Ideas for shade garden

By Ken Wysocky

RDA GID

Shade gardens come alive with these tips, ideas and plant picks to brighten up the shade in your backyard.

Dark shadows don’t mean your gardening days are doomed. Numerous options abound for creating eye-catching shade gardens. These easy shade solutions will help turn your shady yard into the colorful retreat you’ve always wanted.

  1. 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.
  2. Dew dries faster in areas that receive morning sunlight, so use plants there that require moderate or drier conditions.
  3. 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.
  4. Moss is a pretty, low-maintenance winner for shade gardening.
  5. 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.
  6. Help conserve moisture and add nutrients and organic matter by mulching with shredded leaves, evergreen needles and other organic materials.
  7. When you lay out new flower beds, take heed of the shadows thrown off by nearby buildings, shrubs and trees.
  8. Be careful when planting; errant digging easily damages tree roots.
  9. Make foliage a mainstay. Allow different colors and textures to complement each other, like broad, paddle-like caladium leaves against frillier fern fronds.
  10. 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.

    Azaleas are perfect plants to brighten up shady areas.

  11. 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.
  12. Container gardens add spot color and dimension to shade gardens and thrive because plants don’t compete with tree roots.
  13. Locate dense conifers on the northern side of your property to avoid creating excessive shade.
  14. 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.
  15. 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.
  16. Cyclamen grows well in shallow soil among tree roots.
  17. Water infrequently—only as needed, if possible—and thoroughly and deeply when you do.
  18. Pick plants that match your soil’s pH, rather than trying to change the soil.
  19. Shade plants that thrive in acidic soil include cinnamon fern, clethra, lily of the valley, rhododendron and tiarella.
  20. 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.
  21. In areas where plants or grass won’t grow, create a mulch pathway to add visual interest, cover bare spots and enrich the soil.
  22. Early-blooming shade plants include bleeding heart, Japanese primrose, rue anemone, shooting stars, trillium and violets.
  23. Late-blooming shade plants include bear’s breeches, monkshood, toad lilies, willow gentian and yellow wax bells.
  24. Perennial ferns and sedges are fine choices for shade areas.
  25. 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.
  26. Intermix shade plants as artistically as you would in a sunny spot. Position taller growers like astilbe in back, shorter ones like foam flower and hosta in front, and low-growing ground covers to fill in your display.
  27. Shade doesn’t mean your color choices are limited. Experiment with different plants and color schemes. A few to try are the white wands of astilbe flowers along brunnera’s sprays of little blue flowers, or bugleweed’s sapphire-blue spikes next to a light-hued rhododendron.
  28. Another great way to liven up a shady spot is to pick plants with varying textures. Combine the fine leaves of ferns against bold hostas. Or mix leafy bergenia with spiky ornamental grasses such as hokone grass. Even in complete shade, you’ll still have visual appeal.
  29. For a low-maintenance, attractive shady spot, try ground covers. Plant seedlings in staggered rows rather than straight lines. They’ll expand, fill the area and form a nice carpet.
  30. Want flower color in late summer or early fall? Several plants are adapted to this. Rhododendron blooms from midsummer to late summer with an array of color. Toad lily produces adorable violet-dabbed flowers.
  31. Don’t overpamper your shade garden in fall. If you allow the leaves to break down, they’ll contribute valuavle humus to the soil. Only if they’re smothering your plants should you rake them out.
  32. Consider how changing seasons affect sun and shade conditions in your yard. Even a yard filled with shade trees can support bright, spring-flowering bulbs, as long as they emerge before trees leaf out fully. Pick up hints from previous seasons. If sun lovers like marigolds died where astilbe thrived, you’ve likely found a hot spot for a shade garden.
  33. Resist the temptation to give shade plants a nudge by overwatering or overfertilizing them. Shade slows plant growth, so your plants in low light need less water and energy, not more. Mulching will also keep your workload light. It retains soil moisture and minimizes weeds.

When I first started gardening, I felt like all I wanted to do was plant bright, happy flowers. Shade gardens seemed a little too sleepy to me. With a little more garden experience, (we won’t talk about how much) I have come to absolutely LOVE a shade garden. They can be just as showy as a flower bed, albeit in a subtler way. At least, from a distance. Get up close to a shade garden, and see the incredible textures, colors and nuances that a sun garden can’t match. And shade gardens offers you a feeling of serenity. Maybe that “experience” makes us look a little closer for the details. It’s not all about the big picture. Ah, wisdom. Check out how to plant a shade garden that you can show off!

