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Shade Gardening: How To Create Beautiful Landscapes In Low Light

By March 28, 2017March 22nd, 2022Landscape Design
Shade Gardening: How To Create Beautiful Landscapes In Low Light

If your yard spends much of the day in shade, you may despair of having a lush, beautiful landscape. You might be more familiar with dry, dusty patches of ground beneath trees where nothing seems to grow, or sparse areas of foliage that always seem to struggle to survive.

But even the shadiest spot can become a garden of delights if planned and designed properly. Whether your home is a woodland sanctuary or you simply have an overabundance of old shade trees, here are some tips and ideas for creating the landscape you always wished you could. And none of it involves a chain saw!

The Challenges Of Shade Gardening

Many prized flowering plants require partial to full sun to thrive, but light is actually not the only issue when it comes to growing greenery in the shade.

Lack of moisture can also be a problem since trees tend to act as umbrellas, diverting moisture away from the area beneath. Plants are likely competing with the root systems of big trees for water, and trees soak up nutrients from the soil, too, leaving smaller plants with little to work with.

It can be challenging to water and fertilize shade plants, since shade slows plant growth, so plants need less water and energy, but they still need some. Finding that right amount requires a careful hand.

But don’t give up! There are still plenty of ways to make shade gardening easier. Start by planning ahead.

shade plants and fire pitPlanning Your Shade Garden

Before you can choose the right plants and flowers for a shady spot, it’s important to understand just how shady it is. Are you living under densely grouped trees with little penetrating light, or does your yard get some sun during daylight hours?

More specifically, when does it get sun? Areas of morning sun tend to dry out more quickly, so require plants that are more tolerant of dry soil than plants in areas of evening sun.

The amount of sun in an area can change throughout the day so do some homework and determine how much light an area gets, for how long, and at what time of the day.

Areas of sun and shade can change even throughout the year. Consider how changing seasons affect the amount of sun an area gets. Even the shadiest yard can boast some bright and prolific springtime flowers if they bloom beneath sparse trees before the leaves fill out.

Check shade and moisture levels, but don’t forget about soil. Soil acidity will affect the type of plants that can thrive, and it’s always best to work with the soil you have than to try to replace it. Don’t be afraid of acidic soil. Some lovely plants will enjoy their time there, including Cinnamon Fern, Lily of the Valley and Rhododendron. Wild Ginger, White Baneberry and Lady’s Slipper prefer neutral soil. All can be visually pleasing and add to a bountiful landscape.

Combatting Shady Spots

Before you plant, there are some things you can do to improve the chance that your greenery will thrive. Adding organic matter to the soil can help plants to root and find much-needed nutrients. Mulch and peat work well. And for those gardeners who pride themselves on plucking every last fallen leaf from the ground, cut your shade garden some slack. A bed of leaves can help keep the ground moist and add to the nutrients in the soil.

You can also prune the smaller branches of overhanging trees to let more filtered light through. But be careful not to over-prune, and don’t do this more than once per year.

Think Beyond Plants

Before we talk about choosing the right plants, you may want to consider what you can do to create a beautiful garden without them. You have myriad options, including mulch, natural stone hardscapes, patios and even seating areas.

If you have a hard time growing plants in stubborn soil, think about how containers can house them instead. A stone bench, for example, layered with various containers both on top of, beneath and around it, can create a visual focal point without the headache of fighting a difficult area.

And of course you can mix and match options. You can grow plants in some parts of the ground while intermingling stone or walkways, not only to deal with tough growing areas but to create beauty and interest, too.

shady walkway landscapeChoose The Right Shade Plants

There are many plants and flowers that will grow in shady areas so it’s a matter of finding those that work best for yours. Most flowers that thrive in shade tend to be woodland flowers in more muted colors like whites, pinks and yellows. This can create a peaceful and rejuvenating space for the overworked among us.

Honeysuckle, Geranium and Hellebores grow in part to full shade, and if you’re looking for a bonus, try Lungwort which is not only beautiful but has the added perk of being deer resistant.

For greenery, you can’t beat succulents with their sturdy leaves and unique shapes. They are drought-resistant thanks to the glossy leaves that store water. Not all succulents prefer shade, so choose wisely – Aloe, Jade Plant, Woodland Sedum, and Aeonium Kiwi all make good choices.

Some perennials blossom in fairly dense shade, too. The Fringed Bleeding Heart blooms all season in delicate pink blossoms and can tolerate everything from partial sun to full shade. Black Snakeroot blossoms mid to late summer with slender and fragrant bottlebrush flowers that make perfect border plants.

Since bright colors are less common among shade plants, choose greenery that has interesting leaf shapes, is richly textured, or uniquely colored. Plants with glossy leaves, for example, make the perfect backdrop for the delicate pastels of pink and white flowers.

Hosta thrives in deep shade and offers a variety of colors, from emerald green to muted blues, gold, burgundy and orange, in solid colors and variegated hues. Hosta leaves make an especially nice complement to the feathery leaves of fern.

Spring lettuces grow best in cooler temperatures and low light, which makes them a fun – and edible – addition to a patio garden. You can even grow them in pots lining a shaded walkway, putting a brunch or dinner salad at your fingertips!

gazebo in a shady spotShade Gardening Tricks

Nothing is as disheartening as trying and failing – over and over – to seed grass under shade trees. If you’re resigned to that patch of brown, don’t be. There’s no rule that says a lawn needs to be grass.

In areas where the green stuff simply won’t grow, try ground cover that thrives in shade, like Ivy, Pachysandra, Creeping Dogwood, and even our friend the Hosta, which also has the added perk of being deer-resistant.

Use color to your advantage. Just because you’re not likely to get the bold blooms you see in a sunny garden, doesn’t mean you can’t use color to create a beautiful landscape. Use many shades of the same color, or intersperse a pop of color amidst glossy green foliage.

Enhance a shade garden with the right décor. Add a stone bench, natural stone walkway, or arbor. A gazebo will take up ground space where you may not be able to grow much, and it makes a perfect focal point.

Decorative lighting can enhance your space day or night, especially if you have a densely shaded area that could benefit from a twinkle here and there among the ferns. Moon lighting installed in trees will cast a natural light by evening so you can walk or relax in that gazebo.

Shady spots can make for stunning landscapes if you choose the right plants and work with what Mother Nature gave you – not against it. If you’d like to learn more about how your woodland home or dappled yard can be transformed into an outdoor space that you can use and enjoy all year, get in touch for an in-home consultation. From deep shade to mixed shade and sun, we can help design and build the outdoor space of your dreams.