Brighten Low-Light Areas with Texture and Color
"Dutch Garden daffodils of all kinds bloom above sweet woodruff in this shade bed .... You'll have to use your imagination to see them because they'd just finished blooming when the photo was taken!"
Gardeners usually consider shade a liability. It's true that a shady yard is not a good place for growing beefsteak tomatoes, roses and delphinium. But a shady garden can provide a type of pleasure no sunny garden can touch. Like the soothing comfort we feel beneath a shady tree on a hot summer day, a shade garden is restful to the eye and calls us to slow down and look more closely.
There are some other good reasons to be happy about gardening in the shade. Plants grow more slowly in shady conditions, reducing the need for dividing and pruning. Weeds also grow slower and are less of a problem. And a shady garden's combination of dense foliage, cooler soil and less wind, also keep watering chores to a minimum.
To be a successful shade gardener, there are three important factors to consider: amount of shade, soil conditions and plant choice.
Amount of Shade
First and most important, is to understand how much light your plants will actually be receiving. Determining whether you have partial, light, full or dense shade will allow you to match the right plants to your growing conditions.
Partial Shade: This is sometimes also called semi-shade or part shade. It means that the site receives full sun for several hours a day, but is in light or full shade for the rest of the day. If you have the choice, morning light, when air and soil temperatures are cooler, is preferable to afternoon light, which can be hot and drying.
Light Shade: This might also be called dappled shade. It refers to filtered light through a lacy covering of overhead leaves, or one that is lightly shaded by a high canopy of leaves. If your garden is in a tree-filled yard, one way to create this quality of light is to "limb up" selected trees, removing low branches and increasing the overall light levels.
Full Shade: Though not considered dark, a full-shade location is nearly always in shade. It is still open, with good air circulation, good soil and adequate moisture.
Dense Shade: When the ground is completely shaded by buildings or is under the thick shade of trees such as Norway maples and evergreens, little light reaches the soil surface. These are difficult growing conditions for all but a few types of plants.
Customer photo of Toad Lily by Cheryl Powell of Bloomfield, N.J. "Early in my gardening days, I often chose plants based solely on how pretty they were. Not realizing this Toad Lily (Tricyrtis formosana) was more unique than other lilies, I was anticipating an earlier bloom, and a larger flower. But how much more delighted I was when these finally emerged at the end of the summer! Thank you for offering such resilient and beautiful flowers!"
In nature, most shade-loving plants grow in the forest understory where the soil is airy, moist and rich in organic matter from many years of falling leaves. As a general rule, shade-loving garden plants will be happiest if you can provide them with these same soil conditions.
Tree roots can present a significant challenge to the shade gardener. A mature tree can easily drink several hundred gallons of water a day. Most of this moisture is drawn up by a web of fibrous feeder roots that lie just inches below the soil surface, leaving little water for plants growing at their feet. Many shade gardeners find dry soil to be a greater problem than limited light.
Fortunately, even the driest, stoniest, most infertile soil can be improved over time by a diligent gardener. If you are starting a new garden in a shady location, it's well worth spending time to prepare the soil. If you have the patience, begin that work a full year before anything gets planted. Start by removing any sod, or cover the area with black plastic to kill the grass. Spread a 6-inch layer of shredded leaves and compost over the area and then either dig that organic matter into the soil or cover it with a water-permeable tarp and let the soil microbes do the mixing. It's a good idea to check the soil pH as well. Most shade-loving plants prefer a neutral to slightly acid pH.
Once your new garden has been planted, mulch around the plants with shredded leaves or bark, and water regularly until the plants are well established. This extra attention may be required for a year or two, but once the plants' roots are firmly anchored and their foliage is shading the soil surface, most shade gardens will happily coexist with all but the thirstiest of trees.
Shade gardens are not about flashy colored flowers. Flowers are a bonus—not the main objective. A shade garden is all about the interplay of foliage in its various colors, shapes and textures. As you become familiar with the vast palette of shade-loving plants, you will be amazed and inspired by the beautiful combinations you can create.
Foliage colors range from golden yellow through hundreds of different greens and into blues and even burgundy. Leaves may be smaller than your thumbnail, or bigger than a beach ball. Textures range from felted to shiny, smooth to ribbed. Add a few flowers, and the possibilities are simply endless.