Garden Designer’s Roundtable: Shades of Inspiration

This month on the Garden Designer’s Roundtable we explore the topic of Shade.  Our guest  is none other than Margaret Roach, author of several best-selling books and the gardening blog, A Way to Garden. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to get a private tour of Margaret’s garden last year with several Roundtablers and other garden enthusiasts and not only a pure delight, it was also a lesson in opportunities. From the design, to plant selection and especially plant combinations, Margaret had capitalized on every opportunity her garden offered her.

Many gardeners look at a shady area as a liability, not an opporuntity to explore a new palette of plants that might not work elsewhere in their garden.  Granted, gardening in the shade may require a new mindset for some gardeners so I’d like to offer some inspiration for dealing with those shady spots that every garden has and quite possibly open your eyes to the joys of shade gardening.

A man has made at least a start on discovering the meaning of human life when he plants shade trees under which he knows full well he will never sit.

– D. Elton Trueblood

Visitors to the Bartlett Arboretum in Stamford, CT, started over 100 years ago, enter the main garden area by walking ‘through’ a redbud (Cercis canadensis).


I can say that in the shade garden we are dealing primarily with foliage, and that once you learn to look at leaves you’ll discover a world of unlimited diversity and beauty. 

– Ken Druse, The Natural Shade Garden 

Red-leaved Japanese maple (Acer palmatum - unknown cultivar), golden Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola'), Hosta 'Striptease' and fringed bleeding heart (Dicentra x 'Luxuriant')

 Success with shade gardening is more a question of attitude than anything else. Don’t moan over what you can’t grow, learn to rejoice over what you can grow. 

– Larry Hodgson, Making the Most of Shade


Rheum palmatum var. tanguticum, Brunnera macrophylla ‘Variegata’, Tiarella cordifoilia ‘Black Snowflake’, Pulmonaria longifolia ‘Bertram Anderson’, Rex begonia ‘Magma’, Ligularia stenocephala ‘Little Rocket’, Epimedium x rubrum, and a few ferns.


 If you have a shady spot to plant a garden then you are fortunate indeed. 

– Carolyn Harstad, Got Shade? 

The canopy of two oak trees creates a shady nook for a hammock and shade-loving plants like hosta, several varieties of Geranium, Japanese forest grass, foamflower, lilacs, viburnums and even bamboo.


To sit in the shade on a fine day, and look upon verdure is the most perfect refreshment.

– Jane Austen

This weeping hemlock (Tsuga canadensis 'Pendula') is part tree, part living sculpture.


I invite you to continue exploring the subject of Shade by clicking on the links below:

Margaret Roach : A Way To Garden : Hudson Valley, NY

Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA

Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX

Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ

35 thoughts on “Garden Designer’s Roundtable: Shades of Inspiration

  1. Your shade-garden images are inspirational, Debbie. I am a sucker for Japanese forest grass and hostas, probably because I cannot grow them here. They would make shade gardening a complete joy, to my mind, and I’d never get out of that hammock surrounded by them.

    • Pam, I love that combo too. I ‘ve found that Japanese forest grass grows well here (zone 6) in everything but full sun or deep shade. In the full sun, the yellow color washes out to a very pale yellow. And in deep shade, the bright yellow becomes a wierd shade of yellow-green and the plant loses most of it’s vigor.

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  7. Debbie- I adore the quotes you added! The photos are marvelous too- great work at providing SUCH inspiration. :-)

    • Christina, Thank you. I’m glad I didn’t decide to cover specific shade plants – Margaret stole them all, I think :). I’m pleased to know I still offered some inspiration regardless.

  8. I love Hostas and use them in the shady conifer garden, they are great complements to all of my conifers. I am a little worried though, I’m finding that I am quite attracted to your Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’. And after I wrote removing all the ornamental grasses from my garden too. Well, even hard-headed old guys like me can be swayed with just the right plant! I’ll be looking for this one.


    • Ed, There must be room in your gardening heart for some Hakonechloa-love, isn’t there?? As you’ve probably already guessed, Hakonechloa looks great with blue conifers. It would probably even look good next to that cute little dwarf Picea sitchensis ‘Silberzwerg’ you wrote about today.

  9. Beautiful images that conjure magical places, thank you. And I also had to laugh when you said: “Margaret had capitalized on every opportunity her garden offered her.”

    That Manifest Destiny approach to gardening when I was young and never daunted may be the death of me, tee hee. These days I look out the window and think, “Who in the world is going to come help care for all this stuff?”

    But of course I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    • Margaret, Isn’t it funny how as we get older we begin to factor maintenance into our plant choices, often without even realizing it? Perhaps it’s because different kinds of plants just simply appeal to us now that never did before. Your gardening philosophy, manifest destiny or not, has certainly worked for your garden. It was a delight at every turn.

  10. Why yes, I do have complete and total plant lust now. Thanks, Debbie! Seriously, that Begonia is fantastic! What a “pop” to the leaves! I love all of your combos…
    And Ed, that Hakonechloa is far too cute. It’s hard to dislike such a gorgeous plant.

    • Gen, Thank you. That begonia is amazing. The delicate little flowers are an added bonus. I think it was calling my name as soon as I walked into the greenhouse. I typically don’t use a lot of annuals but I simply couldn’t resist Rex.

  11. Hey Debbie! Those pics of the maples and hostas are simply stunning–and I live where Pam Penick lives! We can do Japanese maples *sort of*, but I’ve always been envious of gardeners who can grow hostas! Gorgeous!

    • Jenny, I only grow a few hostas because they inevitably end up being eaten by the deer so I also envy gardeners that can play with all the different colors and textures of hostas.

  12. Wonderful quotes, especially the first one by D. Elton Trueblood. It would be appropriate accompanying Robert’s post as well. I was quite taken with the beautiful, mature trees his article highlighted. Thanks for sharing!

    • Susan, That’s a great point about the quote working for Robert & Lesley’s post too. I was escpecially smitten with the photo of the Laburnum arch. It is simply spectacular.

  13. Debbie, these photos are gorgeous, as are the gardens! I am i love with all things chartreuse in the shade, so Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ is a perfect plant — I love it’s texture and that incredible color. I especially like it with blue hostas. ‘Mouse Ears’ hosta is my favorite right now! So tiny and cute! Thank you for this post and your insight.

    • Cindy, I agree, Hakonechloa is probably my favorite plant for the shade. It’s funny, with all the recent afternoon thunderstorms we had here in CT, I’ve been noticing how they seem to glow in the garden when the sky turns so dark as the storms roll through. Yet another reason to love that pant!

  14. Excellent selection of photos and quotes. I particularly like the Elton Trueblood quote about planting trees you will never sit under. I started out with a shady garden and now have one in sun. While I’m enjoying the new garden there are times I miss the shade.

    • Marguerite, The grass is always greener…I sometimes bemoan the amount of shade in my garden, too, but I know I’d miss it if I were to lose it.

  15. I use a lot of hostas in the shade but you’ve given me some great ideas for some other terrific choices to contrast with them and give some different textures to the shade beds. Thanks!

  16. My favourite borders are in the shady part of my garden, love the way you can play around with the colours, shapes & textures of leaves. So glad you love shade as much as I do! Super photos, love the one of the hammock!

  17. Debbie – can I just say how much I love the creative angle you took on this post? I love all the quotes – very, very cool. And your photos are truly stunning, all adding up to a whopper of a post! Well done, my friend!!

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