Made in the Shade

Whenever I talk to people about their gardens, one of the most frequently asked questions is, “What can I grow in the shade?” Many homeowners view these areas of reduced light as “problem spots” and “no-grow” zones.

The good news is that although you may be more familiar with plants that flourish in full sun, there is also a beautiful selection of shade-loving plants that can add color and interest to those darker areas of your garden. In fact, I have found these often little-used places to be wonderful opportunities to create refreshing havens when summer temperatures climb. But, before you head to the garden center, there are some tips you should know that will help you achieve the best results.

A New Mind Set
Shade Garden
First, readjust your thinking that everything in the garden needs to bloom. Even in sunny areas, I find the most interesting compositions are a mixture of flowering and foliage plants. Discover all the beautiful varieties of hostas, ferns, variegated foliage plants, shrubs, vines and ground covers that will brighten shady areas with their colorful leaves. Next blend in some flowering shade plants such as impatiens, columbine, lamium, spiderwort, and torenia.

Working Around Tree Roots
Turning over soil to create bed space around tree roots can be difficult as well as harm the health of the tree. But these areas don’t have to go neglected. You can add beautiful splashes of color to dark areas under trees with container gardens. Pack the containers full of vibrant flowers and foliage for drama.

Morning or Afternoon Light
As you think about what you would like to plant in your shade garden, observe the area through the day and note the light conditions as they change from morning to night. What I’ve discovered, especially in warmer parts of the country, is that the afternoon sun is especially hard on shade loving plants, so it is especially important to be careful what you plant in those areas. Hydrangeas, azaleas and hostas struggle when exposed to several hours of western sun, while they seem less bothered with the same amount of morning light.

Good to Know: Know Your Shade

To select the right plants for your shade garden ask yourself these questions and then select varieties that best suit the site.

  1. Do I have dry or moist shade?
  2. Is the area fully shaded all day or are there periods when it gets sunlight?
  3. If the area receives periods of sunlight, what time of the day does it happen and for how long?

Raise the Shades
If you are faced with deep shade under trees, one way you can bring more light to the understory is to lift the canopy by pruning some of the lower branches. I call this “raising the shades.” It’s important to remove limbs in a balanced way so the tree continues to look natural and attractive. This type of pruning will allow the sun to come in at an angle, bringing in filtered light.

Create A Focal Point
Shady spots are perfect places to create a dramatic focal point. An eye-catching object in a darkened area makes a powerful visual hook. A brightly painted bench, statue, ornament, or a colorful container full of bright plants can add interest to an otherwise overlooked area of the garden.

Dry Shade
For dry, shady locations the best solution is to plant ground covers. Check with local garden centers for the varieties suited to your growing zone. In my zone 7 garden, I’ve had good luck with Bishop’s weed (Aegopodium podagraria), vinca (Vinca minor), variegated wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei), liriope and varieties of mondo grass.

To learn more about shade-tolerant plants, check out the video below!