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Plants for a Colorful Shade Garden

A hosta lover shares some of his favorites among shade-loving plants.

When self-proclaimed plant nerd Jack Driskell bought his house four years ago, he started with a clean slate. In the front yard was a bit of grass, along with a sloping, woodland area. Above the stone retaining wall along the entire length of the driveway, the ground was completely bare.

Having been a plant collector for years, Driskell immediately began transferring his treasures — including an extensive hosta collection — to the new house, despite the fact that it was mid-winter and most of the plants were dormant.

Surprisingly, Driskell says, he had a fairly good garden the first year. Today his ornamental gardens look as if they've been there for decades. The area in front of the house now contains a rich tapestry of green, made up of an intriguing collection of hostas and other shade-loving plants, many of them with striking variegation.

The space above the wall along the driveway garden is already overflowing with sun-loving perennials, shrubs and even some small trees. Yet another walkway bordered with gardens, filled mostly with hostas and hydrangeas, disappears around the side of the house.

In these three garden areas, Driskell has mixed in pieces of garden art he's collected on his travels with a group of friends who officially call themselves the "Plant Nerds" (they even have T-shirts they wear on their excursions). A turquoise porcelain cat sits on the stone wall next to a red cutleaf Japanese maple. The combination is stunning.

In the shade garden, many prize hostas are in containers, some of which are only inches high. He feels this is the best way to display miniature hostas, which often don't show up very well in the ground. Several of the large hostas, particularly those with a cascading habit, are also set up in pots above ground level.

Here are some of Driskell's favorites:

Hosta (Hosta 'Spritzer')

The plant: Introduced in 1986 by renowned hosta hybridizer Paul Aden, this unusual hosta has long, pointed leaves (more lanceolate than rounded) and rippling green margins with yellow to cream centers. Growing 18 inches wide by 18 inches in height, the plant grows upright, but with cascading leaves. Funnel-shaped, purple flowers appear in mid-summer. USDA Zones 3 to 9.
How to use it: Given the cascading form of the leaves, this is a good hosta to plant on a slope or in a raised bed or container. Placing it in part sun will bring out the color of the leaves.
Cultivation: This is a disease- and pest-resistant hosta that is rather sun-tolerant. As with other hostas, provide moist, well-drained soil that has been amended with plenty of compost.
Source: Hilltop Farm

Golden variegated-leaf bamboo (Pleioblastus auricomus or P. viridistriatus)

The plant: Not as aggressive as other running bamboos, this dwarf plant has slender purple-green canes and sulphur-yellow leaves striped with pale green. The plant grows to about three feet high.
How to use it: This is an excellent subject for a container or for a low hedge in part shade. Very showy in a shady garden. Good companion plants are yellow-spotted ligularia, ferns, hostas and hellebores.
Cultivation: The more sun the plant receives, the brighter the color of the leaves. This plant should be grown in part shade, however, in humus-rich, moist, well-drained soil. In late winter or early spring cut back the old canes to encourage new, brighter leaves. The plant creeps slowly. To be absolutely sure that the plant doesn't escape and invade other areas, install a barrier around the root system if you plant it in the ground.
Source: The Bamboo Garden

Hosta (Hosta 'Stiletto')

The plant: This is a small, upright hosta with narrow, dark-green, wavy leaves with a bright cream edge. Introduced in 1987 by hybridizer Paul Aden, the plant at maturity measures eight inches tall by 15 inches wide. The long, narrow leaves measure six inches long by one inch wide. Its undulating leaf formation makes it appear as if it's in motion. Flowers are purple and appear in August. Hardy in USDA Zones 4 to 9.
How to use it: Because of its small form, it's excellent for a shady rock garden. Also, 'Stiletto' grows quickly so it would be useful for edging a path.
Cultivation: Grow in moist, well-drained, compost-rich garden soil. This hosta will take a half day of sun (preferably in the morning).
Source: Glenbrook Farm

Indian pink (Spigelia marilandica)

The plant: This woodland perennial is native to the southeastern U.S. and in spring produces tubular flowers that are bright red with showy yellow centers. The flowers appear on two-foot-high stalks on plants that form a 12-inch wide clump. USDA Zones 5 to 8.
How to use it: This is a beautiful plant for a part-shade garden. Place it where you can see the bright red and yellow flowers.
Cultivation: Site in part shade in soil that is moist and acidic.
Source: Sunlight Gardens

Hosta (Hosta 'One Man's Treasure')

The plant: This medium-sized hosta has shiny, slightly rippled, solid green leaves and highly unusual reddish-purple dots on the top and bottom of the petioles (the leaf stalks). Lavender flowers are held on purple stems (also unusual--hosta stems are normally green), and even the seedpods are purple.
How to use it: This hosta needs to sit up in a container where the red stems can be best appreciated. Or, if you have a wall at eye level, the hosta could be grown on the edge.
Cultivation: Grow in rich, well-drained soil in part shade.
Source: Global Gardens

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