Shade Garden Basics and 3 Design Ideas

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If you have an area of your yard or property that is overshadowed by trees, you might want to consider creating a shade garden. An area like this can create a sense of peacefulness and a deep quiet that is only occasionally broken by a birdsong.  

You will have to plan it out, though, as only plants that thrive in low light will be able to survive with minimal sun. In these unique gardens, you will frequently find hostas, coral bells, ferns, hydrangeas, Japanese maple, and dogwood trees

Making such a space is not the same thing as creating your typical garden. Exactly what goes into making such a space? And what are some plants that we recommend?

Some folks might say this type of garden is too challenging.  We say otherwise.  Keep reading to explore ways to beautify that dark corner of your yard and make it a cool retreat on the hottest days.

Creating and designing a shade garden is not difficult with a proper guide.

What Kind of Shade Do You Have?

The number of hours of sunlight your garden receives each day determines whether it is full sun, full shade, or something in between.  But not all shade is created equal, and light patterns change seasonally.

So take some time to analyze the space and track the light and shadow and amount of sun it receives.

“Full shade” is a space that receives less than 4 hours of sun per day.  Terms such as deep or dense are often reserved for areas that receive less than 2 hours of sunlight per day.  Gardens in the shadow of buildings or under evergreens and densely canopied deciduous trees (like Norway maples) are considered full shade.

When the amount of light is defined by buildings, an area can be in full shade for part of the day but in full sun when the sunlight moves.  Many city gardens are like this.  You can consider an area full sun if it receives more than 4 hours of sunlight in a summer afternoon.  If it only receives sunlight in the morning, this space can be a place to consider starting your garden. 

Dappled or filtered shade occurs under trees with a very open canopy, like honey locust or river birch.

Open or light shade happens when a shadow falls across your garden and the space receives no direct sunlight but is open to the sky.  Two examples of this are a spot between two buildings or next to a fence.  Photographers love this diffuse and even light.

The time of day a garden space receives light is also a factor.  Full sun in the early morning, when temperatures are cooler, is very different than full sun in the afternoon.  Many shade-loving plants will tolerate a full sun situation in the morning if it is protected by direct sun later in the day. For example, the east side of a house is a great spot for a Japanese maple.

Also consider where the space has naturally dry or wet soil.  Drier environments occur under evergreens and other dense trees where rain doesn’t penetrate.  Wet soil is a result of hills, valleys, and swales that create low spots where water collects. 

shadowed pathway makes the perfect area for a garden

Design Ideas

These gardens do not provide that riotous burst of colors that is the hallmark of full sun summer gardens.  By its very nature, this type of garden is calm and restful; the colors are soft and muted.  So we design in subtle, quiet hues in a simple style with only a few pops of color for emphasis.

1. Keep the Theme Consistent

Use the same design theme in your shade garden as you used in the rest of your yard. Don’t build a Zen garden under your trees if the rest of your landscape is cottage style.  It will look very out of place.

Work your design based on existing shadow patterns.  There may be places on the edges where you can use plants that like more sun.  We once saw a garden with a small full sun spot right in the middle that was planted with reblooming daylilies bursting with color!  

Creating a consistent theme will create a more cohesive feel.

2. Use Design Elements to Create Unity

Keep your palette small.  Too many different elements in a garden can make it confusing instead of restful because the eye doesn’t know where to land.  Keep it simple by repeating shapes and forms, colors, and textures. This creates a rhythm and a continuity that makes the space a garden rather than a collection of plants.

The shape and form of your plants determine the mass.   Plant in a group so that they can be seen as one mass. Some plants – like large-leafed hostas – will have a stronger presence in the garden than delicate ferns.  Use a variety of forms that repeat to draw the eye to different areas.

Because plants grow and gardens change over time, keeping the garden in visual balance can be tricky.  Scale and proportion can also change over time, Don’t be afraid to move something that no longer works.

Plants with different textures create interest, especially when they are combined together.  Ferns and hostas are a classic combination.

Color should be your last consideration.  One design recommendation is to use 1 part color to 9 parts green.  Rely on foliage color instead of flower color in any garden.  Flowers often don’t last long, especially when you are using perennials. 

Remember that white, yellow, lavender, and pink will be more showy than purple, blue, and red, which can quickly fade into the background.  However, juxtaposing dark-leafed plants with light ones can create contrast, allowing plants to play off one another.  A brightly colored container or flower pot can bring a bit of pop into the space.

Example of springtime plants that grow well without full sun

3. Add More than Plants

Adding features that enhance your plants helps unify the garden, too.  This could mean containers, a path, a water feature, or a bench.

If your garden is under trees, a natural-looking path of wood chips or mulch helps create a woodsy look. Stepping stones can be spaced to slow a visitor’s steps, inviting them to look and listen.  And, of course, if there’s a path, it needs to lead somewhere.  If you have space, curving the path so that the end destination is just out of sight creates mystery and a desire to explore.  A bench at the end of the path invites the visitor to sit and relax. i

Water features fit into shady gardens naturally.   A fountain, a stream, or a pond can add drama, create sound, and invite birds.

