Gardening in the shade can be challenging, but that doesn't mean the gardener shouldn't try it. Many perennials thrive in lower light levels and you'd be missing out on textures and colors that would only scorch in all-day sun. The first step in deciding which shade plant would thrive, and be easy to care for, is to determine the amount of shade there. This is done by observing the area during the course of a sunny day and seeing where and when the sun hits, if at all.
So many different hostas are available, it is hard to choose, but choose you should, because there is nothing like their hardiness and variety of leaf color and texture. Hostas range in size from the very tiny (a variety called "Pandora's Box" at 3 feet tall) to humongous ("Mr. Big," at 72 inches wide).
Foliage color ranges from solid green to variegated (green and white), to yellow and to ice blue. Some have smooth foliage and others are slightly puckered. They flower in tall spikes, which come in white, lavender or purple, in varying degrees of desirability. Tracy DiSabato-Aust in her book "The Well-Tended Perennial Garden" (Timber Press; 1998) recommends well-drained soil that holds some moisture as well as the addition of organic matter, but that hostas can acclimate to other conditions.
Light exposure ranges from partial shade to full shade. It grows best in USDA Hardiness Zones 3-8. (For a map of US Hardiness Zones, see Resources.)
Bowman's Root goes by Gillenia or Porteranthus. You might think a plant with two botanical names would be more well-known, but it is rarely found in gardens. That's a shame, because this perennial is one of the hardiest for partial shade to a full shade situation. With the first heat of spring, Gillenia takes off, growing almost 3 feet tall and almost as wide in no time, creating the solid presence of a shrub in the garden. The white flowers are delicate and airy.
The plant flowers for a long time and the foliage stays beautiful until frost. It is a long-lived plant as well. Although it is not that widely available, this may be changing. Sunny Border Nurseries, a wholesale nursery in Connecticut, carries a cultivar of this plant called Gillenia (or Porteranthus) trifoliata 'Pink Profusion.' It grows in USDA zones 4-8.
Brunnera or Siberian bugloss has forget-me-not flowers in spring. It does best when planted in partial shade to full shade, as sun scorches the leaves, especially the variegated varieties. DiSabato-Aust recommends moist soil with organic matter mixed in and to cut back hard if leaves start to look unsightly, with the reassurance new growth will come in nicely. Plants grow to about 18 inches tall. The original variety is green, and in addition to variegated varieties, there are many new cultivars, some silver like Brunnera m. 'Jack Frost.' USDA Zone: 3-7.
Digitalis grandiflora or yellow foxglove, unlike its showy biennial relatives, is long-lived and reliable. The plant grows in a variety of light conditions, from sun to dense shade, although plant will be shorter in dense shade and won't flower as profusely. The plant doesn't seem to be picky about soil type, but doesn't like to dry out. It grows about 30 inches tall and has pale yellow "gloves." It blooms mid-summer, and grows in USDA zones 4-9.