How to Grow a Shade Garden

By: the Editors of Publications International, Ltd.

It is all too easy to look at the negative aspects of shade: the favorite sun-loving plants you cannot grow, the pervasive greenness rather than the riotous color of the mixed border. Often there is little you can do about shade, so why not accept it and learn to live with it? You'll quickly find that shade gardening, while a bit of a challenge, offers ample advantages as well.

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Bloodroot is a popular flower for shade gardens.
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Shade gardens generally look good with less maintenance than a sunny garden. They are also better protected from summer and winter damage because nearby trees and walls make an excellent screen against dry summer heat and cold, drying winter winds. A shady nook is ideal for such restful activities as reading, and, the shade garden is one place where you can spend time outdoors without overexposure to sunlight.

A shade garden can be a place of relaxation and tranquility. The information in this article will help you make the most of shade in your garden. Find out how to
cope with shade in the garden, beat roots in a shade garden, and learn about color, texture, and naturalizing shade plants and the best shade garden plants.

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Coping with Shade in the Garden

Most gardeners consider full sun to be six hours or more of direct, uninterrupted sun per day; beyond that, all definitions fail. To some gardeners, three to six hours of sun is "partial sun" and less than three hours of sun is "light shade." What about gardens where plenty of light filters through overhanging branches over a long period of time? Some people call this "dappled shade" and, while such a site is certainly "shady," it may receive enough light to allow some sun-loving plants to thrive. No direct sun means you have deep shade.

For the sake of simplicity for the purposes of this article any garden that does not get full sun will be considered a shade garden. The degree of shade will likely change from spot to spot and season to season. As you work in the shade garden, you'll soon learn what can and can't be successfully grown where. No plant will grow in total darkness, but a great many will grow with only a faint glimmer of natural light. These plants are the ones to choose for the shade garden.

european wild ginger
European Wild Ginger is a great
ground cover plant for shade gardens.

Many shade gardens are naturally cool and moist. They are usually surrounded by deep-rooted trees and copious amounts of natural mulch from fallen leaves. Their soils are normally rich, deep, and easy to dig. These are the easiest shade spots in which to garden, as shade plants thrive under such conditions. In such places, plantings can be made directly into the ground with little special preparation.

Other shade gardens are also cool, but dry rather than moist. These are filled with shallow-rooted trees and shrubs that soak up every drop of rain. The soil is often poor and hard-baked, depleted of nutrients by gluttonous roots. These gardens represent quite a challenge for the gardener. Digging is difficult. If you carefully cut away sections of root-clogged soil and replace it with good humus-rich earth to nurture a special plant, the invasive roots of nearby trees and shrubs will soon be back.

Perhaps the greatest disappointment to the new owner of a shady yard is that lawns are difficult to grow. The lawns grow quickly at first, needing frequent mowing, but they are sparse and subject to dieback. These lawns generally require regular overseeding to retain even a semblance of thickness. Some gardeners believe that fertilizing or watering abundantly will help, but to no avail. The only way to get a reasonably healthy lawn in a shady spot is to use lawn seed mixes designed for that purpose. These mixes contain a larger percentage of shade-tolerant grass species than regular lawn grasses. Some of the best lawns for shade are planted with sedges rather than grasses. But even with special lawn seed mixes, results are often mediocre in truly shady spots. Lawns and shade simply do not mix.

It is often because of poor lawns that many people stumble upon the concept of shade gardens. They replace part of the lawn first with one plant, then another, and soon find their yard looking better than ever even though little green grass is left.

If you insist on a low-growing carpet of greenery in a yard where lawns do poorly, consider shade-tolerant ground covers. They make nice, even carpets in various tones of green, and most require little maintenance.

It is sometimes possible, although rare, to increase the amount of light in a shady garden. Painting nearby walls white or using white lawn furniture can dramatically increase the light in the immediate vicinity: White reflects light rather than absorbing it. If overhead foliage is dense, you might be able to remove a few overhanging branches and bring in more dappled sunlight. But new branches will grow back in. There isn't much else you can do to increase the sunlight in the garden. Neither of these methods will create a fully sunny garden, but they can help bring in enough light for you to be able to grow a favorite plant.

Keep reading to learn how to beat roots in a shade garden.

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How to Beat Roots in a Shade Garden

There are three basic ways to beat root competition in a shady garden. However, remember to keep the health and well-being of the trees as a priority; don't disturb too much too fast.

beating roots in a shade garden
Beat roots in the shade garden by inserting a solid barrier.

One way is to dig down into the soil and insert a solid barrier, such as a plastic barrel with the bottom taken off, to keep the roots out. Fill the space inside the barrier with good soil.

beating roots in a shade garden
Put plants in containers to beat roots in a shade garden.

Another method is to plant in containers. Pots, trays, and flower boxes set on top of the soil will stymie even the most invasive roots. This is often an ideal way to introduce annuals into the shade garden.

beating roots in a shade garden
Installing raised beds helps beat roots.

