Four Easy to Grow, Shade Loving Alternatives to Hostas

Hosta and Shade Plants
Hostas are staples of the shade garden. (ballycroy/Getty Images Signature)

I love hostas – the beautiful large leaves turn a shady garden spot into a tropical-looking oasis, and they’re low-maintenance and hardy. But I like surprises in the garden, too, and sometimes you just want something different!

If you’re ready for a new look in your garden, here are four alternatives to hostas that will give you a similar effect while adding variety. Read on to find out more.

Fern
Hardy ferns add a lacy look to your garden. (Lyn Caudle/Getty Images)

Shade Loving Plant #1: Hardy Ferns

I love hardy ferns because there are so many native options. Growing and spreading quite happily in woodlands and near streams, ferns are a low-maintenance addition to your shady garden.

Hardy fern varieties range from 1’ to 6’ tall, so there’s a fern that’s just right for every spot! They also tend to be more deer-resistant than hostas, while providing a gorgeous delicate texture with an arching, elegant look.

Growing Tips for Hardy Ferns

  • Light: Full to part shade, with protection from afternoon sun.
  • Water: At least 1” of water per week with mulch to keep the soil evenly moist.
  • Soil: Rich, humusy soil, similar to a forest floor, with lots of organic matter and compost. Most ferns prefer somewhat acidic soil.
  • Division: Divide clumps in fall or early spring.
  • Size: Range from 1’ to 6’ high. Some ferns spread through runners, more like a groundcover, while others grow in tidy clumps. Make sure to choose a fern that fits your design.
  • Climate: Cold hardiness of hardy ferns varies depending on the type.
  • Fertilizer: Feed in the spring with a balanced, organic slow-release fertilizer. Don’t over fertilize.

Coral Bells
A few of the many varieties of coral bells that are available. (KenWiedemann/Getty Images Signature)

Shade Loving Plant #2: Coral Bells (Heuchera)

Coral bells seem to be the new darling of the perennial world, with colorful new varieties emerging every year. Another native American plant, coral bells grow happily in shade, semi-shade, or filtered sun.

Thanks to enthusiastic hybridizing, there’s a coral bell for every color palate. Foliage comes in shades of orange, purple, bronze, silver, and red, with gorgeous flower spikes in late spring in whites, pinks, corals, and reds.

While shaped like hostas, coral bells are generally a little lower-growing (1’ to 3’); making them perfect for borders, edging, and tucking into containers.

Growing Tips for Coral Bells

  • Light: Full shade to filtered sun. Can tolerate some full sun, although the leaves may scorch.
  • Water: Low-maintenance, needing only regular water during dry spells.
  • Soil: Well-draining, neutral to slightly acid soil rich in organic matter, with mulch to retain moisture.
  • Division: Propagate by clump division or cuttings.
  • Size: Coral bells range from 1’ to 3’ tall and wide.
  • Maintenance: Deadhead spent coral bell blooms to encourage more foliage growth.
  • Mulch: In areas with freezing winters, beware of frost heaving (plants being pushed out of the ground by freezing/thawing). Mulch in fall to help prevent this, and check and replant any exposed roots.
  • Disease: Look out for fungal diseases in damp, shady garden spots. If fungal disease is detected, move these plants to locations with a little more air and sunlight.

Rodgersia
Rodgersia plants make a statement in shady gardens. (hrabar/Getty Images)

Shade Loving Plant #3: Rodgersia

The first time I saw a Rodgersia (growing in the yard of the house I’d just bought), I spent weeks scouring books and online to find out what on earth it was! The dramatic, huge foliage arches gracefully and is then followed by tall, lacy flower spikes in the summer.

Rodgersia makes a strong architectural statement in the garden – the stems are strong, and the leaves and thick and textured, shifting through shades of bronze and copper as they emerge.

Growing Tips for Rodgersia

  • Light: Semi-shade to full sun, if the soil is kept moist. Watch out for leaf scorch in hot, dry conditions.
  • Water: Rodgersia plants are water-lovers that are naturally suited for growing along streams and in boggy areas.
  • Soil: Moist, rich soil with plenty of mulch to hold in water.
  • Division: Spreads by clumping rhizomes. Divide in spring.
  • Size: Grows 3’ to 5’ high and nearly as wide.

Lenten Rose
Lenten roses are both evergreen and deer-resistant. (Nahhan/Getty Images)

Shade Loving Plant #4: Lenten Rose (Helleborus)

They may be called Lenten roses for their early spring bloom time, but mine surprised me this year by blooming in January! There’s nothing more refreshing than looking outside on a bleak winter’s day and seeing their sweet flowers poking out of the snow.

Lenten roses are a great addition to a shady garden, with dark, arching foliage and those early blooms. The plants themselves are sturdy evergreens that provide deer-resistant structure to the garden year-round.

Growing Tips for Lenten Roses

  • Light: Dappled sun to full shade. Great to plant under deciduous trees, with light winter sun and summer shade.
  • Water: Once established, Lenten roses are pretty drought tolerant, although they will appreciate a little water during dry spells.
  • Soil: Like other woodland plants, Lenten roses like well-draining soil which is rich in organic matter. Amend heavily acidic soils with lime, particularly if growing hybrids.
  • Division: Lenten roses are slower to establish and generally don’t like to be divided, although seedlings may emerge around the parent plant that can be moved.
  • Size: Lenten roses grow about 18” tall and are evergreen.
  • Fertilizer: Feed in early spring with a balanced, organic slow-release fertilizer.
  • Pruning: Prune back ragged foliage in early spring before new growth starts. Deadhead flower stalks.

Further Reading

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