Wildflowers and the Shade Garden

A lot of people want to know what the difference is between a Shade Garden and a Woodland Garden. There may not be an answer to that and they may be the same, but we do have an opinion that may help.

A shade garden can be a woodland garden, and a woodland garden can be a shade garden. But the latter will have far less sunlight or dappled sunlight. Woodland Gardens tend to have longer periods of sun whether full or filtered through the trees. On the other hand, a shade garden is usually only sunny for a very short period or not at all. Its sunlight being blocked out by thick tree cover or possibly the location of a building such as your house blocks the sun.

While these gardens are by no means similar to a cavern in their lack of light, bright light is not for them. Many people try and plant their favorite plants in these areas only to see them struggle, become "leggy", and eventually turn very unhappy and wither away. This may take several years, but it happens.

The trick is to find plants that are happy in shade, and in New Jersey there are many wildflowers that are perfectly at home in a shade garden.


Shady Charactors


As you may have suspected, many of the plants that grow well in a Woodland Garden, are perfectly at home in a Shade Garden. But the King or Queen of the Shade Garden are the ferns. 100% of the hundreds of ferns in our garden were rescued from construction sites.

They can cast a velvet green carpet across impossible shade. But even here, soil is a factor. There are ferns perfect for the garden and then there are others that need quite a bit of moisture, so additional leaf litter is needed to keep them happy if growing in the regular garden. Some of our favorites are below.


Marginal Woodfern (Dryopteris marginalis) - Along with the Christmas Fern, one of the most common ferns in our area. Both are considered evergreen but the Marginal Fern will have its foliage crushed to the ground under the weight of snow. Nice leaves about 18" long and 6" wide. Easy to grow in acidic or alkaline soil. Very nice plant for the shade garden.

Crested Fern (Dryopteris cristata) - Finer leaves than above, lives in damp areas but can be grown anywhere is shade garden as long as soil is rich and enough leaf litter is used to hold moisture. Perfectly at home at edge of pond or in bog. Spreads through creeping roots. Great fern.

New York Fern (Thelypteris noveboracensis) - Long name for a fern. Daintier fern than the Dryopteris species above. This one loves moisture as well but can be grown in garden if given sufficient leaf litter to retain moisture in soil. Also spreads by rootstock. Leaves on these ferns are individual rising from the creeping rootstock. We have this one at the edge of our pond mixed with several species of moss. The frogs lie here in the summer waiting for us to feed them or a passing bug.

Black Stemmed Spleenwort (Asplenium resiliens) - A small fern with black stems. Often found growing at the base of rocks. Perfectly suited for rock walls in a shade garden along with a clump of moss. Looks great. We lost our last year to a pack of crazy chipmunks who took up house in the rock wall that we planted these in.

Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) - I believe this fern to be the largest fern in the Northeast. Reaching at times to an amazing 5' in height and over a foot wide. Masses of these planted in damp locations creates an almost tropical rainforest appearance. Needs moisture to attain its true greatness so if you have a dryer shade garden, this fern may not be the best choice for you. If the ferns are the King and Queens of the shade garden, this is the ruler of them all. Fantastic plant if conditions are right.

Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) - The back bone of our Shade Gardens. Evergreen and is less upright than other ferns. Leaves differ as they are dark green and appear a bit leathery making this a tough fern. We are especially fond of using them on shady slopes. They hold the leaf litter in place and form clusters of ferns creating habitats for several salamander species and Wood Frogs. They form a nice ground cover under shrubs where Juncos, White Throated Sparrows and other birds love to scratch the leaf litter in search of food. This plant never complains, a must for a shade garden!

Northern Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum) While there are many great ferns to choose from if we had to pick a favorite, this one would be it. Delicate light green foliage on black stems. It is unlike any of the ferns in our area. As with most ferns it needs rich organic soil but this can be duplicated in just about every Shade Garden.

