Gardening in the shade

By Tim Hallinan

If you are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to garden in the shade beneath the canopy of mature shade trees you will find many advantages not found in the full sun garden. Shade trees moderate temperatures during the hot summer months and provide gardens with structure, privacy and year-round interest. Shade gardens are generally easier to maintain than gardens in the sun since there is less watering involved and fewer weeds to pull. Shade is essential to the comfort of people and plants alike. The number of plants which can grow in the shade is enormous; in fact many plants would do well with at least some protection from full exposure to the sun.

Knowing which type of shade you have

The first thing to do when planning a shade garden is to survey the area. Observe the space over the course of a few days to see what type of shade there is. Also, take note of the trees that are creating the shade and what condition are they in. There are three types of shade; dappled, part shade and deep shade. Understanding the characteristics of each is important when choosing plants for your garden. While there are many advantages to gardening in at least some shade, deep shade conditions can be difficult. Only once you know the type of shade your dealing with should you begin selecting plants for your garden.

Dappled shade perhaps is the easiest type of shade in which to garden. It occurs beneath deciduous trees where there are drastic changes in the amount of sunlight reaching the ground throughout the year alternating between a patchwork of shade and sun in the summer and full sun during winter after the trees drop their leaves. Many shade tolerant plants, such as trillium, epimedium, anemone and various bulbs have adapted to these conditions by flowering in the spring while there is still quite a bit of light entering the garden.

Part shade occurs as the sun moves across the sky. It creates situations such as full sun in the morning and shade in the afternoon. Only the most sun loving plants will fail to survive in part shade conditions. It's perfect for those plants which tolerate sun but little shade. Afternoon shade in this situation is quite beneficial to plants as it will protect them from the sun during the hottest part of the day. If the opposite is true, shade in the morning and sun in the afternoon, some plants will tend to look stressed as the coolness of morning shade gives way to full sun during the hottest part of the day.

Deep shade occurs beneath evergreens or in narrow spaces between tall buildings and can be a challenging environment in which to garden. Soil beneath evergreens is usually poor due to the lack of an annual leaf fall which in deciduous forests provides layers of organic mulch. Plants selected for deep shade gardens need to be shade loving not just shade tolerant. When choosing your plants, remember there's a big difference between plants which can survive in the shade and those which thrive in it. Summersweet (clethera), for example, thrives in the shade and will grow full and lush while rhododendrons will end up looking scrawny in the deep shade but healthy in dappled shade.

Planting in shade

When planting in deep shade, beneath the canopy of evergreens, adding compost to the garden will increase nutrients and the soil's ability to retain water. Before you begin planting, look up to see if there are any branches which could pruned to allow dappled sunlight into the garden. Though there are many wonderful shade loving plants available, it may necessary to selectively prune the surrounding trees to allow at least some sun into the space.

Many plants which thrive in the shade, such as hosta, have developed large leaves and interesting foliage as a way for the plant to capture as much sunlight as possible. In the summer the foliage of shade plants becomes the focal point of the garden. Variegated foliage adds splashes of brightness and the illusion of light among the sea of green. Use different shades of green throughout the garden as well. Bright yellow greens illuminate a shady space and deeper blue greens create a feeling of depth, making a space feel larger than it is. Remember, colors appear different in the shade. In full sun colors can seem washed out, in the shade they are vibrant and more intense. Try to unify the garden by repeating interesting patterns of color, texture and form.

While there are few annuals and grasses which will do well in shady conditions, there a number of shrubs, perennials, ferns and bulbs which provide virtually unlimited planting opportunities. From spring blooming bulbs and complex displays of foliage during the summer to winter evergreens and early flowering shrubs, shade gardens offer year round gardening joys and far more possibilities and rewards than any other type of garden.

Article Source:
Tim Hallinan is a landscape designer and builder in Massachusetts. Visit his garden resource website for all kind of helpful information. For more garden guides visit

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