The Shade Garden
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 Tough Plants for Tough Places 

 Shade Garden 

Nature Hills Nursery - for live plants and shrubs

Shade Garden Retreat

In the heat of summer, we'd rather be sitting in the cool shade where ferns are dappled with light and morning dew is still present, rather than squinting in the hot sun trying to focus on the flowers. For some of us, especially city dwellers, we may not have anything but shade. Never fear!  You can make that boring shade come alive, or create a cool oasis in a section of your otherwise hot, sunny garden.

If you opt for shade, the following garden example can be installed under the canopy of taller trees, or in a spot shaded by a nearly building.  Remove any low tree branches so you can walk below them without hitting your head. This will also allow a bit more light and air to penetrate to the garden which will improve the growth of your plants, and decrease the possibility of fungus diseases.

Amend soil with lots of compost and organic matterPrepare a Good Foundation

Soil condition for a shade garden is critical. If the area is poorly drained, and/or is clay-packed soil, it will be deadly. Copious amounts of organic matter must be incorporated before planting.  Fallen leaves, compost and peat moss are all good additives. For more soil amendments to improve your garden for shade (or any other purpose!) check out Witch Hazel's Beyond Manure article for the whole poop.  If drainage is quite bad, you may have to dig down a good 18 inches and add a 2 inch layer of pea gravel, and then add the excavated soil and amendments back on top.  More tips for preparing a shade garden and the different types of shade that exist can be found in Perennials for Shade.

Different Types of Shade

If your shade garden will be under deciduous trees, you will be able to grow spring blooming bulbs in the brightest areas to take advantage of early spring color.  Otherwise, consider some good-looking shade-loving spring bloomers like lungwort (pulmonaria) and virginia bluebells (mertensia). While the foliage on bluebells dies back, lungwort keeps it's good looking foliage all season.  Consider the variegated foliage types with silver or white splashes on the leaves to get more bang for your flowering buck.

Mixing bulbs and other plants in an all-season shade garden helps create a seemingly never-ending sequence of bloom.  Try some fringed tulips on the bright edges of your shady patch, inter-planted with that old standby, hosta.  The variegated leaf hostas will also give you more color bang than the plain green types, but remember for fragrance, the old solid light green leaf hosta plantaginea can't be beat.  As the tulips finish blooming, the hostas cover up the dying foliage. This would work as well with bluebells as with bulbs if your shade garden is just too shady.  Groundcovers come in different heights, too.

Pathways in a shade garden can be fieldstone, flagstone, or brick  Pine needles, pea gravel, or pine bark nuggets are just as good.  Don't forget a focal point in the garden  - in our example it's a birdbath that's fairly centered in the area.  But, you could use any piece of garden sculpture, a fountain, or even a reflecting pool made from a large plastic or stainless steel bowl sunk into the ground or placed on a pedestal (something like that described in the Postage Stamp Garden article).  Don't forget to incorporate a bench or some seating to relax in the shade and admire your garden.

A Shade Garden to Adapt to Your Location

Shade garden with mirror on back wall, faux brick painted on fenceAgain, our garden example strives for a full season of bloom, and is based on "open shade". And there's no reason why you couldn't summer your houseplants in the shade garden too!  Leave room around the base of a tree for houseplants or potted plants of any type. Hang pots of shade loving annuals from the tree limbs too. Deep shade isn't going to work well, so you may have to remove tree limbs or cut back shrubs to let more light in.  Otherwise, you will have to relegate plants to the areas that do get a few hours of sun or dappled shade, and place seating, fountains and decorative elements in the darkest areas.

If your shade is provided by an adjoining building, use that area to place a bench - perhaps with an arbor over it to grow shade loving vines or to place hanging planters of shade loving annuals. Consider painting a pastoral scene on the wall, or a faux stone look if this is feasible. A simple plastic lattice will dress up the wall too, and can be used to support shade loving vines. Or try framing an old mirror and hanging that on the wall to reflect light and add some pizzazz. For whimsy, hang a planter box below it and fill with flowering annuals. If you live north of zone 7, try Kudzu vine as an annual to cover an unsightly wall (don't do this in the south!) Crimson Star Glory (quamoclit pennata) is a better behaved annual vine. Black-eyed Susan vine (thunbergia) would work well too. Perennial Vinca Major (periwinkle) will also climb if "helped" along on the upward mobility. And of course, there are always English or Baltic ivies (hedera sp.)  

If your shade garden will be wedged between two walls, or between the house and a tall fence, then you will definitely want to "decorate" these vertical walls with growing things, faux windows, and perhaps hanging plants or planting troughs affixed to the wall or fence. A little burbling wall-mounted fountain would make good use of a boring wall, and help mask street noise too. If the top of the wall or fence will be in the sun, consider growing clematis vines - these love "hot heads and cool feet", which is exactly what they'll get by a wall.  The lower stems will be rather bare, so use them to support shorter annual vines like black-eyed susan, or plant taller shade loving perennials in front of them like Solomon's Seal, cimicifuga or lysimachia.  You'll find more ideas for dealing with shady spots in the Perennials for Shade article, like affixing mirrored mylar to vertical surfaces to reflect light and give the illusion of more space.

If you have more sun, do plant spring blooming bulbs in the brightest areas.  There are some shade loving bulbs such as trillium, begonia, caladium (get the variegated leaf color varieties), cyclamen, and of course that old standby, Lilly of the Valley.  Depending on your zone, some of these will have to be lifted in the fall.  Lily of the Valley, Trillium and some of the hardy cyclamen will do just fine outdoors through the winter up to zone 5 and sometimes colder.

Plant List for a Shade Garden

  1. Ebony spleenwort (asplenium platyneuron)

  2. Maidenhair fern (adiantum pedatum)

  3. Japanese anemone (anemone hupehensis 'September charm')

  4. Jack-in-the-pulpit (arisaema triphyllum)

  5. Astilbe x arendsii 'Bridal Veil', 'Montgomery' and 'Fanal'

  6. Bergenia 'Bressingham White'

  7. Fairy-candle (cimicifuga americana)

  8. Lenten Rose (Helleborus orientalis)

  9. Hosta sieboldiana 'Francis Williams'

  10. Ligularia dentata 'Othello'

  11. Honesty (lunaria annua)

  12. Gooseneck loosestrife (lysimachia clethroides)

  13. Royal Fern (osmunda regalis var. spectabilis)

  14. Alleghany spurge (pachysandra procumbens)

  15. Virginia creeper (parthenocissus quinquefolia)

  16. Solomon's-seal (polygonatum commutatum)

Other good plants include:

  • Narrow-leaved hostas (e.g. hosta lancifolia)

  • Christmas fern (polystichum acrostichoides)

  • Myrtle (vinca minor)

  • Lungwort (pulmonaria species)

  • Virginia bluebells (mertensia)

  • get more ideas in the Perennials for Shade

  • see Groundcovers for Shade for plants that are good in dry shade

shadegarden.jpg (350x176 -- 17605 bytes)
Here's the diagram for this garden. The empty round circles at "11 o'clock" and "3 o'clock" are the existing trees.

.shadegardencolor.jpg (250x272 -- 18112 bytes)
Here's a color rendering of what this shade garden would look like.

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