Shade Garden Ideas

‘Bressingham Gardens‘ has some amazing examples of color and contrast in shade gardens. Below, see how simply using different colors of the same plant, Hostas, creates contrast, while also creating unity. I love how the Hostas just lead your eye through the shade garden, like a river. Mass plantings are very effective when used this way. In the second photo, bright green Japanese Hakone grass and deep purple Heuchera set each other off with their contrast in color, and in leaf form. Notice again, the mass plantings flow along like a river, leading the eye. This is also a great way to cover the soil beneath a small tree. Bressingham Gardens photos by Richard and Adrian Bloom.

‘Lonny‘ shows us an easy shade garden idea on how using just one contrasting color in the garden gives us pause, and is an effective design tool in getting our attention. That isn’t the only thing going on here, though. Ferns have long been used next to Hostas, because their fine foliage contrast with the broad, smooth leaves of the Hostas… Instant interest for planting a shade garden..

‘The Gardening Cook‘ brings us this photo from ‘Earth Wood and Flowers’. Another technique for enjoying the serenity of shade gardens is to simply place an area to pause, like a bench or seat. It gives the space a focal point, and creates a feeling of rest. It also allows the viewer to get a little closer to the details of the shade garden.

‘Country Woman Magazine‘ has another idea for a serene garden spot.. A fire pit! When you create a serene resting area like this, then planting a shade garden itself can be simple, such as these mass planted Hostas. Fun fact: I was ‘Country Woman’s’ home decorating expert back in the early 2000’s! Great mag!

‘HGTV Gardens‘ uses a piece of art to create a focal point in a shade garden… combined with out next tip… Using a path to lead you through a space that deserves a casual stroll and close up admiration!

Our next two shade garden ideas for using a path through a garden are from ‘BHG‘. This first one ends at a small seating area, giving you a destination to walk to. I love how they use layers of height in this shade garden to give it depth. The taller trees, then the understory small trees, then shrubs, then perennials. Great garden design plan!

This is what happens when a walking path and natural stone get married and have a baby. Bliss. Note how they used a shade loving ground cover (in this case, Sweet Woodruff) to soften the edges, just spilling over the stones.

Flowers for Shade Gardens

A shade garden doesn’t have to be all green, either! This garden from ‘BHG’ shows us how bright flowers can be used to add color. These are Astilbe in pinks and reds. Astilbe are easy to grow, but like rich moist soil and dappled shade the best. Most varieties bloom early summer. If you choose the right plants, you can learn how to grow a shade garden that thrives!

Inspired? If you thought of that dull shady spot in your garden as a problem before today, hopefully now you will want to plant a shade garden! Now jump on over to our posts on DIY Garden Steps and Stairs and 7 Classic DIY Garden Walkways!

Image Credits: Bressingham Gardens, Lonny , Gardening Cook, Country Woman, HGTV Gardens, BHG, BHG


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Ten ways to make shade cool

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2 Boundaries

If you have brick walls, power-jet or paint them (see no 4). Otherwise, consider covering fences with panels of split bamboo, woven reeds or the endlessly versatile trellis. Stylishly modern or grandly traditional, easy to install and inexpensive, trellis is the answer to an urban gardener’s prayer. I like to use the plain squared variety as exterior wallpaper, floor to ceiling, to disguise ugly walls and fences, and transform sunless places that the rain never reaches.

As a real boundary or a disguise, trellis gives a feeling of space beyond. Grey and cream marbled ivy, interspersed with different types of clematis (nearly all are shade-tolerant), soon creates a beautiful evergreen barrier. Top the supporting posts with ornamental balls, acorns or turned wooden pineapples.

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3 Tree control

Never get rid of a tree unless absolutely necessary; once gone, all that beauty and maturity will take another 100 years to replace.

Under a deciduous tree, you can grow the choicest bulbs that thrive on spring sunshine and summer shade. Dry shade from a beech tree – the one really dense, deciduous tree – or an evergreen is more restrictive but there are still solutions. You could grow different varieties of wild cyclamen all year round or carpet the ground with variegated ivy. In the worst case, gravel the area and bring different pots to it to liven things up.

