How to Become a Master in Shade Gardening

shade garden and shade garden plants

Do you have a shady garden? Does your little paradise require special attention when it comes to planting the right varieties and organising your flowery display in areas with more shade? Well that’s completely normal. All types of green life need different things from Mother Nature in order to survive. And if you learn to listen to your garden’s needs, you will be rewarded in the end.

So, read on to get some useful tips on how to incorporate various shade garden ideas into your landscape design and get to know your shade loving plants before you grab your flower shovel!

Table of Contents

How does shade affect your garden?

Light is one of the most important conditions for thriving plant life in your garden. But what is light without shade? Many people think that their outdoor space will suffer if situated in an area with restricted exposure to sunlight. Shade does affect your garden and the plants there but this is not necessarily a bad thing. And this is where we come to shade gardening.

There are plenty of flowers, bushes, trees and types of grass that have got accustomed to growing in shade conditions and will flourish beautifully with proper care. But can you say that you know your garden’s areas, when they are lit and when in shade? If you don’t then this is what you do. Make a sunlight/shade map of your garden before you start planting it. Check your garden every hour or two and draw where the light falls during different hours of the day. This will help you a lot when choosing plant life that will be suitable for your garden, rather than buying any types of flowers and hope for the best.

Top tips for designing a shade-friendly garden

Even though the best part of gardening is picking your future flowers, some planning needs to be done before that. Make a rough sketch in your mind or on a piece of paper for the location of the chosen varieties. Below you will find some useful landscaping tips on how to bring out the best features of those shady areas and how to play with light and colours. You will learn how to create the optimal conditions for all the plants that tolerate shade more than the sun, as well as how to brighten the darkest areas by adding some focal features.

  • Incorporate plants with different leaf textures. This is as important as planting bright-coloured flowers. Different textures create interest and will effortlessly attract the eye to the once invisible, shady and dark garden area. Ferns and hostas are perfect for this as they have an amazing texture contrast.
  • Choose the correct type of lawn. Depending on the exact type of shade you have, different turf seeds varieties will be suitable to create a thriving and “happy” lawn area.
  • Use colours. And by use I don´t mean just plant every colour of the rainbow. Understand the strength of different colours and learn to combine them. You will see how the dark colours get even darker in the shade and the bright ones, become brighter. The human eye perceives different coloured flowers differently in your garden, depending on how well they are lit. We tend to see more details of items and fixtures when in shade, so try to choose plant varieties that will stand out if planted in low-light areas. Contrasting darks with lights creates visual excitement. The contrast between the Dicentra “Spring gold” and the dark-leaved Cimicifuga will surely attract your immediate attention. Colourful plants are also suitable. You can plant tuberous Begonias, Dicentras, Foxgloves, Forget-me-nots, Hellebore, Bleeding-heart and many more. As long as the contrast is there, you have nothing to worry about.
  • Take care of your soil. Trees and shrubs have feeder roots, which can compete with those of smaller plants, using up their nutrients. Make sure to use an organic, balanced fertilizer so that the soil fertility stays intact.
  • Don’t forget to mulch! Best way to do it is to add 3 to 6 inches of organic mulch.It will enrich the soil over time, by providing it with the right nutrients, by helping you retain soil moisture and by preventing weeds from growing
  • Shady does not mean gloomy, so hurry up and brighten the area that needs it the most! One of the ways to do this would be to cover parts of the ground with some pale stones, gravel, basically anything that could reflect the light in any way. A small pond of water will surely bring some magic into the place. If you have a wall, a fence or a shed somewhere around, paint it a light colour to brighten up the surrounding areas. Plants like the Japanese sweet flag (Acorus gramineus “Ogon”), Hinoki false cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa “Nana Lutea”) and Gold Coast juniper (Juniperus chinensis “Aurea”) have the amazing ability to give the illusion that rays of sunshine are penetrating through the gloom. And, of course, if there is a tree that is casting shade for most of the day, just cut the lower branches.
  • Shake things up a bit by adding a water feature such as a small pond, a fountain or even a ceramic pot filled with water. The flowing stream will add a relaxing note to the atmosphere and the still water will start attracting wildlife into your garden like butterflies, dragonflies, birds and even small mammals.

Different types of shade

Having a shady garden brings out a lot of opportunities for planting design. But did you know that there are different types of shades, each – with its own set of specific characteristics when it comes to growing plants?

Full Shade

This is an area with little to no direct sunlight and with the maximum of 2 sunlight hours per day. It’s the most restrictive type of shade when it comes to planting. It’s usually created by a dense evergreen tree, a dark corner, some overgrown shrubberies or an overhanging building. Having such shade can lead up to a lower sugar production in plants, reduced growth and flowering. Still, this is only applicable to the plants, which are not accustomed to those conditions and there are plenty of them that can grow without problem.

