Carolyn Singer: A touch of gold for the shade |

Carolyn Singer: A touch of gold for the shade

Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa) brightens a shady sitting area in Carolyn Singer's garden.
Photo by Carolyn Singer

Shopping for perennials in one of our wonderful local nurseries, a single container of golden creeping jenny caught my attention, glowing among all the shades of green. Golden foliage has impact both as an evergreen in the landscape and as an accent color in the summer garden. In a shade garden, shrubs, perennials and groundcovers with vibrant golden foliage may be the most attractive focal point you can add.

Most of the gold in my garden is evergreen, adding warm color even in the dark of winter. An ornamental shrub I have had for many years, Choisya ternata “Sundance” (golden Mexican orange) grows at the base of a large ponderosa pine. It once received more shade from an old English walnut nearby.

When a severe snow storm ended the life of this majestic walnut tree, its protective boughs no longer provided the dappled shade my golden Mexican orange grew up with. However, it was too mature to move, and in the next few years its new foliage continued to add a glow to the landscape. In the heat of summer, however, it does show some stress on its sunny side. Grow “Sundance” in filtered sunlight for best results.

Now I am growing another golden Mexican orange, “Goldfingers” in my primary shade garden, an inviting area in the heat of the summer. Its foliage is finer, adding the strength of an ornamental shrub with a delicate touch. Like other Choisyas, the deer are not tempted to browse.

The Choisyas do best in amended native soil with only moderate irrigation in the drier summer months. Mine are watered deeply about every three weeks.

Another favorite ornamental shrub with golden evergreen foliage is the bush honeysuckle, Lonicera nitida “Baggesen’s Gold.” It is smaller than the Choisyas, with an attractive arching growth habit. Unfortunately this plant is not deer-resistant, so I can enjoy it only in the gardens of clients who have fenced properties, or who may not even have hungry deer.

A tough small-scale groundcover that is both evergreen and deer-resistant is a sweet marjoram, Oregano vulgare “Aureum,” is rare in the retail nursery trade but may be ordered online from Morning Sun Herb Farm in Vacaville, Calif. This golden oregano does not spread aggressively, unlike many of the species of common oregano.

Because it stays low (under four inches in bloom), Origanum “Aureum” may be used as an edging or even as a filler between stepping stones in the shade. White flowers on short stems are good pollinator blossoms, true of all the oreganos. If a flatter appearance is desired, clip or mow occasionally.

A variation is Origanum “Aureum Crispum,” with almost yellow foliage that has a crinkled appearance and is a bit taller than “Aureum.”

These golden forms of sweet marjoram are ideal for foothill gardens. As long as they are in at least afternoon shade, the irrigation requirements are limited to once every three weeks or even less in the heat of summer. If you want to use them as a touch of gold where irrigation is more frequent, they will also tolerate that. Their tight, dense growth excludes weeds.

My favorite deer-resistant perennial for the brightest areas of the shade garden is the feverfew with evergreen golden foliage, Tanacetum “Aureum.” This dependable plant is often available in local nurseries. If you allow fading blossoms to go into seed stage, you will be rewarded with volunteers after winter rains.

Golden feverfew does not do well in the deepest shade. Its irrigation requirement is the same as the sweet marjorums, once every three weeks. Because it can be grown on the dry side, it is a good perennial in the dappled shade of a shallow-rooted deciduous tree.

A favorite touch of gold in my shady sitting area is Japanese forest grass, Hakonechola macra “Aureola,” its arching growth habit best accentuated in containers on small tables. Growth begins in March and April, and by May it is a colorful addition to the shade garden. In mine, two hours of late afternoon sun in summer months does not damage the foliage.

In fall, the golden glow of Japanese forest grass fades, and in the weeks that follow the foliage turns a pleasing soft brown.

Soon after I cut it back to the crown in January, new growth begins, heralding the transition from winter to spring, with the promise of a golden touch in the summer shade.

Carolyn Singer has gardened organically in Nevada County since 1977. She is the author of the award-winning “The Seasoned Gardener, 5 decades of sustainable and practical garden wisdom”, and two volumes of “Deer in My Garden” (deer-resistant plants), available locally. Send your gardening questions and comments to Check out her website at

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