Keeping the Shade Garden Going in Late Fall

Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is a retail nursery located in Bryn Mawr, PA, specializing in showy, colorful, and unusual plants for shade.  The only plants that we ship are snowdrops and miniature hostas.  For catalogues and announcements of events, please send your full name, location, and phone number (for back up use only) to  Click here to get to the home page of our website for catalogues and information about our nursery and to subscribe to our blog.

main terrace at Carolyn's Shade Gardens in late fall

Articles on landscape design advocate creating beds that flower through out the gardening season.  This is a lofty goal, and one that is not always worth achieving.  Beds that are designed to accomplish it often look spotty and unfocused because there is no theory behind the design besides bloom time, and the bed never truly peaks.  My woodland gardens, which contain mostly spring ephemerals and are done by June, provide immense satisfaction to me and are thoroughly enjoyed by my customers, even though their ornamental season is limited.  Most of my other gardens also have their season of splendor and then step aside to let other areas shine.

On the other hand, it is important to me that I have at least one prominent garden that is ornamentally interesting all year.  And I realize that most gardeners don’t have the space that I have to indulge in the luxury of letting a garden go by in June.  So, the question is, how do you keep a garden going in late fall before the winter-blooming plants get started?  What plants can you use to create the sense of a garden still growing: a feeling of plant combinations not individual plants?

I want to tell you about the area where I have done this most successfully: the shady end of the terrace outside my front door.  Through silver, purple, pink, and dark green groundcovers, leaves, and flowers, this terrace still has the feeling of a garden in its prime right now in early December.

'Shell Pink' lamium at Carolyn's Shade Gardens‘Shell Pink’ Lamium in early December

I think the most important element of a late season border is a flowering evergreen groundcover.  In this bed, I use ‘Shell Pink’ lamium (photo above) because it blooms from April to December (at some times more prolifically than others) and remains evergreen all year.  I have also planted the fall-blooming hardy cyclamen, Cyclamen hederifolium (photo below).  Its pink flowers appear from September into November.  Although dormant for a short time in summer, once its leaves come back in late August, it maintains a fresh pristine appearance through the following June.  It spreads to form a very attractive groundcover and is not picky about the site like the spring-blooming cyclamen.

fall-blooming cyclamen at Carolyn's Shade GardensFall-blooming Hardy Cyclamen

'Diana Clare' pulmonaria at Carolyn's Shade Gardens‘Diana Clare’ Pulmonaria

Foliage is important this time of year.  I chose pulmonarias to fill a big space because their leaves remain ornamental almost until new leaves appear in February.  The solid silver foliage of  ‘Diana Clare’ (photo above) is one of my favorites in my pulmonaria collection.  Equally as important are the dark evergreen leaves of several hellebores: Christmas roses, hybrid hellebores, the H. x ericsmithii cultivars ‘Silvermoon’ and ‘Ivory Prince’ with their silver marbling, and the golden-veined leaves of H. x nigercors ‘Green Corsican’.  Finally, I treasure the almost year round interest of the new cultivars of our native coralbell, Heuchera villosa.  Here I used ‘Frosted Violet’ (photo below), which is deep burgundy-purple with lighter highlights.

'Frosted Violet' native coralbells at Carolyn's Shade GardensNative Coralbell ‘Frosted Violet’

Christmas Rose 'Jacob' at Carolyn's Shade GardensFall-blooming Christmas rose ‘Jacob’

For the final element of flowers, in addition to the pink blooms of the lamium, I added the fall-blooming Christmas roses, Helleborus niger ‘Jacob’ (photo above) and ‘Josef Lemper’.  ‘Jacob’, the shorter and more compact of the two, is sending up buds now.  ‘Josef’ will begin flowering in a few weeks.  Both cultivars continue to produce new blossoms into May.  I have also added lots of the fall-blooming snowdrop ‘Potter’s Prelude’ (photo below).  This exceedingly robust snowdrop will produce its lovely white flowers for the next month.

fall-blooming snowdrop 'Potter's Prelude' at Carolyn's Shade GardensFall-blooming Snowdrop ‘Potter’s Prelude’

Main terrace at Carolyn's Shade GardensTerrace in late November

So that’s it: groundcover, foliage, and flowers through mid-January when the winter-blooming perennials and bulbs take over.  Not the abundance of late spring, but certainly ornamental.


