In a city with so many large trees and heavy rains, there are many difficult, shady planting areas.
Dry shade often occurs beneath conifers or deciduous trees. In this situation, new plants have to compete for water with an established tree. Dry shade can also occur under the eves of houses.
In dry shade situations, there is usually a period of some moisture in the winter and early spring. Take advantage of this period by planting new starts. This moist time helps the plants settle in. Greatest success comes when the new plants receive some water through the hot summer, so they can establish a good root system. This root system helps the plants to survive drought in coming years. The following list of plants is suitable for dry shade.
Mulch beds to help maintain soil moisture, and promotes healthy soil microbes. We recommend mulching with compost at least once a year in the fall.
If tree roots are too dense, cover planting area with 6-8” of compost and soil mixture. Plant directly into this mix. Lift plants and replenish soil mixture every five years. In addition, you can put down some synthetic or metal screening over the tree roots to prevent them from growing into your new planting. Then put down 6-8” of compost and soil mix. Shallow rooted plants work very well under heavily rooted trees.
Wet shade can be a poorly drained corner, a stream-side, or truly boggy soils. In these areas the soil is perpetually moist which could be a result of natural water flow, low lying or sunken areas, or spots near down spouts.
An area is often termed as wet shade due to heavy soil and poor drainage. In all cases of shade, mix in compost with the existing soil before planting. Keep in mind that digging in wet soil can lead to compaction, so remember to tread lightly!
In addition to adding compost to your soil, you can also add pumice to improve drainage. Try to avoid walking in areas of wet shade as much as possible. Walking on wet soil can lead to soil compaction.
Provide drainage for rain and run off. You can edge your beds with a trench and backfill with gravel to help create an exit route for excess water. This water will need a destination so you can direct it out of the garden, create a pond, or dry well.
Clean up fallen leaves in autumn so they do not retain too much moisture over the wet winter. If you mulch, go lightly: about 1”. Using compost as mulch can help increase drainage because it will attract worms to aerate the soil.
If you have a combination situations, such as dry deep shade under a conifer, look for plants listed in both categories. Cultural tips for establishing new plants are outlined in the tips for tough shade section. Please keep in mind that plants are subject to seasonal availability.
See our page on Underplanting a Tree for suggestions.
Embrace shade! So many books and articles talk as if gardening in the shade is harder than gardening in the sun.
Quite the contrary! Shade gardens often invoke serenity, relaxation, and a retreat from hot summer days. There is a huge diversity of plants to give the shade garden a full and vibrant feel that compares to the sun garden.
Learn how to read the shade in your garden and dip into the plant pallet for shade. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the shade.
Before determining plant selection, figure out the degree of shade in different parts of your garden by assessing the amount (how many hours) and intensity (time of day) of sunlight for each area. Sometimes this may take some trial and error to truly discover the correct interpretation. Also, one spot in the garden may suddenly receive direct sun at 1PM at the height of summer and be shaded the rest of the year.
Morning Sun: direct sun in the garden for 15 hours before 1:00pm.
The ideal situation for most plants sold as shade plants. This setting is usually delineated by a structure or dense trees to the West and South which blocks the hot afternoon sun.
Afternoon Sun: 1-3 hours of sun after 1:00pm.
This type of part shade is a bit trickier. Many shade plants will burn with hot afternoon sun, and luckily many plants sold as sun plants can thrive in morning shade and perform better than shade plants. This setting is usually delineated by structures and/or trees to the east, west, or south.
Woodland plants are often best suited to this situation. Luckily there are woodlands all over the world, so the plant pallet has become quite diverse. This type of shade often has the added situation of tree roots which can compete for nutrients and water.
A little trickier situation with a narrower plant palate. This type of shade is often delineated by dense trees and structures blocking out most of the sun. It commonly occurs between houses close together and patios and porches. Deep or full shade does not receive any direct sun all day, but may have light. For example, the north side of a house, which only receives reflected light, is deep shade.
Areas of deep shade receive no direct sun in the height of the season. In dappled shade, some light filters through and there are more possibilities than listed here. Prepare deep shade areas for planting by first adding compost to the existing soil.
Remove lower limbs of trees or shrubs to help open an area to allow more light through or create planting pockets.
Plant selection is key. Not all shade plants like wet feet. Native forest plants that grow near streams will thrive.
Use bright and variegated foliage or gazing balls and mirrors to create the illusion of light. Select a plant palate that includes large leaves and glossy evergreens.