Heucheras are tolerant of both dry and moist soil, and although the flowers are tiny, the leaf colours of the many hybrids available are simply stunning, and range from palest russet-pink and vibrant lime greens to maroon and mahogany. Add some furled green shuttlecock ferns and quilted-leaved hostas to the mix — as well as slug protection — and the shade garden, even with foliage alone, really starts to sing.
Lamprocapnos spectabilis is a star turn. Commonly known as bleeding heart and formerly known as Dicentra spectabilis, the perfect, locket-like flowers in rose pink and white hang all in a row on elegantly arching stems. Arguably more beautiful is the pure white version, L spectabilis Alba. For such a sublime plant, bleeding heart is surprisingly accommodating, but does need moist soil that will not dry out.
Erythronium Pagoda, a springtime showstopper (Image: Visions/Gap Photos)
Pulmonaria is a real hero of full shade, and will bring cottage-garden charm to the most urban patch. Clusters of funnel flowers in shades of pink and blue, often on the same plant, bloom above deep green leaves, sometimes mottled with white. Growers have managed to produce the deepest blue flowers such as in Blue Ensign, but in dark corners, the classically beautiful pulmonaria Sissinghurst White, with silvery-white spotted leaves and masses of pure white flowers, is the stand-out winner.
You might need to peer closely to fully benefit from the beauty of a corydalis, so plant it right at the front of a border, or better yet, grow it in a container for all to admire. The tubular, spurred flowers are a knockout shade of icy sky blue that deserve their own showcase. Corydalis obligingly will grow in both clay and sandy soils.
Most groundcover geraniums will flower in part or dappled shade, but Geranium phaeum is just made for shade and, with two-foot stems topped with maroon flowers, is the ideal and covetable plant to romp over a site that receives no sun whatsoever. Variety Samobor has deep purple blotches on the divided leaves, but Album is the white-flowered one to choose if you want to brighten a dark corner.
Primroses and periwinkle Vinca minor La Grave make a simple, sumptuous combination (Image: Richard Bloom/Gap Photos)
In trickiest areas of dry shade, where nothing seems to succeed, evergreen periwinkle Vinca minor will turn up trumps. Just because it is tagged "minor" does not make this trailing groundcover, dotted with the prettiest lavender-blue flowers, anything less than invaluable in full shade. Seek out variety Vinca minor f alba for white flowers that will light up a gloomy site.
All these plants perform best in good rich soil, so working in as much humus — compost, manure, whatever you can lay your hands on — is vital before planting. After planting, mulch with bark chippings to fake a woodland floor, as well as cut down on weeding. You could further lend the lie of a woodland glade by planting a trio of white-barked birches or the evocative shrub Corylus avellana Contorta, the hazel that has catkins dangling from wonderfully twisted branches.
Later on in summer, you can keep up the momentum with, say, a glade of Lilium martagon, the beautiful Turk's cap lily, as well as all manner of foxgloves and non-stop flowering fuchsias, but it is this magic moment in spring that will deliver the finest show that shade has to offer.