It is amazing how you can improve light levels by carefully pruning trees and shrubs that have grown too large or tangled into a more elegant, open shape. The great garden designer Russell Page called this “carving with air”.

I once turned a collapsed white willow into a huge bonsai tree by thinning out the branches. The tree did not seem to mind and underneath I created a raised bed, full of good soil, where smaller plants did not have to compete with the tree’s roots. If you do this, be sure not to bury the trunk.

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4 Paint colour

Unless you live by the sea, white-washed walls look cold and gloomy – they seem to green up more quickly too. Instead, I find that Fowler Pink, a shell-pink/pale terracotta paint, manufactured by Farrow & Ball, brings the warmth and light of the Mediterranean to the gloomiest outlook.

In the man-made environment of a roof or courtyard, rich warm colours, like bright red, raspberry pink and Chinese yellow, can glow like embers on bonfire night if used boldly.

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5 Sparkle and glamour

White flowers and silver foliage bring a unique sparkle and glamour to a garden. Many such plants will thrive with little or no sun, as do variegated varieties – too much sun on their delicate leaves can burn, bleach or fade them.

Urban gardens, even shady ones, are always a few degrees warmer than their country cousins, so take advantage of this protected micro-climate. Quite a few exotic-looking, architectural plants will be perfectly happy in the shade: cordylines (Torbay Palms), Trachycarpus (Chusan Palm), and Fatsia japonica (castor-oil fig), to name but three.

More glamorous still are those with grey and silver leaves: stunning Melianthus major (cut it to the ground each Easter ), Astelia nervosa (soft, sword-like leaves, two or three-feet long), Santolina pinnata subsp. neapolitana (clip into huge globes each spring for a change in texture and shape).

All silvers need sharp drainage, so mix in a couple of generous spadefuls of grit or gravel with the soil at planting time.

Just as a checkerboard marble floor brings life to a Georgian hall, painting an aggregate one black and white will do the same for a roof. As it weathers, the texture of the slabs will show through, creating a delightfully ancient, seedy and exotic look.

Gravel also gives sparkle to a shady place. Pea shingle is kindest to shoes, but there is a coarser one called Cotswold buff. Paving stones laid by the door into the house will prevent half the gravel ending up on the kitchen or sitting-room floor.

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6 Planting

The legendary American fashion editor Diana Vreeland suggested decorating a room in nothing but different shades of green. Try this in your garden by mixing different leaf textures and shapes with some opulent white flowers – perhaps hydrangeas or tobacco flowers – and chic touches of black, silver and lime.

Viola ‘Molly Sanderson’ has jet-black flowers, as does V. ‘Bowles’ Black’ which seeds freely but never becomes a nuisance. Giant mop-heads of bay look wonderful in squares of easy-going black ophiopogon, underplanted with baby pink and white cyclamen, set in old flag-stones. And glamorous hostas are never so happy as when they are grown in a shady place.

You will not do much better than H. sieboldiana var. elegans with its huge blue/green quilted leaves. Insist on elegans – the regular H. sieboldiana is not worth having. Hostas are very happy in pots and a ring of vaseline around the rim will protect them from their arch-enemies, slugs and snails.

Talking of hostas, which are moisture-lovers too, do have an outside tap fitted or install a watering system, as shady gardens tend to be on the dry side.

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7 Climbers

In my view, all houses should be softened with climbing plants, but avoid sun-lovers which strive upwards towards the light, leaving their feet bare. Instead, concentrate on varieties that are happy in shade, such as Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris, Akebia quinata, clematis and camellias.

Add height with trellis pyramids, wreathed in climbers. I also use large urns planted with low-maintenance architectural plants; often light levels are better six or seven feet up, and sometimes it is actually quite sunny. Another way of adding height, with space at a premium, is with large standards such as bay (Laurus nobilis).

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8 Containers

Always go for the largest containers possible. They will need watering less often, besides looking good. Square, wooden, Versailles tubs with mirrored panels bring another dimension to a small area – the reflections make a strongly patterned floor appear to go on forever.

Not only do plants grow well in naturally porous terracotta, but this takes the patina of age well and adds warmth. Terracotta is also a particularly effective foil for architectural box-wood shapes – globes, squares, pyramids and mop-heads – and for yew, which is best trained as a cone or pyramid. Bay, box, holly and yew will all be happy in shade, as long as they are not underneath dripping branches.

