Your condominium may have a north- or east-facing balcony, or the building next door may block out the sun for the best part of the day. Even if you are lucky enough to have your own garden, there will always be some corner that is shady. Finding plants that will thrive in these areas can be tricky, but with a little trial and error you can turn those sunless corners into interesting little gardens.

Checking out what grows in shady areas of your local park or your neighbor’s garden may throw some light on the subject. It’s also worth looking at plants growing around the entrances of larger office blocks and hotels, which often do not receive much sunlight.

Dendropanax Trifidus, a small understory tree, bears black berries in the fall.

If you live in Tokyo I recommend you visit the Shizen Kyoiku-en (National Park for Nature Study) in Meguro Ward, an old estate which has been allowed to revert to a seminatural woodland garden. Gardens that receive little sunlight can be thought of as miniature woodland gardens, so this park is a good place to pick up ideas for what might grow at home.

For small gardens, it’s better to concentrate on the smaller woodland plants. Hakonechola macra, family Gramineae (urahagusa), is a woodland grass whose variegated forms are often grown as potted plants. As the generic name suggests, this beautiful grass is native to Japan, found on wet rocky cliffs in the Hakone and Kii areas.

Hakonechola has arching stems 40-70 cm long, and leaves with inwardly rolled edges, 10-25 cm long. The flowers are yellowish-green panicles 5-15 cm long, blooming from August to October. The variety Aureola, which has leaves with bands of yellow on the margin and a thin line of green in the center, is very popular with gardeners.

Pachysandra terminalis, a familiar ground-cover plant, does well in the shade.

Hakonechola is a shade-loving grass, and likes good, moist soil containing humus. This plant spreads slowly via creeping rhizomes. To propagate, divide it in early spring.

Another Japanese grass is the evergreen Carex morrowii. Native to woods in the low mountains of Fukushima and westwards along the Pacific side of Japan, Carex morrowii is a clump-forming grass, with leafy stems 20-40 cm long and only 5-10 mm wide. The cultivar Evergold is popular, with variegated foliage that is very attractive even in the depths of winter; the center of the leaf is white with a thin green strip along the margin. Between April and May, it produces flowering stems 20-50 cm long, with one male inflorescence and 2-4 female inflorescenes, yellowish-green in color. Evergold will not do well in dry soil, but will grow happily in the shade of overhead trees.

A planter for a shady corner centers on a Sunny Foster holly, backed up by a Japanese fern, with toad lilies and impatiens for color and sweetbox for scent.

The lily family has a number of interesting evergreen perennials suitable for shade gardening. The common turf lily or yabu-ran (Liriope muscari) is attractive, but too vigorous for small balcony gardens. Oba-ja-no-hige (Ophiopogon planiscapus) is more suitable, with deep-green leaves 30-50 cm long and 4-6 mm wide. In July and August flower stems 20-30 cm long emerge from the center of the plant, with mauve or white flowers 6-7 cm long, and dull blue seeds in autumn. The variety O. planiscapus nigrescens has blackish-green leaves and makes a very attractive potted plant.

If you just want one evergreen tree for a shady location that requires little attention, Dendropanax trifidus is a good choice. This member of the ginseng family is native to Japan, westward from the Boso Peninsula in warm coastal areas. I have seen it growing wild on Enoshima and on Izu Oshima, in the deep shade of much taller trees.

The young leaves have three to five lobes, which disappear as the tree matures. The flowers are inconspicuous, but the roundish black berries produced in bunches are attractive. Each berry is 5-6 mm wide.

Shade gardening posed a challenge when I was asked to design a planter for Lori and Samio Watanabe’s family garden in Kobe New Town. The planter was in a spot with a high wall on the north and east sides, and received only a little sun during the winter months, and about two to three hours from spring until autumn. This was essentially, therefore, a woodland garden, with the walls acting as rock faces, so rose bushes and geraniums were out.

