For Certain Plants, the Best Locations Are Made in the Shade

“The Shady Lady’s Guide to Northeast Shade Gardening” by Amy Ziffer. University Press of New England. $27.95.

Shade gardens are a gardener’s conundrum — and opportunity. Plants that like full sun are numerous and brilliantly colored, and their needs are pretty straightforward: sun for at least six hours a day, and water. But shade plants stake out a different territory. There are plants that like only shade, there are plants that like partial shade, which means they like some sun, and there are plants that can tolerate deep shade, which usually means shade under trees.

I’ve come to love shade gardens, because of their subtle colors and the enormous variety in their foliage. In fact, foliage is where shade plants have it all over plants that like to soak up the sun. Hostas, heucheras and ferns either don’t have flowers at all, or have flowers that aren’t terrifically interesting.

Basically the foliage is the flower, with all the color, variety and striking design that we associate with flowers. But how do you get beyond the usual suspects when it comes to designing a shade garden? How do you balance the plants that like just light shade with the plants that flourish in constant shade?

Amy Ziffer’s The Shady Lady’s Guide to Northeast Shade Gardening is a useful primer for both new and experienced gardeners. Ziffer, who lives and gardens in Connecticut, has designed a book that addresses the needs of plants in different types of shade and which types of plants can serve as the backbone of your flower beds.

She looks at bulbs, ground covers, perennials and native species that favor shade, as well as mulching, soil conditions, fertilizing and how to deal with such nuisances as deer, which love to munch on shade shrubs like rhododendrons. And she answered for me a question I’ve had for years as I’ve watched some daffodils come up every spring without flowering. Turns out the problem is not enough sun, so I’ll move them.

When I first began gardening I didn’t know what to do with shady areas. By looking at other people’s gardens I began to appreciate the way they juxtaposed the dangling pink hearts of a bleeding heart with a Japanese painted or ghost fern, or where they placed the tall, late season Robustissima anemone so that its flowers seem to float over the flower bed.

And although I used to turn up my nose at hosta, because I saw the same varieties again and again, I realize that when you find the right kind of hosta, it can act as an anchor plant in a flower bed.

Ziffer states at the outset that this is not a comprehensive guide to every shade plant out there. She focuses on the reliable plants that last year in, year out, but steers gardeners away from the plants that are consistent but that also spread and spread until they are nearly impossible to get rid of.

Ziffer also includes categories of plants to which I hadn’t given much thought: mosses, sedges, ornamental grasses and such native species as the beautiful little trout lily with its bell-like, pale yellow flower and speckled foliage, and the mayapple plant, a fascinating species with umbrella-like leaves that, over time, colonizes the ground it’s in.

For gardeners this is a fine guide to the shade garden, and Ziffer’s style is funny and opinionated, which is what you want in a gardening book — or at least I do, since many gardening tomes, while useful, can be dry to read. A tour through The Shady Lady’s Guide to Northeast Shade Gardening will have you looking at the shady spots in your garden with anticipation, rather than What-do-I-do-here bafflement.

Nicola Smith can be reached at