Ban plastic containers unless they are black and shiny; if used with confidence, these make a sophisticated foil for plants. For spring, cram them with white hyacinths. For the summer, raspberry and black Pelargonium ‘Lord Bute’. And, for the autumn, pink, green and cream ornamental cabbages. Lilies look elegant in galvanized florist’s buckets.

With all garden containers, make sure you provide adequate drainage holes. Generally, John Innes No 2 is a safe bet for planting up. Do not economise by using garden soil: you will get worms, usually a gardener’s best friend but very disruptive in the confined space of a pot.

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9 Ornament and vistas

The smaller the space, the more important it is to place things well.

In a shady garden, try to site benches, ornamental urns or wall-fountains in the light, so that they can be seen through the gloom. Think about the different views, not just from your window to the end of the garden, but also across the space and looking back at the house.

Nothing brings a garden to life like moving water: a wall-fountain opposite a bench, for instance, or at the far end of a vista. There are some excellent ready-made fountains, both traditional and ultra-modern, which run on a concealed re-circulating pump, so all they require is a safe electrical connection (do consult a qualified electrician over this). Or you could go for a white seat or pale-stone ornament surrounded by ferns, hellebores and moss.

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10 Atmosphere

Apart from weekends, you probably use your garden most at night – to relax after a busy day or to entertain friends.

Do not be afraid of lighting your outside space. Uplighting is as effective in the garden as it is inside, so keep everything low down, and many small sources of light are much more atmospheric than a few large ones. Consider flares, strings of fairy-lights and thick candles in hurricane jars. And white flowers and heady scents should be added for maximum evening romance.

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Some good plant addresses

The Beth Chatto Gardens, Elmstead Market, Colchester, CO7 7DB (01206 822007, www.bethchatto.co.uk). Perfect for rare plants.

Containers, ornaments, paint

Wall fountains, Versailles tubs, and silver florist’s buckets:

Decorative finials: Oak Joinery, 49a, Beacon Road, Lewisham, London SE13 6ED (020 8297 2993, www.oakjoinery.com).

Anthony Noel may be contacted on 020 7736 2907, or email [email protected]

He will be giving two talks on Great Little Gardens at the London Garden Show at Alexandra Palace on Thursday, April 11 and Friday, April 12, both at 3.30 pm.

For further information about the London Garden Show, 11-14 April, visit www.londongardenshow.com. For tickets call 0870 733 1018. To receive a 20 per cent discount on tickets quote ‘The Daily Telegraph’ when ordering.

A Well-Designed Shade Garden

A Shady and Relaxing Backyard Garden Hides Eyesores

The back garden calls to you from every part of the property.

As you walk around the front and side of Heather’s home, the colorful backyard gardens peek out and call to you. Although you would never guess, these are actually the newest gardens on the property. Heather says she started just two years ago with gardens along the house to hide the foundation and an oil cap. After that, things just took off.

“I just kept expanding,” says Heather. “I tested to see if Astilbe would do well, then Hostas, then Geranium and Lamium — all the things that I figured would grow but you never know because we have clay soil.” Heather says they mixed in several yards of compost with their existing clay soil and things are growing just fine.

This long, colorful shady garden bed is framed by an arbor on the right.

As she finished the gardens by the back of the house, Heather set her eyes on the steep bank at the back of their yard. The long garden along this steep bank is the showpiece of their landscape. Framed by an arbor (that her dad built) on one side and tall Hostas on the other, the garden spans the entire length of their backyard. Heather says this garden was a lot of work, but that she finished it all in one season. The garden design is simple and repetitious, which is what makes it such a calming feature in their shaded back yard.

More repitition with Lamium, Hostas, and Hydrangea.

After several seasons the plants had mostly outgrown the area, so early this spring Heather expanded the garden by several feet in towards the house and pulled off the daunting task of moving all of the plants (!) forward several feet. “It only took me a weekend,” she says with a laugh.

The garden spans the entire back of their property, lining a steep bank.

At the same time she built the back garden, she also added perennials to a garden in front of their red barn. This was the last new garden that Heather has built and essentially makes it so each building on the property is softened with landscaping. The bright red barn is the perfect backdrop for a variety of Hydrangea, Daisies, and Echinacea. A gorgeous Trumpet vine climbs up the structure and adds height and interest.

Sally poses next to the red barn garden: Begonias, Lavender, Balloon Flower, Lilies, and Daisies.

