We all have our go-to plants—those plants we always include in a new garden. Once our standard plants are tucked into the new garden, the foundation is in place and we are free to linger a bit longer at the nurseries and websites, searching for unique and new (or at least new-to-us) plants for the garden. These are a few of my must-have plants for the shade garden.
Rodgersia: I fist saw this plant in a large stand at the Chicago Botanic Gardens. Since that fateful day, I have added Rodgersia to all my new shade gardens without fail. Still an underused plant, it draws comments and inquiries from park visitors year after year. Give this plant room to spread (3 to 5 feet). I do enjoy the plant’s flowers, but what keeps me coming back to this plant is its foliage—large, crinkled, toothed, palmate, dark green leaves with subtle bronze tinting. Rodgersia adds much needed weight to the garden without being massive.
Japanese toad lily: I like to incorporate plants that make you slow down to really appreciate them. The foliage of Japanese toad lily is truly beautiful. Simple, somewhat fuzzy leaves gently wrap around the stem of the plant. The foliage beautifully balances the rougher foliage of the Rodgersia. In the late summer and fall, gorgeous blooms emerge.
Ligularia dentata 'Othello': There are many varieties of ligularias to try. I am fond of those with thicker, sturdier foliage that resists wilting. I have been growing ‘Othello’ for years without any concern. The plant reliably returns each season, it doesn’t give up on me when I neglect it (I am not as diligent about tending all my gardens as I should be) and it resists disease and pests. The plant’s yellow cluster of daisy-like flowers adds a bit of cheer to the shade garden.
Autumn Fern: This fern is a bit backwards, but in a good way. In the spring, when everything is coming up with a fresh, green color, this fern’s fronds take on a rusty orange hue—a wonderful contrast to newly emerging hosta leaves. Its thick, almost leather-like foliage holds up well in the hot summer days and the plant adds a welcome upright vase form in the garden.
Oakleaf Hydrangea: I have yet to work in a new shade garden that would not benefit from some year-round structure. I can cut back my oakleaf hydrangea liberally or selectively thin out branches—either way, the plant responds beautifully. The texture of the bark, the deep red fall foliage and gorgeous plumes of summer flowers make this a delightful shrub to behold year-round.