The Q&A Archives: Plants in front of house.

Question: I need some suggestion what to do. We bought an older home with not many flowering plants in front of the house. It is usually on the shady side because about 25-30 ft from the house is a huge redwood tree. Aside from three unhealthy azalea plants, I want to add some ground cover along the edges of the lawn. Can I possibly dig some lawn areas and plant some flowering plants. That's where we get a good deal of sunshine. Lastly, under that tree, what can I do to create some color there? I can create a raised bed there so I can plant some shady plants. Please help. Thank you.

Answer: If you would like to dress up a shaded section of garden with attractive foliage and flower color, there are plenty of plants to choose from.

Some of the hardy geraniums are good for shade. There is Geranium phaeum and its many varieties for spring flowers, G. pratense for summer and G. procurrens for fall bloom.

Violets, Primula, Bergenia, Brunnera (giant forget-me-not), Dicentra (bleeding heart), Pulmonaria (lungwort), Epimedium and London Pride bring spring flowers. All of these perennials are available in several forms that offer variations in flower and foliage coloring.

There are perennial foxgloves in yellow, pink and apricot for early summer bloom. Lady's mantle (Alchemilla mollis) forms highly attractive mounds of serrated, pleated leaves and sprays of greenish yellow flowers that are excellent in fresh cut and dried arrangements. Corydalis lutea, a ferny bleeding heart type perennial, gives yellow flowers all summer.

A pretty ground cover for shade is dead nettle (Lamium), which is available in a variety of different foliage variegations and flower colors. Flowering is from late spring through the summer. Christmas rose and Lenten rose (Helleborus) bring big buttercup-like flowers in winter to early spring, the Christmas rose in white and the Lenten rose in deep plum.

Mainstays of a shaded perennial garden are the feathery astilbes and glamorous-leaved hostas. Both are available in miniature to giant size, and in a wide choice of colors.

While the perennials in a new bed are young and small, plant the spaces between them with summer fill-ins -- pansies, impatiens, monkey flower (Mimulus), coleus and begonias. An attractive floral cascade effect could easily be achieved in several spots by setting trailing hanging basket type fuchsias, in their containers, on upended pots to elevate the fuchsias off the ground.

Gardening Around Large Trees
The presence of large coniferous evergreens like our native red cedars and Douglas fir trees are both a joy and a difficulty in west coast gardens. While the trees are beautiful, and they provide habitat for wildlife, tree root competition and inadequate moisture levels are common problems in any site adjacent to such large trees.

Check the soil first
The only way to adequately assess the soil situation adjacent to a tree is to dig carefully into the area to see whether pockets of soil exist among the roots. If there are nice pockets of soil to work with, plump them up with additions of compost and composted sawdust to help build the soil's moisture-retaining capacity. Then go ahead and plant in the prepared pockets. If you find little in the way of root-free ground, build the soil with amendments before planting.

Plant selection
Select plantings from among drought-tolerant types, preferably native species that grow naturally in forest clearings. A very good shrub for such a situation is Arbutus unedo (strawberry tree, dwarf arbutus). Nurseries offer three sizes to choose from, the mid-size one growing five to six feet (150 to 180 cm) tall. This attractive, glossy-leaved shrub bears drooping clusters of lily-of-the-valley type flowers in October and November.

An excellent native evergreen ground cover that thrives in dry, sunny sites is Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (bearberry, kinnikinnik), a low, shrubby plant whose long trailing branches are thickly clothed in small, dark green leaves. The plants bear pinkish white flowers in spring.

Vanilla leaf, another native groundcover, forms a low carpet of large, lush, apple green leaves in a sunny, dryish corner of my garden. The slender white flowerspikes in spring are a bonus. Some more drought tolerant natives: Oregon grape, salal, evergreen and red huckleberry, twinflower, starflower, yellow wood violet.

Hope these suggestions help you build a beautiful shade garden!

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