Planting a Shade Garden
Shade gardens can be stunning if planted properly and come with some advantages, like slower growth and longer-lasting flowers. Of course, there are also challenges like soil that’s too wet, encouraging root rot or slugs, or soil that’s too dry, unable to get adequate waterfall from overhead trees or bushes. However, if planted and tended to properly, a shade garden can be very easy to maintain—in fact, it might become your favorite spot in the yard.
Shade gardens can be mysterious, almost fairytale-like. Wildlife love to live and hide in the shade, especially in the hot summer months. Adding a water feature like a birdbath or small bubbling fountain can bring life and sound to an otherwise dark area. Below are some tips and tricks to plant a beautiful shade garden:
Type of Shade
Before planting your garden it’s important to know what type of shade the ground gets. It’s best to observe the sunlight in different seasons as well as different times of the day, like early morning and mid-afternoon. Here are four types of shade your garden may receive:
- Part Shade: Areas of the garden that receive 3-4 hours of direct sunlight, but not necessarily all at once.
- Dappled Shade: Trees with high, lacy canopies that cast dappled shade on the garden, and some areas could receive direct sunlight but in small doses.
- Medium Shade: Areas below mature trees with branches at least 20 ft high, very little dappled light.
- Dense Shade: Large, dense trees—like evergreens—with low branches cast deep shade and the soil is filled with mature tree roots.
When shopping for plants, refer to your type of shade to ensure they will thrive in your garden. Most plants are labeled “shade” or “partial shade”. If you have part or dappled shade, you can choose partial shade or full shade plants. If you have medium to dense shade, look for full shade plants.
When it comes to choosing your shade plants, be sure to consider these factors:
- Size: No matter what type of garden you plant, you always want to include height layers to create visual interest. You could plant taller plants towards the back with smaller plants in the front, or you could do a pattern of taller plants surrounded by shorter ones. Be aware of growth height when choosing your plants.
- Leaf Shape Variety: Avoid getting plants that all have the same leaf shape. Look for varying leaf shapes and arrangements to create contrast and visual interest—from long and thin, too big and round. It’s OK to buy a few of one leaf type, for clusters or balance.
- Color: Try to find plants that have slightly different shades of green, purple, or lime to add depth to your garden.
- Perennial vs. Annual: Perennials will come back year after year, slowly growing bigger and bigger. Annuals only last a season. For a lush garden, plant 80% perennials, leaving 20% for spot color annuals.
Depending on where you live, your shade plant options will vary. Below is a list of common shade plants that should be available in most areas of the country:
Probably the most widely known shade plant is the hosta, but for good reason. They’re easy to grow, require zero maintenance, and come in many varieties including different leaf color, size, and variegation. In spring they produce white or purple spike flowers. You could easily plant just hostas with 3-5 varieties and it would be stunning. They drop all their leaves in winter to hibernate.
Available in several different colors, including light or dark green, silver, red, purple, or gold, coralbells not only thrives in shade, but they’re also evergreen—so they won’t drop their leaves in winter. In spring and throughout summer, they spike feathery white, pink, red, or purple flowers and their unique leaf shape adds great texture.
Japanese Forest Grass
This is one of few ornamental grasses that love the shade, and over time can spread to 3’ wide. They produce bright yellow-gold variegated leaves in partial and dappled sunlight and turn bright lime green in full shade. This grass adds great contrast to broader leafed plants. Leaves will drop for winter.
This hardy evergreen fern loves the shade and can handle being planted on slopes to prevent erosion. It doesn’t spread but over time the clumps broaden. The Christmas fern can add height and a tropical feel to your shade garden. In winter they will die back.
Lily of the Valley
These little flowering perennials produce beautiful white, bell-like flowers in the spring. They work well in clumps or even as a ground cover. They slowly spread over time and die back in winter.
This shade-loving ground cover is an evergreen, providing color all year long. It grows like a weed, hard to kill, and has tubular roots so it will spread—but slowly. In the spring it produces small white flowers.
These plants do best in dappled or medium shade. The more sun it gets the larger it will grow, up to 3 ft. Their heart-shaped blooms appear in spring and attract hummingbirds and butterflies. This is a nice flowering perennials that will come back year after year.
This annual spot color flower is perfect for dappled to medium shade areas, and it comes in many colors. Try to keep it out of direct sunlight if possible, otherwise, they’ll burn.
Density and Planting
Shade gardens look best when they are lush, meaning more is better. You’ll need to plant more and closer together since they won’t grow as fast or get as big as full sun plants. Shade plants grow slow and steady. It will be years until you may need to divide or transplant.
Once you have your design layout, place your plants in their positions on the ground—still in their pots. Stand back and make any adjustments needed. Look for height balance, texture contrast, and color variety. Start digging your holes and place the pots inside the holes—but don’t plant them just yet. Your holes should be the same depth as the pot but twice as wide. Once you’re done digging all the holes, step back once more and make sure you like the arrangement before permanently installing the plants.
Pay attention to rainfall. Depending on your shade type, you may get adequate water from the rain, or may not get enough if there are dense tree branches and leaves above the area. Supplement with hand watering when needed, but be sure not to over-saturate—remember that shady areas will take longer for water to evaporate. Shade plants don’t necessarily need less water, so don’t let them dry out either.
Shade gardens can be beautiful if done right. They should be lush, full of contrast and texture with pops of color here and there. There should be leaf variety and interesting height elevations. Hopefully, with these tips, you will have the confidence to plant your own shady fairytale garden. Get digging!
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