The final method is to install raised beds, filling each bed with at least 12 inches of top-quality soil. Do not do this over the entire surface of the garden all at once: The sudden change in soil depth can smother the roots of nearby trees. Instead, add raised beds gradually, in sections, over a number of years. Once the new soil has been added, make sure you water regularly as needed. If not, the water-starved trees will soon send new roots upward in search of water, clogging up the new bed.

Keep reading to learn about color, texture, and naturalizing shade plants.

Want more information about shade gardens? Visit these links:


Color, Texture, and Naturalizing Shade Plants

Even under the best circumstances, a shade garden cannot compete with a sunny garden for bright and gaudy colors. In fact, most shade-tolerant plants offer soft, subtle hues: whites, pinks, pale blues, and lemon yellows rather than garish oranges and reds. On the other hand, these subtle colors, often lost in the sunny garden, really stand out in a shady one. Nothing beats pale hues for adding color to a shade garden, and pure white is the brightest color of all in the shade. Look for these pale shades in the plants you select.

Jack-in-the-pulpit can readily
be grown in shade gardens.

Foliage can also add color to the shade garden. White and yellow striped and marbled leaves, or silvery-mottled ones, can brighten even the shadiest spots. Leaf colors are more durable than those of flowers, lasting through the entire growing season. Variegated shade-tolerant plants can make an excellent long-term solution to overbearing shade. Finally, the shade garden, as subtle as it may be during spring and summer, often turns surprisingly colorful in fall when autumn leaves far outshine the best fall flowers the mixed border can produce.

Truly beautiful shade gardens often rely more on attractive combinations and contrasts of foliage texture and plant forms than on flowers. Light, airy fern fronds stand out from heavy, oblong hosta leaves, which in their turn can be highlighted by the small leaves and prostrate growth patterns of ground covers. Subtle differences in the shades of foliage green become more distinct when there are few flowers to steal the show. Nature provides a vast and pleasing array of foliage colors: blue-greens, apple-greens, dark greens, and more.

Shade gardens can be planted just as formally as any other garden, but a more natural look is usually preferable. Both Asian gardens, with their sparse appearance, meandering paths, and small pools, and English gardens, with their beds overflowing with mixed plants of all sorts, make ideal styles for shade gardens. If your shade garden is already at least partially a forested one, however, consider establishing a wild garden.

You can easily establish a wild garden by planting hardy yet decorative shade-tolerant plants among the trees in an informal pattern. This technique is known as naturalizing. The goal is to introduce or reintroduce into the landscape plants that will be capable of growing, and even spreading, under existing conditions with minimal help from you. The plants you introduce will depend on many factors, notably your local climate, but look for plants that are capable of taking care of themselves. Consider both native wild flowers that may once have grown there and nonnative varieties of equal ornamental appeal. Avoid plants that are invasive.

Maintaining the Shade Garden

Shade gardens often require quite a bit of effort to establish, but only a minimal amount of upkeep. For example, with sunlight already at a premium, most weeds don't have a chance: Established shade plants and ground covers take what is left of the light, leaving nothing for would-be competitors. In fact, the major weeding effort often consists of simply removing the countless tree seedlings that somehow always seem to manage to break through the plant cover.

Fall leaves often integrate perfectly into a shade garden: Leave them where they fall, and they'll supply a natural mulch that regenerates and enriches the soil while helping to suppress weeds. Large leaves could smother growth, and these should be chopped up into small pieces (run a lawn-mower over them or rent a chipper) before being spread among the shade garden plants.

Shade gardens with heavy root competition will require special help. Water regularly during periods of drought. Remember, you're watering for two: the trees that cause the shade and the plants that grow beneath the trees' boughs. If you let nature take its course, the shallow-rooted understory plants will be the first to go during a drought.

In the final section, we'll explore the best shade garden plants.

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Best Shade Garden Plants

There is no lack of choice plants for specialty and semishady sites. The following lists include some of the good shade-tolerant plants available to gardeners.

Wintercreeper thrives in moderate shade.

Shade-Tolerant Perennials

Balloon Flower
Bleeding Heart
Bowman's Root
Siberian Bugloss
Creeping Buttercup
Cardinal Flower
Chameleon Plant
Black Cohosh
Crane's Bill
Goat's Beard

Leopard's Bane
Toad Lily
Dead Nettle
Plume Poppy
Christmas Rose
Meadow Rue
Yellow Waxbell

Shade-Tolerant Shrubs

Banana Shrub
Alpine Currant
Red Osier
Oregon Grape
Michigan Holly
Mountain Laurel

Dwarf Myrtle
Sweet Olive
Reeves Skimmia
Common Witch

American Yew

Shade-Tolerant Vines

Creeping Fig
Dutchman's Pipe

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