Gardening in the Shade

Turn a Problem into a Treasure

By Margaret Higgins, Master Gardener

After a long cold winter, gardeners are anxious to get to work in the sunshine of their gardens. The spring weather may uncover a shady spot  hidden beneath the snow. You can change this potential liability into an asset by a planned approach to shade gardening. The project can be very rewarding and a lot of fun if you approach it as a challenge.hosta

The plan for developing a successful and beautiful shade garden can be broken down into three steps which I refer to as “The Three P’s”. The steps are: Perform the Research,  Prepare The Plot, and Pick The Plants.

Perform the Research:

Shade provides welcome relief from the hot sun for both the gardener and  plants alike. Knowing the type of shade you have will help ensure success in your garden. Look at when and if the sun hits the garden. Consider the shade at different seasons. With this information     categorize the shade condition in your garden and choose plants most suited to the situation.

Partial or Dappled Shade: This is found in gardens receiving three to six hours of sun daily, either morning or afternoon. The shadow of a large hedge or a building also produces this shade type.

Plants that flourish here include: Astilbe (Astilbe), Foxglove (Digitalis) and Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spectabilis)

Light Shade: This shade is found where patterns of light and shadows change throughout the day. Nearby structures, or under a small tree or larger tree with a high open weave canopy can produce this shade type. Plants that prefer this setting include: Purple Cclematisoneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Bee-balm (Monarda) and  Daylily (Hemerocallis sp.)

Medium Shade:  A garden in shade for four to five of the brightest daylight hours is considered to be in medium shade. Tree branches more than 20 feet from the ground with a fairly open canopy also throw medium shade. Good choices include: Cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis), Primrose (Primula sp.) and Lily-of-the valley ( Convallaria majalis).  Because of its aggressive spreading nature consider  planting Lily-of-the valley in containers.

Full Shade: This occurs beneath the dense leaf canopy of  large mature trees or at the base of large north facing hedges. These plants tend to be tall as they are stretching for the sunlight. Successful choices include: Bugle weed (Ajuga reptans) and Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum odoratum).

Heavy Shade. This is the most dense shade of all and the hardest to garden. This shade is created under mature evergreens or cast by a nearby building. The shade coverage throughout the day is uniform. Suggested plantings: Periwinkle (Vinca minor). A good idea may be to plant your choices in containers which can be moved into a sunnier location for short intervals to receive their required light.

Prepare the Plot:

The success or failure of a garden depends on the quality of the soil as well as the shade condition. Poor soil will not produce healthy plants. Addition of organic material will enhance most soils. Dig down approximately six to eight inches (the root depth of many shade plants). Work in compost, shredded leaves and topsoil or any combination of these. If working under mature trees be careful not to damage any feeder roots. If  necessary, consult your local utility company to mark buried services. Soil improvement can be done whenever the ground is not soggy or frozen. Give improved soil at least a week before you start planting. Watch for weeds that may sprout and eliminate them while they are young.

Pick the Plants:

This is the fun part!!!! Use the same imagination and enthusiasm in selecting shade plants as you do with plants for sunnier locations. Shade plants are generally subtly coloured and have graceful and delicate flowers. Foliage textures and colours are widely varied. As well as the tried and true Hosta (Hosta fortunei) or Impatiens (Impatiens walleriana) there are hundreds of plants that have been developed for shade areas. There are spring bulbs, shrubs, vines, ground covers, annuals and perennials alike. Annuals can provide you with a splash of colour as your shade garden develops. Variety in height, bloom time and  foliage also add interest throughout the growing season. Shade plants do not thrive in sun. They grow too fast and produce poor flowers which usually wilt quickly. Because sun plants are often showier and more brilliantly coloured than those for shade, they  are prominently featured for sale. Therefore, when choosing shade plants you may have to go to the back corners of your local nursery to locate your treasures. Read the plant tags very carefully to ensure that the choice matches your soil type, shade conditions and hardiness zone. Ask your nurseryman or grower for assistance or suggestions. Be adventuresome and experiment!

Consider adding some structural interest to the garden such as an unusual statue or unique rock. An old window frame or found item will age gently with your garden. You may want to add a focal point to the garden. Try  doing this by placing a single brilliantly coloured plant on a stand or overturned clay pot. A splash of bright yellow from Primrose (Primula) in the centre of more softly coloured flowers and foliage can be spectacular. Another simple way to augment your shade garden is to mix in some of your houseplants in their containers. Indoor plants, such as ferns, will enjoy this change of  scene !!!azalea

Some of my favourite shade plants include:  Coleus (Coleus hybridus).  The fantastic variety of foliage colours will give you the opportunity to match or contrast any colour plan. I enjoy their show of colour in my fall garden. Although this plant is a perennial it is used as an annual in northern zones.

Lungwort (Pulmonaria officinals) with its blend of soft pink and blue flowers and foliage marked with silver and white is a most welcome sight in the early spring garden.

Azalea (Rhododendron canadense) with delicate rose to light purple flowers is great as a backdrop.

Clematis (Clematis ‘Comtesse de Bouchard’  has lovely soft pink blossoms that are beautiful trailing up the fence or trellis at the back of your garden.

Whatever plants you have chosen for your shade garden enjoy them and your hard work. Get out of the hot sun, take a cup of tea or a cool drink, bring a comfy chair, a book and relax in your treasure in the shade garden that you have planned and helped to create.





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