Backyard Garden Objective: To hide the foundation and oil cap along the house, as well as provide a sense of intimacy and beauty in the backyard (which is where they spend a lot of time).

Side Garden Plant List:

  • Hostas
  • Hydrangea
  • Bee Balm
  • Daylilies
  • Lamium
  • Bleeding Hearts
  • Lilies
  • Balloon Flower
  • Daisies
  • Trumpet Vine
  • Ajuga
  • Yarrow
  • Astilbe
  • Balloon Flower
  • Coral Bells
  • Geranium

Heather’s Rules for a Well-Designed Shade Garden

Heather has been in the garden industry for over a decade, so it’s no surprise that her landscapes are as spectacular as they are. I asked her what her design rules are. She says a lot of the ease of designing the gardens at her home are that they all serve a purpose and abutt something (a structure, embankment, the house). She also had inspiration from a client’s garden she worked on several years ago. “A client’s garden in town was so cute, cozy and private, you wouldn’t even know there was a main road right next to it,” says Heather. “ I loved the texture and feel of the garden, and it looked really polished. I was her gardener and I didn’t have to weed it; so I loved that it was easy but looked really nice.”

Heather chooses plants she knows will work in her shade garden: Hostas, Daylilies, Begonias, and Bee Balm.

Heather is quick to say that she wouldn’t necessarily call her gardens “easy,” which I think is pretty apparent after several hours of photographing without a weed in sight. But she does say they are easier than others. “I only like to garden in the shade so for me it’s fun to work in the backyard. It gets about 4 hours of sun per day, so most of the day is shaded and easy to work. It’s just enough sun that we can pretty much grow most things,” she says.

Heather’s Design Process:

  • Choose easy-to-grow plants first. Heather likes to choose plants first and sticks with proven success stories like Daylilies, Hostas, Bee Balm, and more.
  • Decide the purpose of the garden. All of Heather’s garden serve a purpose (to line the back of a steep bank, cover an oil cap, hide the foundation, or even as simple as to look nice).
  • Plant.
  • Divide, move, and replant. Nothing is ever permanent in Heather’s garden. She digs things up and move them every year.

Heather and her family enjoy the gardens at their picnic table and floating adirondack chairs.

Why Does Heather Garden?

“It’s absolutely my passion and my hobby. People always ask me, “why do you have so many gardens? How do you keep up with them?” I garden because it’s easy for me and I don’t find it stressful. It’s my number one thing I do every week. My husband likes riding bikes, I like to spend hours hanging out in the garden. And I have pet hummingbirds so I love sitting out there and watching the hummingbirds. Gardening also feeds into my cut flower addiction.

Heather’s love of gardening is obvious as you walk around her property and her family enjoys the fruits of her labor often, sitting at the picnic table out back or on the floating adirondack chairs. “It’s just so private and cozy,” says Heather, “it’s a great place to sit out and have a cocktail at the end of the day.”

The lush environment of a shady city courtyard is enlivened by impatiens and both striped and variegated hosta.

Photos by Ken Druse

The Victorians had the right idea. On hot summer days, they retreated to chairs and benches under a leafy canopy of spreading trees, surrounded by a living room filled with cooling ferns, shrubs, vines, and wildflowers. Come high summer, when sweltering heat and humidity are enough to wilt most gardeners, the shade garden continues to offer a welcome respite. With its dappled sunlight and morning dew, the shaded nook is a delightful place where gardeners can focus on plants that thrive on limited amounts of light.

Unlike their showy counterparts—zinnias, day lilies, and roses—the unusual, variegated foliage of shade-loving plants offers a display of muted greens and blues that lasts longer than many flowers. Shady gardens are often a fact of life for those who dwell in old houses, from residents of urban row houses with courtyards cast into deep shade, to the owners of venerable homes enfolded by mature trees and shrubs.

While some folks lament the fact that they must garden in the shade of towering trees or nearby buildings, others recognize the wonderful possibilities such sites offer. The Victorians, for instance, were so fond of ferns that they created ferneries—collections of lacy, delicate-leafed fern specimens—that thrived in shady spots near the house. Similarly, in the early years of the 20th century, trellises, loggias, and pergolas were a favorite means of establishing shady spots to the rear or side of an Arts & Crafts bungalow or Colonial Revival home.

