Carolyn Singer: Evergreen perennials in the shade — Lush foliage and yet deer-resistant |

Carolyn Singer: Evergreen perennials in the shade — Lush foliage and yet deer-resistant

Carolyn Singer
Brunnera macrophylla volunteers in a shady Cedar Ridge garden. The plant boasts heart-shaped leaves with delicate blue flowers.
Photo by Carolyn Singer

The lure of a shade garden during the summer heat is powerful. The favorite garden spot for my Australian shepherd years ago was the bed of violets under a Sierra redwood. Cool and peaceful.

Creating a shade garden can be challenging. Some plants thrive in partial shade but may reach for more light during bloom. The wonderful straw foxglove is a perfect example.

Grown in too much shade, the otherwise strong flower stalks lean and fewer flowers form. With just a bit more light, they are upright and many yellow flowers brighten the garden in June.

And the deer don’t touch it!

Digitalis lutea (straw foxglove) is an attractive evergreen perennial for the brighter spots in the shade garden. Morning sun followed by afternoon shade is perfect.

The outer zones of the shade cast by a deciduous tree is another good exposure. An uncommon perennial, seeds may be ordered from J.L. Hudson, Seedsman in La Honda, California.

Seed is fine. In the garden, spread a one to two-inch layer of compost and sow the seed directly on top without raking or covering the seed. Keep moist until the seedlings appear. Fall sowing, that perfect season for sowing and planting so many native and non-native plants, works very well for the seed of all the Digitalis.

While straw foxglove is a smaller plant than the common biennial foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), its two to three-foot height in bloom and strong basal foliage year-round is a great addition to the semi-shade garden. Prune back the flower stalk to the base when blooms fade unless you are planning to save seed.

Glorious shade

Visiting the garden of a friend near Rattlesnake Road many years ago, I was captivated by an evergreen perennial I did not yet have in my own garden.

Brunnera macrophylla had self-sown freely, their heart-shaped leaves contrasting with beautiful delicate sprays of bright blue forget-me-not flowers. Everywhere I looked in this shady garden, in crevices, in open areas, and even in a couple of abandoned containers, this striking perennial had found a home.

I was grateful for the plants my friend shared, and now that the Brunnera has adapted to my garden, I simply enjoy its nature to wander. Although I was amazed to discover this past spring, several seedlings in the center of my gravel driveway. This is another evergreen perennial that is deer-resistant.

Brunnera does well in deeper shade or semi-shade. Its large leaves create a lush groundcover.

I have grown Jerusalem sage (Phlomis russeliana) in both the shade garden under a mature alder tree, and in several hours of strong sunlight, frequently the recommended exposure for this strong and interesting perennial. In the shade garden, blooms are just as strong and summer irrigation requirements far less than when Phlomis is grown in the sun.

Deer-resistant and evergreen, Jerusalem sage spreads to create thick plantings through which few weeds even attempt to establish. Lovely yellow flowers are formed in clusters along the strongly upright three-foot stalks. When flowers fade, the seedheads are a delight of my winter garden, accented with frost on some mornings, and catching snow on rare occasions.

The hellebores (Helleborus) are a strength in the shade garden, each species with its own distinct evergreen foliage. The Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis) is best in deep shade during the summer heat, an exposure that will lessen summer water needs without compromising late winter bloom.

Bear’s foot hellebore and Corsican hellebore bloom best grown in shade with some winter light to encourage more flowers.

My primary shade garden, and certainly the one most appealing as a retreat during summer heat is under a large deciduous alder tree. While the tree is “at home” as a native for moister areas of Sierra foothill canyons and creek areas, it was well-established when I arrived more than four decades ago. Its shallow roots compete for moisture with any plantings. A perfect test ground for perennials.

And because my resident deer sample everything I plant, I am pleased to report that all these shade perennials are evergreen, deer-resistant and not too demanding of summer water. With the exception of the straw foxglove, I have found all available in local nurseries. Although, of course, supplies vary.

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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