Before we can discuss gardening in the shade we need to define some  terminology associated with shade gardening.

Partial shade: 4-6 hours of direct sunlight

Dappled Sunlight: Sun filters through leaves going in and out as the day progresses

Full shade: less than 4 hours of direct sunlight

Deep shade: No direct or indirect sunlight. A heavy canopy of trees might create deep shade where it is actually pretty dark.

Challenges that may arise when gardening in the shade.

Often the shade is create by a large tree or group of trees making planting and maintaining a garden nearby more difficult.

Roots make digging more difficult and can making tilling near impossible.

  1. You may need to move further out from trees to avoid the larger roots
  2. You may need to adjust your spacing to work around roots
  3. Consider building up areas/pockets to plant in. Be sure to not build soil up next to the trunk of a tree. Only build beds up to about six inches and use soil that will still allow moisture to permeate down to the original soil level
  1. Avoid shrubs that require a larger, deeper hole to be dug

The soil near trees is often very dry for two reasons. Tree roots are typically shallow (12-18” below the surface), and take up most or all the available moisture. The other is because less water is hitting the area due to the leaves shedding the rainfall to the outer canopy.

  1. Amend your soil with compost, top soil or peat moss to help hold moisture
  2. Install irrigation or soaker hoses or plan to water more frequently
  3. Choose plants that tolerate drier soil
  4. Consider building up areas/pockets to plant in. Be sure to not build soil up

           next to the trunk of a trees

Sunlight changes with the seasons especially if the trees are deciduous. Your shade garden may be exposed to full sun during the winter and early spring.

  1. While the sun in the winter is much less intense some evergreen plants may  still get sun scorch and not look their best. Autumn ferns and leather leaf  mahonia come to mind.
  1. Plants near the edge of the shade may be exposed to more sun late in the  summer and fall

Leaves drop off in the fall, and can collect in the crotches of branches of shrubs, and completely bury evergreen ground covers.

  1. May need to rake or blow off leaves in the fall, and collect leaves form shrubs

Avoiding a dark look dark green foliage blend in with mulch  not enough light to distinguish different shades or texture

Opportunities provided by gardening in the shade

An opportunity to expand our gardens, create  paths and sitting areas.

We can get our gardening “Fix” without having to be in the  hot sun.

Opens up a whole new pallet of plants to use. There is an enormous variety of shade-loving plants to choose from. Many flowers while others have interesting foliage textures and color.

You can create a very cool, relaxing garden that is more enjoyable in the heat

Shade can be the perfect setting for a meditation garden.

  1. Mediation gardens should be void of lots of loud or distracting colors and clutter. Here you can rely more on textures, and swaths of plants to create a calm but interesting setting

Gardening in a woodland area provides an opportunity/challenge to a create a garden that can readily blend into the surrounding environment.

  1. We can duplicate what we see in nature. Swaths of ferns or groundcovers,  layers of plants with under story trees, shrubs, perennials and groundcovers.
  1. We can take advantage of natural divits in the soil to create creek beds, and allow naturally spreading perennials ground covers to follow.

Ideas to consider when planning a shade garden

Work with textures more so than colors, Focus on combinations like hostas and ferns.  Fine strap-like foliages against broad leaves etc.

Create layers like we see in nature-trees, shrubs, perennials and groundcovers.

 Try to create interest throughout the year. Choose plants that have interest at different times whether it is flowers, foliage, form.

Keep in mind, whites, yellows, pinks and lavenders will stand out more in the shade than red, blues and purples

Consider these three ways to use color to create interest.

  1. Contrasting colors like yellow or chartreuse foliage with dark greens will draw attention.
  1. Use the color of one plant to pull out the color of another. Example- maroon leaf heucheras next to japanese painted ferns will bring out the maroon stems of the ferns. Everillo grass next to a fern with a fine yellow margin
  1. Use bright colors to brighten a dark area-silvers, whites, yellows  or variegated foliages

Create a relaxing mood.

  1. Keep the design simple
  2. Use different shades of green and rely more on textures to create interest rather than colors.
  1. Avoid hot colors reds, yellows, oranges. Focus on white, blues and lavenders
  2. Use large swaths of plants like ferns, astilbles, groundcovers
  3. Add soothing sounds from windchimes or a water feature
  4. Position benches or sitting areas to have the least distractions.
  5. Block out unwanted sounds like street traffic and air conditioners

Duplicate what you see in nature.

  1. Let groundcovers and perennial flow following the terrain or carry over from one side of a path to the other just like you would see hiking in the woods
  1. Add boulders, logs or partially buried old rusted farm implements or an old wheel barrow
  1. Incorporate natives plants

Other ways to add interest

  1. Use annuals and bulbs to add color at different times
  2. Create focal points with interesting plants, pottery, garden art, stone walls. Focal points can change with the seasons. Early spring may ab a paperbush,  followed by a dogwood surrounded by blooming azaleas, Fall may be a patch of fothergilla and winter may be a statuary standing in a bed of blooming lenten rose
  1. Paths invite visitors. If the garden is large enough create blind turns where you can’t see what is beyond the bend. And of course paths need to lead somewhere.
  1. Entertain your other senses. Movement and fragrance add to the experience.



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