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3 Tips for Shade Garden Success

Do you struggle with a shady landscape?

Have trees around your property matured to the point that they’re monopolizing the sunlight? If you look longingly at the blooms of full-sun plants and think you can’t achieve a beautiful garden in shadier areas, think again. Gardens in both light and deep shade areas can be profoundly beautiful blends of texture, color and interest–but before you plant, consider these tips:

Shadeplanting
Dappled sun is great for layering the colorful foliage of coleus and caladiums.

1. Understand what ‘shade’ means in your garden.

There’s a huge spectrum of varying light levels that can all be referred to as ‘shady.’ Knowing how much light you actually have in your garden, and when that light is reaching your plants, is important. If you have ‘deep’ shade, where no direct and very little ambient sunlight can reach, your conditions are very different than if you have ‘dappled’ shade, where light is filtered through branches overhead.

Shade bed
On the sunnier side of this shade bed, large shrubs create protective pockets for shade-loving annuals.

Also, it’s important to note that the time of day matters–a lot. That spot that receives only two hours of sun may seem great for those hydrangeas you’ve been wanting, and if that sunlight is from sunrise to 8 or 9 am, it probably is. If it’s from 3-5 pm in the afternoon, however, your shade loving plants could scorch in the summer heat.

Consider adding trees in strategic locations to bring more shade as needed. Alternatively, if you want to thin your tree canopy to allow more light to penetrate, speak to a certified arborist to see about healthy pruning.

2. Great soil is key.

As a general rule, plants that evolved the capability to survive and thrive with less sunlight are native to forested areas. They had to adapt to the forest canopy shading the light, but were treated to richer forest soils in turn.

Since forests tend to be thickly vegetated, falling leaves and other organic matter build up and decompose into the soil surface, enriching it over time. It also tends to stay more moist due to its protection from drying wind and sun. The result? Humus-rich soil that shade garden plants will love. If your shade garden suffers from poor, dry soil, build it up by amending with plenty of organic compost and consider adding horticultural molasses and worm castings for extra richness. Topdress with compost in spring and fall to keep organic content high.

Shade patio
In this difficult shady spot, flagstones were added to create a seating area bordered by a stacked stone wall. Steel cables provide support for growing vines, and a small jar fountain completes the cool oasis.

3. Start with structure, place your permanent plants, then highlight with annuals.

In designing any garden space, begin with adding or altering any permanent structures before planting–add paths, decks or pergolas first. Build around this ‘skeleton’ with shrubs and woody perennials, then work your way down to annuals. Smaller, seasonal plants can offer important interest and color and fill ‘nooks and crannies’ in your garden design. Replacing them each growing season will help to keep your garden fresh and interesting.

Create shade garden interest by contrasting natural stones.
Create interest by contrasting natural stones. Here, dark Mexican beach pebbles provide walk-able space while large granite river rocks highlight the various plantings.

Want to learn more?

Take a look at our Top 20 Perennials for Shade guide. Come speak to our garden advisors anytime to see plants firsthand that you can work into your shady beds.

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