Dry shade

Dry shade can occur when there is a tree with large leaves and shallow roots, for instance. The leaves prevent direct sunlight from reaching the soil and they also shelter it from the rain. The ground receives less moisture and the shallow root system of the tree sucks up whatever little water is there. It could happen as well at the foot of walls where foundations draw water from the soil. If the walls face away from the direction of the wind, little to no rain reaches the ground. Of course, there are a lot of things we can do to improve the soil, in order to give plants a better chance to live. You can use plenty of different organic matter like leaf-mould or garden compost to increase the soil’s moisture absorption and retention properties. This process is most effective during the spring or autumn. You can also add some mulch around the base of the plants when the soil is damp. Appropriate mulches include organic matter, coloured wood chips and gravel.

Here are the top 10 plants for dry shade!

  • The Golden shield fern (Dryopteris affinis)
  • Soft shield fern (Polystichum setiferum)
  • Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis)
  • Siberian bugloss “Langtrees” (Brunnera macrophylla)
  • Common bleeding-heart (Dicentra formosa)
  • Male fern (Dryopteris filix-mas)
  • Purple wood spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides “Purpurea”)
  • Perforate St.John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum)
  • Japanese quince (Chaenomeles speciosa)
  • Common foxglove/ Bloody bells (Digitalis purpurea)

Damp shade

You can find these shady spots in woodland regions or in gardens near water. Most of the times, it’s a natural water source, which creates many wonderful opportunities for exploring your shade gardening skills. Damp shade provides far better conditions for planting various low-maintenance plant species than dry shade. The soil in those places is very often clay. Just like with dry shade, it’s very important to prepare the ground before you start planting. Dig in lots of organic matter like rotted manure or compost. If you have a heavy clay soil type, it will help mixing some sand in to improve drainage. Of course, mulch is also a must every year, around spring time, again placed at the base of the plants. It will break down over time and improve even further the structure of the soil.

Here are the top 10 plants for damp shady places!

  • Sargent hydrangea (Hydrangea aspera – subsp. Sargentiana)
  • Oregon grape     “Lionel Fortescue” ( Mahonia x Media “Lionel Fortescue”)
  • Japanese aralia ( Fatsia japonica)
  • Common box ( Buxus sempervirens)
  • Knotted cranesbill ( Geranium nodosum )
  • Evergreen maidenhair (Adiantum venustum)
  • Primrose (Primura vulgaris)
  • Ivy “Golden Ingot” (Hedera helix)
  • Camellia (Camellia)
  • Wild pansy (Viola tricolor)

Partial shade

This type of shade, also known as semi-shade, offers the best conditions you can have for your garden plant life. As the sun travels around the Earth, it lights up different areas in your garden, from three to six hours a day in midsummer. This means that your plants will get some good sunlight for a couple of hours a day and rest comfortably in the shade after that. Plenty of flowers and shrubs thrive in those conditions, so you can let your imagination flow when you start designing your semi-shade garden. It’s recommended to emphasise on shade-loving plants, because those, which are more dependent on the sun to flourish, will most likely suffer from stunted growth and reduced flowering. Like any other type of shady garden area, the first step before planting would be to improve the soil with plenty of organic matter. If there is some dry, impoverished soil between the larger roots, replace it.

Here are the best 10 plants you can have with partial shade!

  • Rhododendron “Koichiro Wada” (Rhododendron yakushimanum “Koichiro Wada”)
  • Spurge Laurel (Daphne Laureola)
  • Japanese anemone “Honorine Jobert” (Anemone x hybrida)
  • Blue wood “Sweet Lavender” (Symphyotrichum cordifolium )
  • Siberian Iris “Flight of Butterflies” (Iris “Flight of Butterflies”)
  • Goat’s beard (Aruncus dioicus)
  • Honeysuckle (Lonicera)
  • Snowdrops (Galanthus)
  • Yarrow (Achillea Millefolium)
  • Peony (Paeonia Herbaceous)

For all you, garden lovers, these are the most common types of shades! Now, you know how to make the most of it, when designing your garden space, by taking into consideration various plant growing conditions, such as light exposure and soil type. Still, arranging your garden takes a lot of time and effort, especially if it’s a pretentious one. So, if you would like to make your life easier and just enjoy the results without all the digging, planting and turfing, you can always book one of the Fantastic professional gardening teams to help you out. They will do all the hard work and could even supply you with the plant varieties of your choice, upon request. This way, you won’t have to worry about where to buy everything from or wonder whether the plants are  right for your specific garden.

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How shady are your gardens? What is your favorite spot where you relax and spend time with friends and family? Let us know in the comments and share your garden shade-related problems problems, so we can shed some light on their solutions!

Header image source: Shutterstock / Jamie Hooper

Posted in Garden Advice

Last update: November 29, 2018
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