Master Gardener talks multi-season shade gardens

Spring suggestions: Snowdrops, snow crocus, and winter aconite

By Frances Wychorski
Citizen Chronicle Writer

BROOKFIELD — Now that spring is in the air, area greenthumbs met this past weekend to learn about shade gardens for all seasons.

On Sunday afternoon, Brookfield Garden Club members and visitors filled Fellowship Hall in the Brookfield Congregational Church to talk about the upcoming gardening season.  The day was cool with a sun chasing around the clouds trying to melt the snow off a winter weary landscape. This month’s topic stirred the dormancy out of gardeners with a discussion on “Designing a Multi-Season Shade Garden,” by Sturbridge resident Paul Steen.

Mr. Steen is a Certified Master Gardener with the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. He is also a volunteer on the Master Gardeners’ telephone helpline. Mr. Steen presented a selection of shade perennial plants and indoor plant options for a blooming garden from March through November. A question and answer session followed the hour-long presentation on everything from how to feed rhododendrons to fertilizer ratios for plants’ different needs throughout the growing season.

Mr. Steen recommended to his audience the text, “Taylor’s 50 Perennials for Shade,” by Frances Tenenbaum. The book provides comprehensive charts on perennial plants, preferred shade level, soil conditions, height, and months in bloom. Because of the wide variety of plants, Mr. Steen focused on white flowering perennials. White flowers are attractive against the different shapes and textures the foliage will grow. The colors are not diluted in the shade and draw the eye into the more densely shaded garden areas.

Shade gardens will benefit from accurately measuring the amount of shade with a tool called: SunCalc Sunlight Calculator. The device will determine the amount of sun or shade in an area of a garden. The amount of sunlight will influence the health and longevity of the plantings’ preferred habitat. Placing a climbing rose-bush in full shade will inhibit the plant’s growth and ability to blossom, while a crested white iris in the same location may thrive and produce healthy growth flowering yearly.

Mr. Steen said the types of shade are full shade with no direct sun, part shade with two to four hours of sun a day, part sun with four to six hours of sun a day, and full sun with six or more hours of sun per day. In New England, the sun is never directly overhead. Our hardiness zones in Central Mass range from Zone 4 – 5. Gardeners are taking a chance on a plant labelled Zone 6.

Mr. Steen’s suggested white flowering perennials depend on the season. In February and March, he suggests Winter Heathers and Hellebore. From April to June, its spring bulbs of snowdrops, snow crocus, and winter aconite. Perennials of Crested Iris, Snowdrop anemone, Woodruff, White Meadow Rue, Lily of the Valley, Fuller’s White Phlox and white bleeding heart. In July and August, he urged Snakeroot and White Nancy, while in September and October it’s Liriope, Toad lily and Turtleheads.

At this time, of year, most gardeners have itchy fingers eager to be in the soil. Many a windowsill and greenhouse have annual and vegetable seedlings started. As the snow melts away, gardeners look for the first signs of crocus to appear. The spring birds are returning and animals awaking from dormancy. Another winter is passing. Welcome the turn of the Earth towards longer daylight hours and fresh breezes full of promise.

The Master Gardeners of Massachusetts offers two public helplines.

The Tower Hill Botanic Garden, Wednesdays from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Phone: 508-869-6111 x104
Email at:

The Mass Hort Elm Bank Help Line hours:

April through October:
Monday • Wednesday • Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

March and November:
Wednesday • Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

December through February:
Wednesday only, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
CALL: 617-933-4929
Email at:

Mr. Steen’s recommended local garden centers included Bemis Nursery in Spencer, Spencer Greenery in Spencer, Lamoreux Greenhouses in Brookfield, and Variegated Gardens in Eastford, Conn.


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