If your house is blessed with an abundance of shade, bear in mind that not all shade is equal. Shade varies in degree from partial (or open) shade to full (or dense) shade. When tall trees allow a great deal of bright light to reach the ground, the result is partial shade. Walls, fences, and other solid structures in close proximity to the garden tend to create full shade.

Blue iris, blue phlox, and foamflower edge a path leading into the woods.

While full sun generally means six hours or more of direct sun each day, partial shade provides direct sun for only three or four hours. Plants in full shade get bright, reflected light, but little or no direct sun. Paying close attention to where the summer sun crosses your property at midday will help you determine how much shade you have.

Mature trees with large, spreading crowns—maple, oak, hickory, and elm, for example—are the dowagers of the shade garden. Trees with finely textured leaves, like honey locust and the silk tree, send more dappled light to the ground than the dense canopies of sugar maples.

If you are starting from scratch and your garden has space for a shade tree, select one that grows well in your locale. Medium-sized ornamental trees, such as dogwood or serviceberry, provide a suitable canopy for smaller sites. You can also create a shade-garden version of a forest understory with small- to medium-size shrubs, such as stephenandra, viburnum, variegated dogwood, or holly. An arbor, loggia, pergola, or high fence can create shade when there is no room for trees or large shrubs.

Primula and ferns grace a cool forest floor.

Where adjacent structures shade urban gardens, cloak the walls in vines that thrive in limited light. Choose from climbing hydrangea, with its fragrant white flowers and peeling bark, or old standbys such as English or Boston ivy, or Virginia creeper. Some flowering vines, including silver lace vine and a few varieties of clematis, will take more shade than other climbers—although they produce fewer flowers than when in full sun. In small urban gardens, you can prune a large shrub such as witch hazel, pagoda dogwood, or Japanese maple to resemble a small tree with an arching canopy.

For smaller gardens or shady side yards, use a combination of unusual plants rather than just one or two species. For instance, the delicate, showy stems of corydalis mix well with native bleeding heart, shooting stars, or miniature hosta. In moist areas, add a splash of red with scarlet lobelia or coral bell—both favorites with hummingbirds.

Create visual interest by combining plants with contrasting leaf forms. For example, the delicate fronds of the maidenhair fern pair nicely with the coarse leaves of pachysandra, a groundcover. The large blue crenellated leaves of the fragrant, flowering heirloom hosta ‘Elegans’ contrast well with the soft delicate sprays of astilbe flowers.

Think of the shade garden as a small forest complete with a carpet of groundcovers such as periwinkle, hosta, epimedium, and ivy. The white- and silver-splashed leaves of lungwort and lamium ‘White Nancy’ light up a shady spot, as will hostas with variegated or chartreuse leaves. The shade garden is a restful place where the tracery of shadows, whether from trees or man-made structures, makes for an interesting play of light on your own private forest floor.

Tips for the Shade Garden

Foliage in an array of colors and textures makes a diverse showing by the steps of a brownstone.

  • Other than moss, few plants will grow in very deep shade. In places where no direct sunlight reaches the garden, you can paint nearby fences or walls white to reflect all available light.
  • To increase the amount of light reaching your garden, consider “limbing up” a tree. Use a long-handled pruning tool (available at garden and home supply centers) to thin lower limbs or inner branches.
  • Plant carefully beneath a mature tree. Poking too many holes near the base may disturb the tree’s shallow root system. Instead, mulch the entire area with shredded wood chips to conserve moisture and help keep weeds to a minimum. Gradually add groundcovers underneath the tree’s outermost branches.
  • Ferns, iris, and other shade-loving plants need plenty of moisture. If rainfall drops below 1 per week in summer, water your plants regularly.
  • Few shrubs require full sun to thrive, but many will do well in full shade. The deeper the shade, however, the more difficult it is to grow plants that prefer full or partial sun.
  • Plant spring-flowering bulbs, such as daffodils, under trees where they will bloom before the trees leaf out. Intermingle them with hosta, which will conceal the leaves in midsummer.
  • Add native woodland wildflowers, such as bluebells, trillium, or Solomon’s Seal, to a shade garden.
  • For a low-maintenance garden, use shade-tolerant groundcovers and perennials and incorporate a few annuals—impatiens or tuberous begonias—for spots of color.
  • Adding a birdbath or fountain to your shady retreat will bring wildlife up close. And, like the Victorians, furnish your leafy outdoor room with a bench or chairs for full enjoyment.

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