I chose a Sunny Foster, a Topel holly (Ilex x attenuata) from the southeastern U.S., for the center. Sunny Foster is slow-growing and has narrow yellow leaves; the yellowness has now disappeared from the specimen in the Watanabe’s planter because of the shade, but when it is a bit taller it will get more sun and the golden color will return.

Plants for the shaded garden:
1. Kizuda, ivy (Hedera helix or H. rhombea); evergreen, many cultivars, blooms October-November
2. Kichijo-so (Reineckea carnea); evergreen, blooms August-October followed by red berries; Japan native
3.Fukki-so (Pachysandra terminalis); evergreen, blooms March-May; Japan native
4. Doitsu-suzuran, German lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majus); herbaceous perennial, blooms May
5. Himaraya yuki-no-shita (Bergenia cordifolia); evergreen perennial, blooms February-March; Siberia native
6. Shaga, Japanese iris (Iris japonica); evergreen perennial, blooms April-May
7. Sarukokokka, sweetbox (Sarcococca humilis); evergreen shrub (height 60-100 cm), blooms January-March
8. Hototogisu, toad lily (Tricyrtis hirta); herbaceous perennial, blooms August-September
9. O-shida (Dryopteris crassirhizoma); deciduous fern; height 40-100 cm
10. Afurika-hosenka or inpachienzu, busy lizzie or impatiens (Impatiens walleriana); herbaceous annual, blooms May-October
11. Oba-ja-no-hige, turf lily (Ophiopogon planiscapus); evergreen perennial, blooms July-August
12. Hiiragi-nanten, Japanese mahonia (Mahonia japonica); evergreen shrub (height 1-2 meters), blooms March-April
13. Hime-tsuru-nichinichi-so, periwinkle (Vinca minor); evergreen perennial (ground cover), blooms May-September
14. Kakuremino (Dendropanax trifidus); evergreen shrub or small tree (height 3-15 meters); bears black berries in fall
15. Yuki-no-shita, mother of thousands or strawberry geranium (Saxifraga stolonifera); evergreen, blooms May-June

Directly behind the holly I planted one Japanese o-shida fern (Dryopteris crassirhizoma). This is a beautiful deciduous fern with foliage that is especially attractive in spring when the new fronds emerge. The blades are 40-100 cm long, with compound leaves.

At the front of the planter I planted two toad lilies (Tricyrtis perfoliata). Endemic to Kyushu, this herbaceous perennial needs moist, shady locations, and has yellow flowers, 2.5 cm wide, that bloom in September.

The common toad lily (T. hirta), known in Japanese as hototogisu, also needs shade. The flowers are white-purple, blooming from August to October. The plant can be divided in early spring.

For fragrance I planted sweetbox (Sarcococca humilis), a low-growing evergreen shrub. It has shiny dark-green leaves and white, scented male flowers which appear in early spring.

Sarcococca species are not fussy about soil type and will grow under trees and shrubs. There are 11 species in total and all come from the Himalayan region.

For summer color I planted a couple of busy lizzies (afurika-hosenka or inpachienzu, Impatiens walleriana), also known as the patience plant or sultana. This annual grows best in semi-shade, and has colors ranging from white to dark pink. Some varieties have variegated foliage and some have double flowers. Of South African origin, busy lizzies are the most popular bedding plant in the U.S., and require regular fertilizer to stay vigorous.

When creating your own shade garden, remember that a small section of trellis can be used to cover any bare walls. Choose nice pots for any potted plants; you will be looking at both the plant and pot every day. Just as in bonsai gardening, the selection of the pot is important. Watering the shade garden will not be as demanding as watering gardens in sunnier locations.

Good luck, and don’t give up if one or two plants fail to grow well — the secret of gardening is to keep trying.

Garden news

June is a good time to see roses. Yatsu Rose Garden in Chiba has 700 varieties and 6,300 bushes, as well as a 60-meter rose arch. The garden is close to Keisei-Yatsu Station. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission 200 yen. For more information, call (047) 453-3772.