Notes:  All photos in this post were taken at Carolyn’s Shade Gardens in late November. Flowering evergreen shrubs are an important part of any late fall garden.  For all of you who have been to Carolyn’s Shade Gardens, you may wonder why I didn’t mention the semi-circle of large fragrant daphnes (Daphne odora) that lined this bed.  Unfortunately, they were killed last winter by falling white pine branches.  I hope to replace them.

fragrant daphne odora at Carolyn's Shade GardensFragrant Daphne, gone but not forgotten!

36 Responses to “Keeping the Shade Garden Going in Late Fall”

  1. my achin' back Says:

    Great information once again.The foliage color keeps the garden going as much as the flowers. A very nice fit with all the plants.

  2. Sometimes garden design articles strike me as contrived — like the person writing it is better at arranging indoor knick-knacks than they are planting things. Not so with this piece — it’s clear you have plenty of experience with growing a garden in addition to making it look good! Thanks for some great advice on landscape planning, I really like a lot of the plants you’ve recommended here.

    • Thanks Eliza. Gardening through winter is very important to me because I get depressed when the days grow short. There is nothing like good-looking plants to cheer me up. I don’t consider myself a landscape designer, although I continually design my own landscape. I am more a hands-on- the plants person. Carolyn

  3. Great plant selection. You are lucky to have the space to have many gardens. It is a little tougher to let a garden go in June when you have a tiny city plot like I do. I agree with a lot of what you have written, and I know you are well experienced, but having continuous ‘bloom’, even if the color and texture only comes from foliage, is a ‘good thing’ as Martha always says. And she is the queen of knick-knacks. You have shown the foliage planting well.

    As a designer, I recommend layering, like you did with your ground covers. This keeps the interest as some fade, but also to have those late bloomers to pick up the slack of the early and mid. Even in estate gardens, I do this. These clients always have the money for such ambitious planting though. Like you, I am lucky to have a nursery to get my plants en mass. Drift planting keeps the color and interest moving too. Great post again. Keeps people thinking gardens late into the year.

    • Hi Donna, As I pointed out, I know I am blessed with a lot of space. I think continuous bloom is a worthy goal–it just shouldn’t be the only goal. This garden is full of plants all year round. The earlier blooming plants have gone dormant and disappeared. I don’t consider myself a designer, although I design my own gardens. Thanks for the well-thought-out comment. Carolyn

  4. Dear Carolyn, I am blessed with a shade garden. It is less work than my full-sun gardens, and that is a big plus. I love your fall blooming snowdrops. Will they thrive in zone 5? That is if the chipmunks don’t get them. Excellent post. Pamela x

    • Hi Pam, you are a gardener after my own heart. Shade gardens are a blessing, not something to make the best of. Mine have virtually no weeds, need no extra water (though I rarely water anyway), and allow me to grow so many beautiful plants that wouldn’t thrive in the sun. As for snowdrops, the good news is that I will be selling G. reginae-olgae this February. The bad news for you is that my Longwood course book says G. elwesii is hardy in “zones 4 to 8?” and G. reginae-olgae is hardy in “zones 6 or 7 to 8.” I sold some ‘Potter’s Prelude’ to a friend in Boston last year so I will ask her how it did and get back to you. Nice to hear from a fellow Pennsylvanian. Carolyn

  5. I enjoy combining foliage textures like you have done. I have a bit more of a challenge keeping my garden interesting because for most of the winter it is covered in snow. Using stone, architectural pieces, evergreens, showy bark and plant structure are about the only things I know to use. Are there any other suggestions you might have to liven up my garden in winter?

