While finding plants that will thrive in a Northeastern shade gardens may seem daunting, several varieties of shrubs, flowers and foliage plants exist, and some of them even edible. Check hardiness labels carefully; even if one hosta is better suited to Southern states, you’re sure to find a look-alike perfect for Northeastern sections of the United States.
Small Trees and Shrubs
Several understory trees—small trees accustomed to growing under larger, spreading trees—fit well into a Northeastern shade garden. Trees like persimmon and pawpaws even add edible landscaping to the equation. Breeds for Northern gardens are now available.
Under these small trees, or ringing a shady yard, plant other food-source plants that take shade well, including hazelnuts, black currant and black raspberry. Mulberries and some high brush blueberries and cranberries may take to dappled shade; choose varieties carefully.
Ornamental shrubs well-known to Northeastern shade gardeners include daphnes, mountain laurels and large and dwarfing rhododendrons. These handsome shrubs bloom throughout the spring, and their broad-leafed foliage stays evergreen during the drab winter months.
Lily-of-the-Valley covers large patches of shady ground while scenting the air with its delicate, bell-shaped white flowers. Bleeding heart adds vivid color in arching burgundy plumes. Crested iris in various hues adds interest to a shade garden, as do autumn-blooming toad lilies and Japanese anemones. Feathery astiblle offers pastel or bronze presence on an almost shrub-like plant. Lady’s mantle bears beautiful, heart-shaped leaves and delicate yellow flowers.
Also consider columbine, daylilies, violets, foam flower, Dutchman's breeches, meadow rue and trillium.
Shady Perennial Foliage
Hostas and heucheras lead the pack when it comes to shade-loving, leafy ornamentals in the Northeastern garden. Large-leafed hostas, which gardeners prize for their astonishing range, come in a wide range of shades, including fragrant and variegated varieties. Heucheras, also known as coral bells, beat even hostas in variety, because in addition to the chartreuse, lime, emerald, and white splashes found on hosta leaves, smaller, rounder heucheras add bronze, red and pinks. Other ground covers for shade include epimedium and wintergreen, with its glossy foliage and edible red berries.
Whether spilling from stone urns or spreading out under a large tree, mint adds fragrance and softness to the landscape. Keep mint separate from other perennials, because they have a way of choking out their neighbors. Peppermint, catmint, spearmint and upright pennyroyal grow between 18 and 36 inches, while low-growing creeping pennyroyal or Corsican mint line paths or soften flagstone walks. If your garden has some dappled shade, tuck lemon balm, bee balm or tarragon into the landscape.
Unusual Food Crops
Consider giving over some of your shady ornamental garden to plants that do double-duty as decorative accents and perennial vegetables. In addition, all of these plants tolerate or even prefer those hard-to-garden dark, boggy places that exasperate homeowners.
Ostrich ferns, a tall and striking plant once it unfurls, yields edible fiddleheads in early spring. Low-growing wild leeks, also known as ramps, feature edible leaves and shallot-like bulbs. Both ferns and ramps are “rampant” spreaders, so give them plenty of elbow room.
Fuki, also known as sweet coltsfoot, gives even suburban gardens a rainforest feel with its 4 foot wide leaves and tall, edible stalks. Consider stinging nettle or wood nettle. These springtime classics make a delicious traditional spring soup once you boil the leaves and tops to remove the stinging hairs. Keep nettles where unsuspecting walkers won’t brush against them and gather them while wearing gloves.