Interrupted Fern (Osmunda claytoniana) - A handsome stand alone fern, but looks great with company. Perfect for the shade garden as it is very tough. Common in our area and one of the most common (along with the Christmas Ferns and Cinnamon below) ferns to be rescued. Center leafs seem to have their leaflets "interrupted" and thus the name. Creates a thick root stock.

Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomea)- Another Osmunda fern. May be the most common fern in our area. Another fern that can be planted without much trouble, large and stands on its own in the shade garden but like the fern above, looks best with others. This one likes more moisture than the Interrupted Fern above, but we have them growing in our Shade areas easily with enough leaf litter to keep soil moist. Named for its center leaf stalks that appear in late spring as tighter golden cinnamon looking stalks. Another great fern for our area.

Silvery Spleenwort (Athyrium thelypteriodes) - A fern that, well to best describe it, seems soft. Clumps or carpets of these fern seem to have their leaves create a wave of movement in a soft breeze. Does well in shade garden. Will create nice groups, good cut fern for flower arrangements.

Long Beech Fern (Thelypteris phegopteris) - Our favorite ground cover besides Wild Ginger for the Shade Garden. Small fern with triangular leaves rising from the rootstock. Spreads rapidly but not out of control. Fantastic look. It does have a pest, a small moth larva loves this fern and makes the leaves a jagged mess if not controlled. Since we do not like to use insecticides, a quick shaking of the leaves triggers the larva's defense mechanism which is to fall. We then scoop them up and provide a tasty treat to our frogs.


The ferns as a group of plants are an important part of the natural garden. They provide cover for ground dwelling creatures such as salamanders, newts, frogs, toads, snakes, and songbirds while providing breeding grounds for large amounts of insects that provide food. In addition, they will lock in place leaf matter, hold soil in place. They can clump, be single specimens, or provide large patches of green for the garden. All of the above photos are from our own yard and all are rescued from construction sites.


Wildflowers for the Shade


Even in the shade, the savvy landscaper can find plenty of wildflowers that will bloom away. We mix in some of non natives as well.

Bloodroot - Another favorite of the Woodland Garden, it can take pretty dense shade, we have them growing under a large maple that is adjacent to Fir trees that block all sun. Brilliant White flowers with a bright yellow center. Low growing. Ours are growing in pretty dense shade.

Wild Leek - Smells like onions, leaves come up, then die down but a flower stack rises from the leaf litter. Odd. Grows well in extreme dense shade. Also it is very good to eat.

Wood Poppy - One of our favorites, hardy with many yellow flowers. Easy to propagate due to the large seed pods. Excellent in masses under trees. Looks great planted in masses or as a single plant.

Wild Ginger - Great ground cover. Really neat red brown flowers. This one forms a fantastic thick mat of heart shaped leaves. No shade garden involving wildflowers should be without it.

Blue Cohosh - Small green flowers followed by nice blue berries.

Jack in the Pulpit - 3-Part leave followed by an unusual flower, if you have a Shade Garden in New Jersey, this is a must. Very easy to grow.

Solomon's Seal - Another classic Shade Garden Flower. Yellow Green flowers dangle from long stems. Has blue berries.

Putty Root - A hardy orchid found in woodland and deep wood habitats. Greenish yellowish and at times whitish flowers. Pretty easy to grow.

Salvia Koyamae - A hardy salvia that grows very nicely in the shade even deep shade. Wonderful velvety arrow shaped leaves that are followed by clear yellow flowers in the fall.

Violets - Dozens of violets are native to the woods of New Jersey. Most will do very nicely in the shade and are the food plant for the Great Spangled Fritillary.



As you can see from all of the choices above, a shady area of your yard does not have to be void of any landscaping. It can be just as well landscaped as any perennial garden. Never be afraid of the shade!

And as with any garden, prior to planting, plan it out on a piece of paper. Taking into consideration plant height, width and rate of growth. And then go out and have fun! A well planted shade garden will be a perfect addition to any homes landscaping.