Gardening in the Shade

Gardening in shady areas can be both challenging and rewarding. The challenges include growing plants successfully among aggressive tree roots and matching the right plants with variable light conditions. The rewards include creating unique plant settings and textures that constantly evolve with the changing light.

Types of shade

The first step to successful shade gardening is to realize there are many types of shade and that they change with the seasons. There’s the afternoon shade on the east side of a building or plantings, the morning shade on the west side and the more consistent shade on the north side. There’s also the dappled, filtered or heavy shade directly underneath trees. Each type of shade will vary with the seasons. As the sun changes angles, what is in full shade in spring may get more bright light by midsummer, when the sun moves higher in the sky. The dropping of leaves from deciduous trees also dramatically affects shade patterns underneath. 

Choosing shade plants

Armed with an understanding of your shade patterns, you can begin choosing plants. There are many great plants that thrive in shady conditions, including classics like Azaleas, Hydrangeas, Coleus, Camellias, Coral Bells and Ferns. Look for lists of shade lovers in regional gardening books or on your state cooperative extension website. It’s also a good idea to make note of plants that are thriving in similar conditions in your neighborhood and visit the “shade section” of your local nursery or garden center.   

Plants with light-colored flowers will beautifully brighten shady areas. Also consider species with strikingly textured or variegated foliage – they’ll look good all season long. And don’t forget bulbs like Snowdrops, Snowflakes and Lilies that will naturalize in shady areas. Some wildflowers will also naturalize. In difficult areas, choose native woodland plants.

Gardening under trees

Gardening underneath a tree is not always easy. Its often hard to plant in areas with dense roots, and once you do plant, the tree roots will compete aggressively for water and nutrients. You may have to water frequently, especially as new plants become established. Include a good irrigation system in your planning and fertilize regularly.

If you have an area with dense shade, consider pruning the trees, thinning the canopy to let in more light. Where roots are just too dense, try planting in containers and display them on mulched areas or small decks beneath the trees. 

Things to remember

Remember, a shade garden is an evolving thing. Some plants may not thrive and will have to be replaced. If you are starting a new garden or landscape, shade conditions will change as plants mature, which may call for alternative plantings over time.