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How to Grow a Shade Garden

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.

Want more information about shade gardens? Visit these links:

  • Garden Types: Explore a variety of wonderful garden types.
  • Gardening: We answer all of your general gardening questions in this section.
  • Shade Garden Plants: Learn about the plants that thrive in shade gardens.