    • Hi Ramona, All the plants I mentioned just sit there under the snow and look beautiful when it melts between storms. However, we don’t have snow cover all winter and sometimes have very little. If there is snow all winter in your part of Utah, I think you listed the available winter interest. You probably include buds under plant structure, but some of my favorite winter garden interest is plant buds like magnolia, winter hazel, etc. Also, I don’t know if it grows where you are but have you tried the cascading shrub winter jasmine, Jasminum nudiflorum. It blooms in February snow or no snow. Carolyn

  6. Once again a well crafted post. Congratulations.
    Although I am not a fan of lamium, only because it is a gentle invader, I can understand how it contributes, especially since you have a larger garden to embrace it.
    The fall blooming galanthus, cyclamen and Christmas rose are plants that I cannot enjoy because winter comes too early, here in Montreal. I have had better success with Heuchera, in many color varieties as well as white leafed Pulmonaria.

    • Thanks Allan. I am positive you know your plant, but I find that my customers are talking about lamiastrum with the yellow flowers when they think lamium is invasive. The running form of lamiastrum is a nightmare, but I have never had any problems with lamium. In fact, most of them don’t grow for me, and I wish the two I like would grow faster. I only sell what I can grow so I limit my offerings to ‘Shell Pink’ and ‘Purple Dragon’ and occasionally ‘White Nacny’. Galanthus nivalis is supposed to be hardy to zone 3, although others are less hardy. Carolyn

  7. Our very first house had a very very very shady garden. I was young then, and had such definite ideas as to what NOT to plant in the garden. Sort of a plant ‘hit list’. However, as the garden evolved, and my wallet shrank, I realized that rather than plant what I wanted to plant, it was smarter to plant what grew! Lamium did very well in parts of the garden, along with Sarcoccoa, Japanese Maples in the brighter spots, hydrangeas, some baby’s tears. However, if you looked at the garden en masse, especially right before we moved, the palette was green. No blooms. We had Camellia that might flower in December, a harden shade-tolerant Rhododendron that eeked out a flower in spring. Overall though, that garden was relatively bloom-less, and yet, honestly, of all the gardens I’ve had, it was the most serene, and the most restful. To garden designers who insist on blooms all year…I say…pffffft. 😉 (Darn…why didn’t I try snowdrops?)

    • Thank you so much for your comment. To be honest I was nervous about putting my rebellious design thoughts out there, but I figured nothing ventured nothing gained. I too have evolved like you to really encourage and keep what grows and especially what spreads and reseeds. Somehow we have gotten into this mindset that the finickier a plant is, the more desirable it is hence the water, the fertilizer, the chemicals, the high maintenance. And heaven forbid a plant should choose to go places on its own without consulting its gardener. I have resisted the urge to edit out what I didn’t plan and the beauty of my garden has increased enormously. Carolyn

  8. Carolyn, as i read all comments here i am thinking that all your commenters are professional landscape people, except me, the horticulturist by profession who is not practicing it. I really envy you people doing landscape design and doing your gardens as you wish, you have the time and funds for them. How i wish i can do that too. It seems to me gardening in your part of the world with 4 seasons is very challenging as you have to know all the plants, and really do a lot of planting and replanting. It is a different case here, where maintenance is just done continuously because the plants stay alive continuously.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Andrea. I am not a landscape designer other than for my own gardens. However, I own a nursery and propagate over 50% of the plants I sell in the ground (no greenhouse here!). When I transfer those plants to my display gardens they are free as are those that self-seed and spread. Money is an issue so I am very careful when purchasing plants for my own gardens, although wholesale prices help. As to time, during the parts of the year when the nursery is open, I work 7 days a week, 14 hours a day, and none of that time is spent gardening. That is one of the frustrating things about my job. I love four-season gardening because it means I can grow four times as many plants as current star performers fade and are replaced by the next season’s hits. Carolyn

  9. Dear Carolyn – thank-you, this post is a mine of information and one I have taken great note of given that we share some of the same conditions, although not spacially. Without the short-lived wow factor, the garden looks natural and has eternal interest. Particularly interested in the Lamium – a much nicer ground cover than my Periwinkle


    • Thanks Laura. I love lamium, and it really does stay green all winter. I am always perplexed when people call a groundcover invasive–groundcovers are supposed to take over the area they are planted in. Invasive is species lamiastrum, goutweed, lesser celandine, etc. Carolyn

  10. In my current house, I no longer have a shade garden but I look at your selections wistfully. I have managed to create small micro-gardens in odd corners between the house and the deck or under heavier foliage plants. I really loved your choices for fall color.

