worthy bedding plants like Tuberous Begonias and New Guinea Impatiens can be incorporated into planters that you can hang by the patio or simply place in containers over those bare areas with summer-dormant perennials.
Last but not least is a visit to the houseplant department, which has some surprising solutions for your boring green shade garden. Houseplants such as Caladiums or Purple Secretia (Tradescantia pallida ‘Purpurea’) both provide a blast of brilliant colour to planters or hanging baskets.
So, as you can see, there are many practical solutions for that boring green shade garden, you just have to decide which one is right for you.