Dark and Swarmy

19th May 2020

Susanna Grant
Suzanna Grant looking bodacious in Linda

Our courtyard plant-shop Linda specialises in shady plants for small spaces. It’s in shade all day, bar a couple of hours, but as the surrounding high-rises continue to grow, our pizza-slice of light dwindles. We opened with very little ceremony, there’s no sign even, just an opened the gate every Sunday. We’re four minutes from the famous Columbia Road Flower Market and the visitors that stumble across us are enthusiastic about the amount of flowering perennials and ferns we’d squeezed into the space. They would often say ‘I’d love to have something like this but I don’t really get any light.’ It takes some persuasion to convince them that neither do we. Linda is filled with large planters of ferns, deadnettles (lamiums), masterworts (astrantias), anemones, foam flowers (tiarellas) and other shade-loving stalwarts. The yard is full of pollinators and new life after 15 years of being a dumping ground.

The lamiums were the real revelation – the minute they started flowering in May, the bees arrived. We knew ferns would grow happily in the courtyard but hadn’t realised how many pollinator-friendly plants would bloom freely in the shade. We even have a range of beautifully fragrant, scented pelargoniums in large vintage terracotta pots sitting proudly among the Dicksonia Antartica tree ferns.

The climate emergency has meant that people are more aware of the importance of wildlife in our ecosystem and there’s been a definite shift from seeing a garden as an individual plot – something to be tamed just for enjoyment’s sake – to realising it’s part of something much larger. Reducing mowing, and leaving part or even your entire garden wild, providing shelter for bees and ponds for frogs and toads all helps encourage more wildlife. But the key, whatever the size of plot you have, is the planting.

There are so many plants that thrive in the shade and still provide nectar for pollinators; hellebores (helleborus x hybridus), bleeding hearts (dicentra), bugloss (brunnera), Solomon’s seal (polygonatum) and lungwort (pulmonarias) will offer a feast for bees from January to May. Hydrangea, hardy geraniums (cranesbill), honesty (lunaria), meadow rue (thalictrum), Japanese anemones, and astrantia will bloom through till October.

It does make a difference what kind of shade you have. If you are planting directly underneath trees you need drought-tolerant plants, as the ground tends to be very dry. Pulmonaria, sweet woodruff (galium odoratum) and cranesbills will all thrive. Certain bees, such as carpenter bees, actually prefer to build their nests in the shade and most bees need shelter from the sun at different times.

If you don’t have any outside space but you do have a windowsill, you can still plant for pollinators. Window boxes and planters can provide a patchwork, nectar-rich haven if planted with the right things. Mint, lamium, coral bells (heuchera), tiarella, lemon balm (Melissa officianalis), Scot’s lovage (ligusticum scoticum) and erigeron make for wonderful container collections, and the bees will be very grateful. If you’re renting, plant up pots and containers – when you move, you can take them with you.

One thing to bear in mind is that pollinators prefer single flowers – the more cultivated plants with double flowers often has less or no pollen or nectar. The flowers don’t need to be big; fleabane (erigeron karvinskianus), creeping thyme (thymus serpyllum) and ivy-leaved toadflax (cymbalaria muralis) are all really pretty. They seed themselves into cracks in paving and walls, softening your landscape. Plus they provide a vital source of food for smaller pollinators including the bees that nest in walls. Whatever size your garden or window box, think about whether your plants are wild-life friendly before you plant them.

shade loving plants
Silver leaved lamium and pelargoniums amongst ferns in Linda's courtyard
shade plant
A treasure trove of shade lovers good for pollinators.
Author
Susanna Grant
Photographer
@theplanter_
Editor
Mark Cummings