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Shade Gardening

Shade Gardening

Many homeowners long for a shady retreat that is until they try to select plants that will successfully grow there.  Most of us can only think of Hostas and ferns.  But a shady yard doesn’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.

An abundance of large trees and shady areas in your yard can be a challenge to the creative gardener, rather than an obstacle to good gardening. Shady places that provide cool, refreshing areas of beauty during summer’s heat also can contribute color and interest to the landscape throughout the growing season


Amount of Sunlight

Determine the various degrees of shade in your yard. How much sunlight areas receive—and when they receive it—dictate what kind of plants will thrive there. Gardening in the shade doesn’t have to be frustrating. Some plants will tolerate relatively low light, and a few actually thrive in it. You can choose from an array of flowering annuals, perennials, bulbs, and woodland plants for color. Many groundcovers do well in problem areas. In light shade, you might even be able to grow a few herbs or leafy vegetables. The trick is to know which plants are most likely to succeed and then to give them the kind of care that will improve their chances.

Densely shaded areas beneath large trees or under the overhang of a building present more problems than do situations of partial or light shade. Although partially or lightly shaded areas receive direct sunlight for only a small portion of the day, the light intensity is still quite bright. There are numerous plant choices you can make in these locations, though by no means as many as are possible with five or more hours of direct, full sunlight.

Full Sun: At least 6 full hours of direct sunlight. Many sun lovers enjoy more than 6 hours per day but need regular water to endure the heat.

Partial Sun / Partial Shade: These 2 terms are often used interchangeably to mean 3 – 6 hours of sun each day, preferably in the morning and early afternoon.

  • However, if a plant is listed as Partial Sun, greater emphasis is put on its receiving the minimal sun requirements.
  • If a plant is listed as Partial Shade, the plant will need some relief from the intense late afternoon sun, either from shade provided by a nearby tree or planting it on the east side of a building.

Dappled Sun: Dappled sunlight is similar to partial shade. It is the sun that makes its way through the branches of a deciduous tree. Woodland plants and underplantings prefer this type of sunlight over even the limited direct exposure they would get from partial shade.

Full Shade: Less than 3 hours of direct sunlight each day, with filtered sunlight during the rest of the day. Full shade does not mean any sun. There aren’t many plants, except mushrooms, that can survive in the dark.

Soil Conditions

With few exceptions, shade-tolerant plants will do best in well-drained, relatively fertile soil. Both sandy soils and heavy, clay-like soils will benefit from the incorporation of organic matter such as peat moss, compost, or well-rotted manure. Such materials are particularly helpful in areas of hard, compacted soils.

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. Soil fertility also can be a source of trouble. Trees and shrubs fill the soil with feeder roots that greedily use up nutrients as readily as they are applied. It often seems that the more you water and fertilize, the more roots with which you have to contend. Yet adequate fertility is an absolute must for all your plants because without it they are bound to be small and their growth will be weak. In most cases, a spring application of a balanced fertilizer, followed by one or two applications as the season progresses, will help your shade plants survive the competition of tree and shrub roots. If root competition is a serious problem, planting in containers above ground is a viable alternative. Try to be careful not to disturb tree roots too much when planting under existing trees.

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Light is not the only major concern when gardening in shady areas. Frequently, inadequate moisture can be a problem. The thick canopy of a large tree or the overhang of a house will act as an umbrella, deflecting rainfall away from the ground directly beneath it. Worse yet, trees and shrubs will compete with smaller plants for every drop of moisture that reaches the ground. It is vital that plants growing in the shade of large trees and shrubs, or sheltered by your home or garage, be watered regularly even during times of seemingly adequate rainfall.

Help conserve moisture and add nutrients and organic matter by mulching with shredded leaves, evergreen needles, and other organic materials.


  1. 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.
  2. Make foliage a mainstay. Allow different colors and textures to complement each other as broad, paddle-like caladium leaves against frillier fern fronds.
  3. Use shade-loving shrubs to anchor beds, add height and structure, and provide a dark backdrop off which bright blooms visually pop.
  4. 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.
  5. Container gardens add spot color and dimension to shade gardens and thrive because plants don’t compete with tree roots.
  6. 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.
  7. Water infrequently—only as needed, if possible—and thoroughly and deeply when you do.
  8. Pick plants that match your soil’s pH, rather than trying to change the soil.
  9. In areas where plants or grass won’t grow, create a mulch pathway to add visual interest, cover bare spots and enrich the soil.
  10. 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.
  11. 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 Hakone (Japanese Forest) Grass. Even in complete shade, you’ll still have visual appeal.
  12. 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.
  13. Don’t over-pamper your shade garden in fall. If you allow the leaves to break down, they’ll contribute valuable humus to the soil. Only if they’re smothering your plants should you rake them out.
  14. 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 the 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.
  15. Resist the temptation to give shade plants a nudge by overwatering or over-fertilizing 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.
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