People often ask me, :What can I grow in areas of reduced light in my yard?” The good news is that there’s a wide selection of beautiful shade-loving plants that can add color and interest to darker areas of your garden. In fact, these underused spots can become refreshing havens when summer temperatures climb. Here are some tips to help you shape up your shade:
Know your shade. Not all shade areas are created equal. It’s important to know what kind of shade you have so you’ll know which plants you can grow there.
The amount of moisture is another factor to consider—some shady areas are moist woodland environments, while others are extremely dry. Look for plants that are adapted to the moisture level in your shade garden.
The time of day that shade hits your plants is also important. Some plants like morning shade, while others do better with some afternoon shade. In warmer climates, afternoon sun is especially hard on shade-loving plants. Hydrangeas, azaleas, and hostas struggle when exposed to four or more hours of western sun, while they seem less bothered with the same amount of morning light. Avoid placing broadleaf plants in these settings. Instead, try drought-tolerant, partial-shade ground covers that tolerate full sun at the end of the day, such as barrenwort (Epimedium spp., Zones 4 to 9, depending on species), mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus, Zones 7 to 10), and creeping lilyturf (Liriope spicata, Zones 6 to 10).
Raise the shades. To bring more light to a gloomy area, try a technique I call “raising the shades.” Trim lower branches of trees and shrubs to allow more angled, filtered light into the understory. Prune the plants carefully to maintain a natural, balanced look, removing no more than a third of the branches at one time.
Readjust your thinking. In order to have a beautiful shade garden, you need to let go of the idea that every plant in your garden must bloom. Woodland plants tend to be a bit more understated than those found in bright, sunny spots, but that doesn’t mean your shade garden needs to be boring. Vary the height, leaf color, and texture of your plantings. Look for plants with interesting foliage, like coral bells (Heuchera spp., Zones 3 to 9, depending on species) and Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum, Zones 3 to 8), and ones with interesting texture, such as the puckered leaves of ‘Sum and Substance’ hosta (Zones 3 to 8).
Create a dramatic focal point. An eye-catching object in a darkened area makes a powerful visual hook. A brightly painted bench, statue, or ornament adds interest to an otherwise overlooked area of the garden. A collection of colorful chairs in a shady spot makes a delightful refuge on a hot summer day.
Fill in with bright colors and variegated patterns. A tried and true way of brightening dimly lit areas is to add plants with light-colored flowers or foliage that is either striped, splotched, veined, or marked in contrasting colors. Keep in mind that while some variegated plants can add interest, too many can be overwhelming. They look best when you arrange several of the same plant in a group, giving the impression that a shaft of light has illuminated a few plants.
Go bold. Delicate foliage and flowers don’t stand out in shady areas. For dramatic impact, choose plants with large blooms, bold leaves, and strong forms. A mix of bold and fine foliage helps draw attention to both. Flowering shrubs also add interest, including bigleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla, Zones 5 to 9), Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica, Zones 6 to 9), and ‘Rainbow’ fetterbush (Leucothoe fontanesiana ‘Rainbow’, Zones 5 to 8).
Add dimension. Impatiens are the classic flowering annual for shady areas. They’re a popular choice because they’re easy to grow and bloom all summer. I plant New Guinea impatiens in large drifts to make a strong statement. To give the composition more interest, I use light, medium, and dark blooms in the same series and color family to create more depth. For example, when planting a large bed of pink impatiens, I mix one-fourth light pink, one-fourth dark pink, and half medium pink. This animates the planting and keeps it from looking flat and one-dimensional.
Plant containers. Roots are often a problem when planting under shade trees. Instead of digging holes and risking damage to delicate tree roots, fill several large containers with shade-loving plants. Colorful pots bring the plants closer to eye level where you can appreciate them even more. Select a container that suits the overall style or mood of your shaded garden. For instance, use a lattice-patterned terra-cotta pot for a cottage garden or a large urn for an elegant Victorian garden.
Add a water feature. The sparkle and flash of water and its cheerful sounds bring energy and movement into your shade garden. It could be water bubbling over stones or a mere splash of water spilling over the lip of an earthenware jug. Even a simple reflecting pool adds mystery, and will attract toads and frogs to your shady niche.
What kind of shade do you have?
Some parts of your garden have light or partial shade, which means plants receive filtered sun or get direct sun for only a few hours. This type of shade is where most shade-loving plants do best.
Full shade means plants don’t get direct sun during the day, but they do receive “reflected light.” This is the type of shade found under the canopy of a mature tree. Some shade lovers that thrive in partial shade will also grow in full shade, but their bloom time or plant size may be affected.
Heavy shade is an area that gets almost no direct light (under a deck, for example). Very little will grow here, so it’s best to add a layer of attractive mulch.
P. Allen Smith (www.pallensmith.com) is a professional garden designer, host of two national TV programs, a regular guest on the “Today” show, and author of P. Allen Smith’s Container Gardens (Clarkson Potter, 2005) and other books in the Garden Home series.