There are many plants that prefer the shady side of your garden. One of my favorites is Astilbe (a-stil-be), a lovely perennial for a garden with low light. Perfect for flower arrangements, it also attracts butterflies. It’s tall feathery flowers delight in white, pink, peach, mauve or red, and seem to float above rich green foliage. Depending on the variety, it may grow from 8 to 36 inches tall and bloom from late spring to mid-summer.
You can purchase Astilbe in containers at most local garden centers. It does well in Oceana’s “hardiness zone”, a geographic area defined to encompass a certain range of climatic conditions relevant to plant growth and endurance. Simply, that means it will survive our weather. According to several sources, Oceana County may have up to four zones, from 5a to 6b. Most garden centers stock plants that grow well in their zone and are happy to give you advice about hardiness.
Astilbe will do best in partial shade (less than four hours of sun a day) to light shade (four to six hours of sun a day). According to McClure’s “365 Down-To-Earth Gardening, Hints and Tips,” partial shade can be found under trees that allow sunlight to penetrate through the canopy and dapple the ground throughout the day. Light shade is found in gardens that have mature trees with long barren trunks, allowing the sun to shine in under the high canopies. It can also be found on the east or west side of a wall or building. You may try Astilbe in full shade or full sun, but they will struggle to be at their best.
Astilbe prefers soil that is rich in organic matter and will thrive in a top dressing of well rotted compost or peat moss. You may fertilize with a general fertilizer like 10-10-10 at about a pound per 10-foot by 10-foot area. Sprinkle it around the plants and water it in, making sure to rinse the fertilizer off any leaves or stems to prevent burning. Plant Astilbe 12 to 19 inches apart in early spring to allow the roots to be established before the summer’s heat. They have a shallow root system and the plant will dry out easily, leaves curling up and turning brown, not likely to recover until next season. That’s why planting them in full sun is a challenge, they require water almost twice a day in those conditions.
It isn’t necessary to dead-head the flowers (remove spent blooms), although you may. They provide interesting contrast, or ‘winter interest’ in a snowy garden. Although Astilbe tends to be resistant to disease and pests, it’s best to clean up any dead flowers or foliage in the spring to keep your soil and new growth healthy. Deer don’t seem to bother this plant, although we know they’ll try anything when hungry enough. Rabbits may find the new green shoots tasty and bite off the fresh green growth, so repellents like moth balls or dried blood meal are effective deterrents, but must be reapplied after rain. Although I haven’t tried it, another suggestion is to mix one bottle of Tabasco sauce in a gallon of water sprayed onto the plants. Adding a few drops of liquid soap to the mixture helps it stick.
After three to five years, you may need to split your plants to give them a fresh start. In the spring or fall, dig up the clumps and split the woody, fibrous rooted crowns with a sharp knife or spade. Before replanting add organic matter (well rotted compost or peat moss) to the soil. Keep the new divisions well watered and mulched.
Bleeding Heart, Hostas, Brunnera, Sweet Woodruff, Rhododendrons, Azaleas and Impatiens make good companions for Astilbe. Keep watching OHJ for articles about plants that like to live on the shady side of your garden!