Favorite Shade Plants

This Virginia Beach garden began long before the current homeowners came on board.

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Mac Houfek at work in her garden

Set on 2-1/2 acres a few blocks from the oceanfront of Virginia Beach, Mac Houfek's garden is a mix of formal and natural styles. In front of her two-story house, which borders a golf course, the plantings and hardscapes are decidedly in the French tradition of parterres within geometric lines. On the side of the house is a new Charleston-style garden with white-washed brick walls to match the house. With its boxwood hedges and fountain of the mythical god Pan, this area was originally planned as a shade garden, but in September 2003, Hurricane Isabel took a direct hit at Virginia Beach and left that side garden in full sun.

The informal shade garden in the backyard, which stretches beneath an unusually large, 100-year-old wild cherry tree, is planted with shade-loving perennials and shrubs. Beyond this garden with its winding paths is the golf course.

Houfek was fortunate to have inherited many camellias and azaleas — years' worth — in several woodland areas on each side of the house. "This property has had a half-century of gardeners who left their mark on it. Our garden had good bones when we bought it."

She was lucky, too, to be the beneficiary of four large, cone-shaped boxwoods, which form the anchor for an enclosed white garden where roses and peonies and other white flowers grow. Other distinctive areas are the "hodge-podge" garden and the chartreuse and burgundy foliage garden.

Houfek is a plant collector and strives to have interesting plants with varied foliage and texture. All of the plants listed here either prefer shady conditions or at least tolerate partial shade.

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Southern Indica azalea (Rhododendron x 'George L. Taber')
This is probably the most popular and the hardiest of the Southern Indica azaleas. The large, evergreen shrubs have a spreading habit. In spring (March, April or early May, depending on location), the plant is covered in large flowers (three inches in diameter) that resemble orchids. The blooms are light, variegated pink with dots of deep pink. Shrubs can typically reach six feet high by seven feet wide. Hardy to USDA Zone 7b.

How to use it: For great swaths of color for two weeks in spring. A bench looks great set in front of a spread of 'George L. Tabor'. Don't put this azalea where you'll have to chop it constantly to keep it in bounds.

Cultivation: Plant in filtered sun or shade in acid soil that is well-drained. Prune after flowering. If you prune after the first of June, you may be cutting off next year's buds.

Source: Meyer's Nurseries

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Bearsfoot hellebore (Helleborus foetidus). Native to western and southern Europe, this winter-blooming plant has deeply cut, evergreen foliage with four to nine narrow, dark leaflets. Cup-shaped, light green nodding flowers appear on one to two foot high plants, beginning in January or February and lasting until April and May. Sometimes the flowers are edged in maroon. Helleborus foetidus has slightly malodorous blossoms, thus the botanical name "foetidus," or bad-smelling. This herbaceous perennial is hardy to USDA Zone 5 or 6. The plant sometimes languishes in the heat of Zone 8.

How to use it: In a mixed shade border, along with ferns and hostas.

Cultivation: Plant in moist, well-drained woodland soil in light shade. Once established, Hellborus foetidus does not like to be disturbed, and if moved, may take a long time to grow well again. The clumps will spread slowly by seed.

Source: Munchkin Nursery & Gardens

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Red spurge (Euphorbia x martinii). This evergreen shrub/perennial has narrow, lanceolate foliage infused with red-purple on new growth. The cultivar 'Red Martin' has especially brilliant maroon foliage and stems. In spring, the plant bears chartreuse floral bracts. This particular hybrid is a cross between Euphorbia amygdaloides and Euphorbia characias). The plant is 24 inches tall by 20 inches wide and is hardy in USDA Zones 7 to 10.

How to use it: In a border or as a focal point for the winter garden.

Cultivation: Plant in well-drained soil in sun to partial shade. Poor to medium fertile soil is best. Cut back after flowering to tidy the plant and promote new red growth.

Source: Joy Creek Nursery. The form 'Red Martin' is available from Digging Dog Nursery.

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Variegated Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla 'Hadspen Cream'). Growing to 12 inches, this false forget-me-not has large, heart-shaped medium green leaves that develop a wide, irregular edge of creamy yellow. In spring, tiny, sky blue forget-me-not type flowers appear above the foliage. The plant has a mounding habit and is hardy from USDA Zones 3 to 7. 'Hadspen Cream' is a herbaceous perennial.

How to use it: Mix with hostas and ferns in a woodland garden. Brighten a dark spot with the variegated green and cream foliage.

Cultivation: Plant in part shade in woodland soil that is well-drained.

Source: Forestfarm Nursery

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Chinese indigo (Indigofera kirilowii). This small shrub (18 inches high) has pea like foliage and six inch long racemes of pink flowers that resemble wisteria. The clusters of flowers cascade from the stems in mid-spring to early summer. Hardy in USDA Zones 5 to 8, Indigofera kirilowii is native to northern China and Korea and was introduced to this country in 1899.

How to use it: In a perennial border. It can be thought of as a low, tough shrub in warmer areas and a herbaceous perennial further north.

Cultivation: Plant in filtered to full sun in well-drained soil with moderate fertility. Indigofera kirilowii grows from a rhizome but is not as invasive as other forms of the genus.

Source: Bloom River Gardens

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