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Light Tips for Gardening

Shady Garden Conditions

A shady garden doesn't necessarily mean you won't be able to grow anything. There are plants that actually thrive in the shade as well as measures you can take to make the most out of the little sunlight available. The following tips will help.

  • Grow sun-loving spring bulbs and wildflowers beneath deciduous shade trees to make the most of the sun before the tree leaves emerge. This is a great strategy for people who have a shady yard and therefore have trouble getting flowers to grow during summer and fall.

    Crocuses, squills, Spanish bluebells, daffodils, windflowers, glory-of-the-snow, and wildflowers such as bloodroot, squirrel corn, and other local natives thrive in spring sun. When tree leaves emerge and the setting grows dark, many of these spring growers fall dormant and lie quietly below the ground until spring sun arrives again.

  • Paint a dark wall white to reflect more light onto plants. Just like the silver solar reflectors used by sunbathers to intensify their tans, a light-colored wall will reflect additional light onto nearby plants. Similarly, using a mulch of white pebbles, sand, or gravel will reflect light up through the bottom of plants, a technique often used in gardens of Mediterranean herbs or silver-leaved plants that thrive on plenty of sun.

    A painted white wall can reflect more sunlight onto plants.
    A painted white wall can reflect more sunlight onto plants.

  • Limb-up trees or remove smaller, scraggly, or unwanted saplings and brush to brighten a densely shaded spot. Tall, mature shade trees can have their lower limbs removed (a heavy job requiring a professional arborist) to produce light shade. For even more light, arborists can thin out overcrowded branches in the canopy, leaving some openings in the foliage for sun penetration.

  • Removing unwanted tangles of young trees, wild shrubs, and other woody growth is a project you can do yourself. Look for self-sown seedlings around trees such as maples, oaks, ashes, and elms. Crabapples will send up vertical sprouts called suckers, turning the tree into a bush. Get a pair of long-handled pruning lopers to trim out the smaller growth and a pruning saw to remove larger trunks. When finished, you can admire the newly revealed shape of the tree trunk and the ferns, hostas, and other shade plants that can grow beneath it. Be sure not to overthin; you should leave enough saplings to replace older trees as they die.

  • Prune low-hanging branches on a sunny day so you can see how the light changes. This way you can watch the shade lighten. You also can keep an eye on the shadows, which will dance from one side of the tree to the other, changing with the time of day and position of the sun. Their silhouettes can be a beautiful part of the garden, especially in winter when the dark shadows stand out on the white snow.

  • Do not prune oaks in summer. Even though this may be when you are anxious to lighten shade the most, it will make your trees susceptible to oak wilt disease. Prune, instead, in late winter.

  • When growing potted plants indoors, supplement natural light with fluorescent or grow lights. Sometimes in winter the weather may be cloudy for days, even weeks. This creates problems for tropical plants, potted flowers, and even foliage plants which need light to remain healthy.The solution is to hang a fluorescent shop light directly over your indoor plants. Special grow lights or full spectrum bulbs (formulated to produce light wavelengths that plants need most) can be used in place of fluorescent bulbs for spectacular results with flowering plants. For extra-easy maintenance, plug the lights into an automatic timer, then set them to turn on for 14 to 16 hours a day and off again at night.

Just like too much shade can be difficult to work with in a garden, so, too, is an abundance of sunlight. Check out the next section for suggestions on dealing with sunny garden conditions.

Some Plants for Shady Conditions
The following plants need varying degrees of shade.

Plants for full shade:

Plants for partial shade:

Plants for light shade:


Want more gardening tips? Try:

  • Gardening Tips: Learn great helpful hints for all of your gardening needs.
  • Annuals: Plant these beauties in your garden.
  • Perennials: Choose great plants that will return year after year.
  • Gardening: Discover how to garden.