  11. This was a perfect post for me to come across. I was actually just out removing a dead Japanese Maple in my front entry garden. It’s a pretty shady area and I’ve been trying to decide what to do with the area since I don’t plan to add another tree. I hadn’t thought about Lamiun as a ground cover there, that would be really pretty. I’ve also been looking at Christmas roses to add there.

    • Hi Catherine, ‘Shell Pink’ is the only lamium I know that blooms from April to December. All the others have a bloom period in spring and then they are done. Also it and ‘Purple Dragon’ are the only lamiums I have had luck with so they are the only cultivars I sell (with occasional lapses). Look for my upcoming post on fall-blooming hellebores. Carolyn

  12. Hi Carolyn, Donna had just told me about your great blog. She is absolutely right! There is much I can learn from you. Will be back.

  13. Lovely post and lovely site, Carolyn. Thanks for stopping by so I could admire/sigh over your lovely late season garden (mine is put to bed but covers tousled by varmint squirrels/chipmunks digging spring bulbs). A fellow shade garden lover, you are indeed blessed … lamium for me is a huge pest! Hat off … you obviously can tame the wild 🙂

    • Thanks Joey. Does your lamium have yellow flowers? If so, it’s lamiastrum and that is a pest. I wish my pink and purple flowered lamium would grow faster and thicker. The garden I portrayed will look like that for a long time unless we get a lot of ice and snow and bitter temperatures. I keep myself oriented to the outside as long as I can with winter gardening. Carolyn

  14. Lovely post! Very inspiring. I wish I could grow fall blooming hellebores and snowdrops! Beautiful foliage throughout. I am so sorry about your Daphne! She was so stunning! Great photos!

    • Thanks Carol, you have been very supportive of my blog. I don’t see why you can’t have fall-blooming hellebores since Christmas rose, H. niger, is hardy to zone 4, and there are two fall-blooming cultivars. I will be talking about this in my next post. The fall-blooming snowdrops probably are not cold hardy enough for you. You are the only one who mentioned my daphne–thanks. There were actually five of them. Daphnes are very hard to grow, but to me well worth it. I have ordered five more to plant in the spring: this time D. odora ‘Aureo-marginata with the cream edges. Carolyn

  15. Maureen Horesh Says:

    HI Caroline–

    I agree with, and am enjoying some of these fall interest choices. May I add two that you may have or want to try? They are the rock fern, polypodium virginianum, and the xmas fern, polystichum acrostichoides. These keep me going, don’t seem battered by winter snows and wind, til spring in my shady garden.

    • Hi Maureen, My articles are intended to be seasonal and focus on whatever garden activities and plants are of interest then. I am going to do an article on evergreen ferns for winter (I’ve already started taking the photographs). I am familiar with P. virginianum, but I don’t have it in my garden. I would love it if you sent me some photos of yours. Carolyn

  16. Very lovely fall foliage! I like the shell pink specially.

  17. Hi Carolyn,
    Although, as you told me once, I can’t plant the type of perennials you have, I find your post enlightening in other ways. Here in the tropics, I have the same problem of not being able to keep some beds at premium performance throughout the year as I use annuals and perennials together in one bed. So your suggestion of one prominent garden using ground cover is a great idea I can utilise. Thanks.

  18. Had to stop by to see ‘Potter’s Prelude’…she’s beautiful Carolyn! Thank you for sending her…I’m really going to look forward to seeing this one in November!!

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