Working with shade to create beauty where you least thought possible

Imagine you’re walking down a country lane. As you gaze ahead of you, you notice the road wanders into an alley of birches. The dappled sunlight beneath them gives way to a cool tunnel of shade as the lane winds deeper into the woods. The heat of the summer day begins to dissipate as you follow further into the forest primeval…

So, shade is a problem, huh?

Shade Tolerant Plants

If you perceive your shady areas as problems, then they surely will become one for you. I prefer to think of that shady area as an opportunity to achieve some true gardening miracles.

Imagine the envious looks on neighbors faces as the first burst of bulbs, primrose, and pulmonaria gives way to a riot of color as your azaleas and rhodies harmonize with kerria and viburnums. This is a luxuriant border that the gardener “blessed” with a sunny yard will never be able to attain.

The almost tropical lushness of hostas contrasting with the airy fronds of a fern is lost to those gardeners who aren’t lucky enough to have that shady corner of the yard. I have found that shade gardening does offer some unique challenges to us, but as with most things in life, the tougher challenges have even greater rewards.

So let’s delve into the challenges and rewards of shade gardening. With just a little knowledge, and the right spot in the yard, soon you too can become the envy of your neighbors. And maybe, just maybe, we can look out on that magnificent sight and find just a little pity for the poor soul that doesn’t have any shade at all.

Partial Shade and Full Shade

First of all, let’s define the different kinds of shade. The Inuit tribes of Alaska have over 60 different words for snow, and this is closely akin to the way I feel about shade. But let’s see if I can be a little more succinct about this.

There are basically two different types of shade. There is partial shade and there is full shade. I define partial shade as an area that receives between 4 and 6 hours of sunlight a day. Full shade is any area that receives less than 4 hours a day. If this seems sort of simplistic, that’s because it is.

The density of shade is really a matter of what kind of plant or obstacle is throwing the shadow. Even a single white pine can throw dense shade; while a whole grove of honeylocusts may allow you to plant things that should really have full sun. All I’m saying is if you really want to see a particular plant in a particular place, give it a try. I once planted meadow rue in a very shaded location. While I lost that wonderful, foamy flower, (just not enough sun) I did get the light, tall, vertical foliage contrast I was looking for. So again, don’t be afraid to experiment.

What to Do if You Have Too Much Shade

Maybe, just maybe, there is too much shade to achieve the effect you are looking for. (Anything is possible!) By removing a few selected trees, you can lighten up an area considerably. This is often too big a job to take on by yourself (without damaging other plants or yourself) and I would recommend hiring a professional arborist. Often the necessary results can be achieved by taking the lower limbs off of the offending trees. I am only recommending these solutions to alleviate the darkest of situations; we can certainly find the right plants to keep that wild feeling of the deep forest.

Designing in the shade garden offers many challenges, but the wide palette of material that is available offsets this. One of the few problems I will acknowledge is the lack of formality in most of our shady characters. Although box and yews can be clipped into formal shapes, most shade plants appear at home in that naturalistic setting.

Some of the finest shade gardens in the world are found in Japan, and I feel that we can learn valuable lessons there that can be used in any garden. The most basic tenet of Japanese gardening is that the garden should mimic nature, showing man’s hand only occasionally. This is, of course, only a personal opinion, but I feel that this is the best tack to take in the shade border. The woodland feel of a shady area is best brought out by allowing the plantings to have that informal look that mimics nature. I say why fight it? A few other quick tips:

Moss Contributes to a Beautiful Garden

In keeping with my previous thought, moss can be our friend. Nothing gives such a natural look as moss, and it makes the garden appear wild and established. I have heard that everything from buttermilk to dark beer to horse pee will help establish moss, but I’ve found that simply keeping things wet on a regular basis is the only real requirement to establish moss.

Native Plants are Naturals for a Shady Garden Spot

Using natives to the outside of the yard, and working with the more exotic plants closer to the house makes sense for two reasons. One, the area closer to the house will receive more attention, and therefore, more work. The natives need much less attention and won’t suffer from the lack of attention. Two, the native plants away from the house simulate the natural surroundings, allowing fauna to utilize your yard as habitat. Everyone wins.

Plan Your Garden Like a Panorama

As with any design, don’t use single plants when you can use drifts and sweeps of plants instead. The eye will carry easily over large groups; it stutter-steps when the plant material changes every six inches.