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How to Grow a Shade Garden

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.

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.