Statues can help create a focal design element

What Can You Plant?

When planting any garden, the first step is to analyze the site. You’ve already done that with light and determined it’s a shade garden; now you need to look at the soil, its fertility, and its moisture content.  Whenever or wherever you create a garden, a soil test is always recommended.  However, when you are planting under trees, you may find it difficult to amend the soil in any meaningful way. It’s best to work with the soil you have and use light organic mulches (shredded leaves are an excellent choice here) to improve the soil over time.   

Trees have shallow spreading roots.  After all, most of the moisture and nutrients are in the top 12 inches of the soil.  If you try to map out an exact design, know that tree roots can thwart your best-drawn plans. It’s better to have a general idea of what goes where and work around the roots, tucking plants in here and there wherever you can fit them in.  

Buy plants in a smaller size when planting under mature trees.  Try one quart of perennials instead of buying them in a one-gallon size.  Buy smaller-sized shrubs, too. 

You might be tempted to build up the soil around trees – even going so far as to build a raised bed – but doing that can be harmful to your trees; it can smother them.  Tuck your herbaceous plants into the little spaces between tree roots. Then, dig the smallest hole that will fit your new plant.

Our Favorite Plants

Here are just a few of our favorite plants for shadowy spots.  There are many more; but let this list inspire you to get started creating your own calm, cool, and restful retreat.

Small trees

Green laceleaf japanese maple makes a wonderful small tree that can fit in a shade garden.
Green Laceleaf Japanese Maple at Nature Hills Nursery

Japanese maples, redbud, cornelian cherry, flowering dogwood, serviceberry and witch hazel can be used if the canopy is high.  These understory trees can help tie the treetops to the ground.

Evergreens

Steeds japanese holly makes a wonderful evergreen shrubbery
Find Steeds Japanese Holly at Nature Hills Nursery

Yes, there are evergreens that grow in shade – western hemlock, yews, and arborvitae; and broadleaf evergreens boxwood and holly.

Shrubs

Rhododendrons, azaleas, hydrangeas, Japanese kerria, mountain laurel, calycanthus, itea, and viburnums are all great choices.  Many of these shrubs flower in the spring bringing additional delight.

Perennials

There are lots of perennials that don’t need a lot of light to flourish.  For gorgeous foliage try ferns, hostas, Solomon’s seal, lady’s mantle, Jacob’s ladder, epimedium, heucheras, and blue eyed grass.  Many of these perennials are spring bloomers  – like bunnera, bergenia, lily of the valley, bleeding heart and columbine.  But astilbe, aruncus and cimicifuga bloom in summer; and toad lily and some anemones are autumn bloomers.

Bulbs

You can plant spring bulbs under deciduous trees, and they will get all the sunlight they need and bloom before the trees develop all their foliage. Many spring bulbs like dry conditions, making them perfect to use under thirsty trees.

If you plant a groundcover together with the bulbs you can have the best of both worlds – a garden that bursts into bloom in the spring and is a cool restful green for the rest of the season.

Annuals

For season-long color in a shady spot, grow begonias, impatiens, caladium, hypoestes, coleus, lobelia, alyssum, torenia and salvia

Try a fuchsia in a hanging basket, hung from low branches or from a porch railing.  New Guinea impatiens positively glow but remember that these plants need a lot of water!

Vines

Take your garden to new heights with some vines.  Clematis love their feet in the shade and their heads in the sun, so they’ll be very happy climbing up a tree. Other vines to consider are climbing hydrangeas, dutchman’s pipe, and Virginia creeper.

Groundcovers

Purple periwinkles can add violet color.
Buy Periwinkle at Nature Hill Nursery

Groundcovers can be used to plant the entire area or can be tucked into pockets and crannies between roots that are too small or other plants.

Try wild ginger, ajuga, periwinkle (vinca), lamiums, liriope, sweet woodruff, creeping thyme, and pachysandra.  These plants will spread over time, making a carpet along the ground.

Herbs

Unfortunately, vegetables cannot flourish because they need at least 6 hours of sun per day. However, there are some herbs that can tolerate less sun. Consider herbs such as lemon balm, sorrel, lovage, mint, thyme, dill, parsley, chives, and coriander.

Ongoing Maintenance and Care

Your garden may need more water and fertilizer if there is competition for moisture and nutrients.  Use mulch to help hold in the moisture.   Mulch has the added benefit of adding nutrients to the soil as it breaks down. It’s a good idea to refresh the mulch every year or two.

You might not have to do much weeding.  Violets and creeping charlie are weeds that thrive in the shade, but many other common garden weeds need more sunshine.

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About the author: Alaine has been working way too hard in horticulture since 1992, beautifying golf courses, resorts, and hotels. She is a part time landscape designer who works full time caring for a 28,000 square foot public garden. At home, she maintains her own 400 square feet plot. Alaine lives in northern Illinois - zone 5b.

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