25 Easy Ideas for Shade Gardens
By Ken Wysocky, Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin
I felt cursed during the years I owned a home with a heavily shaded lot. While I appreciated the cool sanctuary during hot, humid summers, shade was, well, uncool when it came to gardening.
Since then, I've learned that dark shadows don't mean your gardening days are doomed. Numerous options abound for creating eye-catching shade gardens. These 25 easy solutions will help turn your shady yard into the colorful retreat you've always wanted.
- Determine the various degrees of shade in your yard. How much sunlight areas receive—and when they receive it—dictates what kind of plants will thrive there.
- Dew dries faster in areas that receive morning sunlight, so use plants there that require moderate or drier conditions.
- Poor soil often hampers shade gardens more than lack of sunlight, so liberally add organic matter in spring, fall or whenever preparing a new garden. Be careful not to disturb tree roots.
- Moss is a pretty, low-maintenance winner for shade gardening.
- Under deciduous trees, plant bulbs that will bloom before shady canopies develop. Smaller bulbs that naturalize—or spread on their own—work best, such as crocuses, daffodils, grape hyacinths and winter aconite.
- Help conserve moisture and add nutrients and organic matter by mulching with shredded leaves, evergreen needles and other organic materials.
- When you lay out new flower beds, take heed of the shadows thrown off by nearby buildings, shrubs and trees.
- Be careful when planting; errant digging easily damages tree roots.
- Make foliage a mainstay. Allow different colors and textures to complement each other, like broad, paddle-like caladium leaves against frillier fern fronds.
- Use shade-loving shrubs to anchor beds, add height and structure, and provide a dark backdrop off which bright blooms visually pop. Good choices include azalea, camellia, dogwood, hydrangea and rhododendron.
- Sunlight intensity varies depending on how far north or south you live. Consequently, plants that require full sun in northern climates may need partial shade farther south.
- Container gardens add spot color and dimension to shade gardens and thrive because plants don't compete with tree roots.
- Locate dense conifers on the northern side of your property to avoid creating excessive shade.
- If you're trying to create shade, plant trees with small leaves and open, layered canopies. Mountain ash, birch, Japanese maple, honey locust, Asian dogwood and hawthorn will produce dappled, eye-pleasing degrees of shade.
- Do not bury tree roots with soil when adding shade plants beneath their canopy. As little as 1 inch of soil can kill some species of trees.
- Cyclamen grows well in shallow soil among tree roots.
- Water infrequently—only as needed, if possible—and thoroughly and deeply when you do.
- Pick plants that match your soil's pH, rather than trying to change the soil.
- Shade plants that thrive in acidic soil include cinnamon fern, clethra, lily of the valley, rhododendron and tiarella.
- Shade plants that will grow and prosper in neutral soil include jack-in-the-pulpit, Kentucky lady's slipper, trillium, Virginia bluebells, white baneberry and wild ginger.
- In areas where plants or grass won't grow, create a mulch pathway to add visual interest, cover bare spots and enrich the soil.
- Early-blooming shade plants include bleeding heart, Japanese primrose, rue anemone, shooting stars, trillium and violets.
- Late-blooming shade plants include bear's breeches, monkshood, toad lilies, willow gentian and yellow wax bells.
- Perennial ferns and sedges are fine choices for shade areas.
- It's possible to replace dense shade with dappled light through judicious tree pruning. Don't prune more than one-third of a tree's branches in 1 year, and focus on smaller branches.