Design Lessons from a Minnesota Shade Garden

Horn Garden
Get ideas for making your yard more beautiful with tips from a self-taught gardener.

Gardener Jane Horn has been busy creating a garden paradise in her suburban Minnesota garden for the last 12 years. The garden lives large, even though her lot is only two-thirds of an acre. Learn more from Jane in the following slides.

Add Color to Your Side Yard

A wooded hillside provided Jane the perfect place to put in a rustic flagstone path. Beds of hosta and yellow Corydalis lutea, one of her favorite plants, flank the charming walkway.

Make Great Plant Combos

Long-blooming Corydalis is a perfect companion for hostas because the foliage creates a wonderful textural contrast. Blue hosta varieties stand out against the yellow Corydalis blooms; chartreuse selections complement the dainty blossoms.

Test Garden Tip: Contrast hostas with other fine-leaf plants such as fernleaf bleeding heart, astilbe, or Japanese painted fern.

Plant En Masse

Most plants look best when planted in large groups. That's especially true for yellow Corydalis, which offers abundant sprays of tiny flowers over its ferny foliage. Corydalis is a self-seeding perennial that provides a dense groundcover.

Test Garden Tip: Select sweet woodruff, another fine-textured groundcover for shade. It has fragrant white flowers in early May.

Choose Cool Plants

Jane creates stunning combinations with unexpected plants. She set off easy-growing coleus, for example, with tropical croton, a common houseplant. Lovely purple sweet potato vine and grassy spider plant complete the ensemble. Jane saves money by digging the crotons each fall and bringing them indoors for the winter.

Test Garden Tip: Use contrasting foliage colors. Chartreuse coleus, for example, looks great with plants that have burgundy or purple leaves.

Create Contrasts

Use plants with similar foliage to create harmony in the landscape. One stunning example in Jane's garden is 'White Nancy' lamium and Sedum sieboldii, both of which have silvery leaves. The pair is set off by rich purple angelonia, an annual that blooms profusely all summer long, even in part shade.

Employ Fun Foliage

Garden designers know the importance of focal points to catch your attention and often use a birdbath, fountain, or other type of sculpture. But you can also employ plants. Here, Jane used a swath of burgundy coleus amid gold and green foliage.

Pay Attention to Texture

Enjoy a beautiful garden without flowers by playing up foliage. Purple Oxalis is a delightful contrast to ferny Corydalis in both color and texture. Jane paired the Oxalis with Japanese painted fern, which has burgundy tones in its fronds. Spotted lungwort ties into the silvery fern fronds, and big-leaf Petasites offers fun contrast with its large leaves.

Add Subtle Touches

'June' hosta is favored for its lovely blue foliage variegated with lime-green. The silvery-blue shade mixes wonderfully with lungwort, which offers a similar leaf shape. The color repeats in Japanese painted fern, which supplies a different texture.

Decorate with Containers

Several containers provide brilliant splashes of color in her shade garden. This one features 'Trailing Burgundy' coleus, 'China Curl' rex begonia, and the fine texture of artillery plant.

Mix and Match

A grouping of pots is always a sure design bet; Jane mixed sizes and shapes but kept a blue color theme. A set of globes adds artistic interest.

Grow a Variety of the Same Plant

Jane has a delightful view from her deck thanks to a wonderful collection of colorful hostas. While some gardeners think hostas are boring, you can create brilliant plantings like this by pairing varieties with different leaf colors, sizes, and variegation patterns.

Stop Mowing Slopes

Hostas are a topnotch groundcover for shady areas. Plant them on a tough-to-mow hillside to create a lovely, carefree garden bed.

If you have a steep slope that water runs down so quickly the soil can't absorb moisture, try breaking up the hill with rocks or other barriers. It will slow the flow of water.

Use Variegated Varieties

'Patriot' hosta, with its wide white leaf edges, is standout in any planting. But it really shines paired with nonvariegated selections. Jane also mixed in delicate maidenhair fern and Corydalis for texture.

Add Layers

Jane uses containers to add layers of color, such as in this hanging planter filled with Diamond Frost Euphorbia and blue lobelia.

Test Garden Tip: This planter is the Down Under Planter. Learn more about it at

Grow Groundcovers

Add interest to your landscape by using annuals in interesting ways. Here, 'Limon' jewels of opar creates a lovely groundcover. It's a self-seeder, so Jane can let it reappear on its own year after year. Or, because it's an annual, she can mulch over it and plant something else.

'Limon' jewels of opar offers wonderfully bright foliage. It's an ideal contrast for blue flowers such as this balloon flower. Consider pairing it with campanula, catmint, or spiderwort.

Combine Annuals and Perennials

Around the front of her house, Jane uses containers to decorate the base of a pondless waterfall. Purple and burgundy foliage tie the plantings to her backyard and offers plenty of streetside drama.

Add Drama with Purple Foliage

Purple sugarcane, an interesting and uncommon annual, gives this planter of dusty miller, bacopa, and purple 'Magilla' perilla a fireworks effect.

Test Garden Tip: Use grasses or similar plants such as New Zealand flax, lilyturf, and sedges if you can't find sugarcane in your area.


You don't need a large space to create a lush landscape. Jane's garden sits on an average-size lot in suburban Minnesota.

See how another Midwest gardener tamed her landscape with the best plants for a slope on our sister site, Midwest Living.

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