Help my mom select low-hassle, shady plants?
May 14, 2010 9:30 AM   Subscribe

What are the best shade-tolerant, ultra-low-maintenance plants for my mom's terraced flowerbed?

My mother lives right on the border of zones 7 and 8. On one side of her house is a terraced flower bed that was installed by the previous owners of the house (greater than 15 years ago) and pretty much allowed to go wild since we've lived there. As a Mother's Day gift, she got some landscapers out to clear it out and prepare it for planting, but she doesn't know what to put in. I have read a few other Asks about shade-loving plants but they were asking about plants that grow up north, so I wanted to see if any southern gardeners could give suggestions.

Characteristics of the bed:
-Terraced bed located in the back yard. The "back" side is adjacent to the driveway and the back yard fence (waist-high) runs along it.
-The entire back yard is shaded by large, mature, deciduous trees. This bed would get, at most, filtered/dappled sunlight. The very back of it, near the driveway, might get a bit more.
-Soil quality/acidity unknown. Most of the rest of the back yard is covered in some kind of ground cover. It has a steep slope away from the house that eventually leads to a creek.

My mom's wishes for plants:
-perennials or shrubs that she can plant once and leave. She doesn't want to do new planting every year.
-She is willing to do extra work getting them established but doesn't want them to require much maintenance.
-The bed is located inconveniently far from the outdoor water spigots so she doesn't want to have to provide additional water once the plants are established, so the plants should be able to deal with just the standard rain that they will get being outside.
-She would prefer flowering plants that have pretty foliage when they aren't blooming.
-She has mentioned liking gardenias and hydrangeas. Azaleas are very common in the area but she doesn't want to just have them, she'd like more variety. She was interested in roses but thinks they are too high-maintenance and need more sun than would be available.
-She would be interested in putting climbing plants in the back row and letting them grow over the fence.

She has asked me for advice but my yard is full sun, so my experiences don't really translate. Anyone have some suggestions?
posted by oblique red to Home & Garden (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Hostas do well in partial to full shade. Some varieties get sort of large-ish, but they can also be divided and replanted. I've had good luck with perennial ferns, and depending on the dampness level, hellebores ("Lenten Roses") might work too. They like a bit of dampness.
posted by jquinby at 9:43 AM on May 14, 2010

Rhododendrons grow just about everywhere, love the shade, have absolutely gorgeous blossoms, and are evergreens, so that would seem to fit the bill pretty well.

Couple that with some periwinkle for ground cover and you've got yourself a flower bed that looks good all year round, flowers in the spring and summer, and requires a minimum of maintenance.
posted by valkyryn at 9:55 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Rhododendrons grow just about everywhere

This is very true, but bear in mind that rhodies are basically just giant azaleas so if your mom's not into azaleas she may not be into rhodies.
posted by Nothing... and like it at 10:02 AM on May 14, 2010

Not sure your exact location, so couldn't Google it for you, but you might want to look up native plants in your area. They'd already be adapted to thrive in your particular climate and wouldn't need special fertilizer/water. Plus, you'd be doing the local wildlife a favor. Some places will even certify your yard as a nature sanctuary if you have enough native plants in it.
posted by Gianna at 10:03 AM on May 14, 2010

Ajuga has been surprisingly delightful (I'm in North Carolina). It has lovely leaves, and every spring there are many spears with purple flowers.

I bought some rostrinucula at the botanical gardens in Manteo (NC) a few years ago, and it's been delightful. Kind of an unusual shape, about a meter high, and growing under the shade of a tree. It's an acid-loving plant, like azalea, and I've found that if I actually take the time to fertilize it it's much more fabulous.
posted by amtho at 10:08 AM on May 14, 2010

Best answer: I, too, think you should try hostas. There are a LOT of different varieties -- big, little, blue-ish, yellow-ish, solid color or variegated with white stripes or yellow stripes... And when they bloom, it can be quite an attractive show. They're easy to plant and easy to maintain.

I've got hostas in my very shady front garden (five different varieties) and I love them. I have one specimen, a giant blue hosta, that's mind-blowingly cool. A single leaf from that thing is about 12x24 inches. It's huge.

Get your mom a variety of hostas -- I bet she'd really like them.
posted by rhartong at 10:09 AM on May 14, 2010

Best answer: Hydrangeas, maybe.
posted by Danf at 10:19 AM on May 14, 2010

Ornamental grasses.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:27 AM on May 14, 2010

I agree with Hostas, but they are water hogs, so if you don't get rain at the very least once a week, she's going to need to stretch out that hose. Rhododendrons grow just about everywhere, but she lives on top of limestone, she will have to add some acid to the soil, maybe import sod.

There are lots of ferns that don't need lots of water. The firecracker fern is one I like. The Texas Mountain Laural is a slow grower but is overall great, it can become a small tree, rather than a big bush if you prune it that way, put that takes years.)

Also, sumacs (some are evergreens), sage and rosemary are all good and need little water.
posted by Some1 at 10:28 AM on May 14, 2010

I have absolutely no relation with this nursery (I haven't even ordered from them yet), but the Plant Delights Nursery has an incredible selection of Hostas.
posted by dforemsky at 10:42 AM on May 14, 2010

Not sure how she feels about variagated foilage -- some people think white/multicolored shrubs are tacky. But there are some interesting varigated-leaf azaleas that will still look colorful once the flowers drop. For sheer ease, mahonia (Oregon grape) or holly would be very low maintenance. These are all tall enough to provide nice backdrops for ferns or perhaps annuals, if she decides to throw in some temporary color.
posted by memewit at 10:45 AM on May 14, 2010

You don't mention the state, so this will be difficult from my pov.

Your mom sounds like the perfect candidate to go native.
Natives generally require very little care, very little water, and are, generally, either perennial or reseed themselves. A native garden is typically very visually interesting, especially when it sits in the midst of a conventionally landscaped neighborhood.

The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center is a spectacular resource.
Though located in central Texas, the foundations goal is to support the use of natives across the country.
This page allows you to choose your state and have it tell you the best landscaping plants.
Click on her state and do some reading about plants.
Click on the "Printer Friendly List" link for her state to get an easy view that will help you narrow the search by sun and water requirements and plant type. If you have questions, the Wildflower Center has always been great for me about answering them.

Last, but not least, feel free to mix natives in with non-native plants.
Since I love this kind of thing, I would happily give you my thoughts and opinions. Drop me a line. (Except I'll be out of pocket all next week.)
posted by Seamus at 10:50 AM on May 14, 2010

Caladiums sound perfect for that spot. It is grown for the leaf, not the flower, but with the wonderful variety of patterns and colors, she is sure to find some that she likes.

I have not bought from this company, so I can't vouch for them. I planted 100 of the white and green variety under my oak tree where nothing would grow. People driving by would stop to admire them.

Depending on your area, it may be recommended to dig up the tubers over the winter. I live in the Southern part of Louisiana and just left mine in the ground. I would add a few bulbs every few years to fill out the bare spots.

Squirrels love this bulbs when the are first planted, before they sprout. I tossed moth balls over the bed, that seemed to deter the squirrels.
posted by JujuB at 11:19 AM on May 14, 2010

I came on here to recommend rhododendrons, too. I'm in NC and they grow fabulously in the shade. I've got a couple in my front flower bed that the previous owners planted that do not do well, probably because they get A LOT of sun. All the shady yards in my neighborhood have gorgeous rhododendrons. I envy them.
posted by purpletangerine at 12:33 PM on May 14, 2010

My go to easy shade plants areheucheras. They come in a billion colors and are seemingly impossible to kill. I also use some hosta, ajuga, hellebore, and fern, but some of them always die, I have never lost a heuchera.

I have a strict no-water, no-fertilizer rule after first week or so (though bed building is key), its do or die in my garden.
posted by stormygrey at 2:32 PM on May 14, 2010

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