Cold-hardy shade perennials

Credit: Carolyn Jones


Q: I am an amateur when it comes to gardening, and it’s proven to be hard to grow anything at all in my flowerbed. First of all, it is in full to partial shade, plus the soil is clay-like. I’ve been told to find shade-loving zone-4 perennials, but I really don’t know what to look for! I’m about to give up and just grow some grass there instead, but I love colour and how flowers and plants look in a yard. I’ve tried for three years now and all my perennials turn out to be annuals! Can you please help with some easy-care, but nice, shade-loving plants for zone 4?

If this bed is underneath some huge old trees, the trees will be sucking all the moisture and nutrients out of the soil and you might just have to settle for a nice bark-mulch groundcover. (A lawn won’t thrive there either.) If that’s not the situation, you can have a lot of fun with the following plants. They may need some watering (more often, if you are in the dry south-central interior) and will benefit from mulching to keep the soil moist and cool until the plants fill in.

Fernleaf bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia) – Flowers early and has a long period of bloom. Flowers are usually rose-pink; there are also white, pale-pink and dark-pink forms.

Hostas – There are hundreds of cultivars to choose from, from minis to giants, lush green or wildly variegated. Start with some of the tried-and-true cultivars, which are known to be sturdy and are often less expensive than the newer cultivars. For example, the variegated ‘Frances Williams’ can grow into huge clumps over the years, whereas the smoky blue-grey variegated ‘June’ remains in mounds and can be used en masse as a groundcover.

Coral bells (Heuchera) – Most of the green-leaf forms (‘Leuchtkäfer’, ‘Firefly’, ‘Vivid’ or the seedling-grown Bressingham Hybrids Group) are hardy, as are the cultivars with green-and-white variegated foliage, ‘Snow Storm’ and ‘Snow Angel’, both of which have bright-pink flowers. Of the dark-leafed cultivars, ‘Stormy Seas’ and ‘Pewter Veil’ have done very well for me; none of the new fancy colours have survived our zone-3 winters.

Meadowsweet (Filipendula) – All the ones I’ve tried have been hardy; some have a tendency to spread, but this can be a good thing if you’re filling in space. Flowers are usually either white or pink. This genus has only about 10 species, but most are ornamental and grown in gardens. Most prefer damp soil, but the cultivars of Filipendula vulgaris (dropwort) thrive on dry, alkaline soil.

Ferns – There are many good hardy ones, including a number of Dryopteris filix-mas (male fern) and Athyrium filix-femina (lady fern) species and cultivars, as well as Gymnocarpium dryopteris (oak fern), Osmunda regalis (royal fern), O. cinnamomea (cinnamon fern) and Matteuccia struthiopteris (ostrich fern). There are also some fine native groundcovers, including bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) and bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi).