Many new gardeners despair when faced with a shady area. Their visions of sunflowers, zinnias, petunias and daylilies go up in a puff of smoke when they discover that their shady garden isn't the place for these plants. However, there's a way to have a gorgeous and varied garden without much sun. It just means taking your garden vision in a different direction.

Shady garden options

When many people think of shade gardens, they think dull and green, however there's so much diversity in that one color that it can hardly be considered boring. Hostas come in a wide range of shapes, sizes and shades that even if nothing else is planted, the garden would look amazing. However, by combining some other plants that prefer shady conditions, a truly professional landscape can be achieved. Hostas pair well with astilbe, columbine, phlox, foxglove and toad lilies if you want something colorful and don't forget that hostas bloom too. Some of them are highly fragrant. All of these plants do well in shady or partially sunny conditions. Add some ferns for texture and caladiums to brighten up dull corners and you have an award winning combination. Rhododendrons are wonderful shrubs that like shady conditions and would do great in the same areas as hostas as well. Butterflies, bees and even hummingbirds will venture into a shade garden if given a reason to do so.

blooming hostas in a garden

Hosta history and early uses

The hosta is undoubtedly the backbone of the temperate shade garden and has had a long history with gardeners and plant collectors. They are native to north east Asia, which includes Japan, Korea, China and parts of Russia. Early plant explorers sent examples to France in 1784 and the first hostas made their way to the Americas in about 1800. However the plant has had a long history in Asian gardens for about 800 years. Some of the poorer folk even used the fleshy roots as a food source and boiled the leaves and young shoots as a potherb. The flowers have a peppery flavor and were even added to salads. However, the hosta contains saponins which are slightly toxic and can cause stomach upsets and diarrhea, so it is probably best to leave the plant in the garden instead of the dinner table. Essential oils from the hosta are used in perfume making and the flowers are being researched for anti cancer properties. It was a minor part of the ancient herbal pharmacy, however it was the aroma of the flowers that they believed would cure sickness.

hostas with ferns and other plants

Growing hostas in the garden

Plant hostas in shady to semi-shady conditions. They do best with dappled sunlight, however can survive in less favorable conditions. The only thing they tend to balk at is full, harsh, hot sun. Mine are on the eastern side of my home and get morning sun and shade in the hot afternoon. They do just fine. Hostas are winter hardy in USDA zones 3-9 and if sheltered from the worst heat of the day, zone 10 with protection. They need rich, moist soil with good drainage, at least an inch of water each week and mulch to help conserve the moisture in the soil. Just like many plants, there are lots of choices as to size and color. From tiny, little four inch hostas suitable for a small rock garden or fairy garden to monsters reaching six feet across. The colors vary from vivid chartreuse to a deep blue-green and everything in between, however its the variegated leaves that many gardeners love. Hosta leaves can sport splashes of white or gold that brighten up the darkest corners. It is amazing what bright splashes of white or gold can do against a green background.

hosta with rhododendron

Hostas in containers

Hostas do well in containers too. If your soil is too shallow or rocky, or maybe alkaline, give them the conditions they need in containers. This gives you the option of changing up the scenery a bit as well. Move them around and add some seasonal color here and there. Just remember to give the containers good drainage and plenty of water, A large hosta in a container requires quite a bit of moisture to support the leaves, so make sure to water often. They still make for great container additions and I am considering some for on my east-facing front porch on either side of the front door. Container hostas might not be a wise choice if Bambi lives in your neighborhood. Deer adore hostas, as do rabbits, so keeping them up and out of their reach may be a good solution. Slugs, snails and voles all enjoy a hosta snack, so if those varmints are on your property, containers in hard to reach areas may be the way to go as well.

hosta growing in container

Hostas stand the test of time

However you choose to use hostas, they will brighten up shady corners and fill the area with lush foliage. The large-leaved cultivars give temperate areas a tropical feel, the small ones tucked here and there soften hard edges of bricks and stone. They're long-lived, easy to grow and you can always divide the plant every three or four years to make even more.