17 Tips For Planting The Perfect Shade Garden
Thinking about planting a shade garden but aren't sure of the best way to do it? It's important to plan out your shade garden properly, and make sure you have the right selection of plants. In this article, certified master gardener Laura Elsner shares her 17 tips for creating the perfect shade garden!
Shade gardens are my favorite. Sun gardens are what normally come to mind when thinking about a garden. Roses, daisies, peonies and all the sun loving flowers start to form a perfect garden vision in our mind. But the shade garden with some shade loving perennials is equally as beautiful.
With shade gardens, you have plenty of opportunity to use plants you wouldn’t normally think to use. You can also create lovely relaxing spaces around areas of your home that might be a bit more closed off when it comes to sun access. It also gives you the chance to add a little character to what could be an otherwise more “drab” location.
Shade gardens don’t always rely on flowers for interest, but rather textures and foliage colors. It can be a bit tricky to get started, but with these 17 shade garden tips, you will be well on your way to creating an oasis in the shade!
Soil is Key
Soil is the foundation in all gardens, not just shade gardens. It is important to have the proper soil so your plants can thrive. Plants are always best suited to growing in their native conditions. This is why when you buy a cactus you get a cactus blend of sandy soil, and not the dark rich soil your tomatoes love. That lush soil will kill a cactus.
Shade plants are suited to shade because they have been growing in shady conditions in their native habitat for thousands of years. Shady areas are forested areas where the large canopy of trees provides shade. The earth in these woodland areas is light, airy and full of organic matter from the turn over of organic matter. This is what we want in our shade gardens. Loamy, humus, rich, loose, free draining soil.
Amend Your Soil
Some people will be lucky enough to naturally have the soil that shade gardens thrive in. But others, like myself, need to work on their soil to create the right conditions. So now you know what kind of soil your shade garden wants, how do we get this light, loamy, and rich humus mix?
Go into your garden and grab a handful of your soil. Squeeze it, then when you open your hand does it stay in a ball like putty? Or does it crumble back to nothing? If it crumbles back to nothing, that’s great, you have light soil. If it does stay in a ball, you have clay soil and you will need to amend it to light and fluffy. Get some peat moss, or coir (preferably coir as it is renewable) and work that into your beds to loosen the soil.
Now to add nutrients into the soil. Top dress your garden beds in the early spring or late fall with compost, aged manure, worm castings, or sea soil. I don’t till this in, just put it on top and water it in and all the nutrients will seep down. I do this every spring, just a thin layer, but it could also be done every second year. Now you have light rich soil that your shade garden will love.
Water is Everything
After establishing a good foundation with soil, now it is time for water. Shade plants like a good deal of water, they are often times found near the banks of rivers and streams in their native conditions. A lot of shade plants don’t like drying out. So evenly moist soil is important. If your soil is light and fluffy and full of organic matter it is perfect for absorbing water, while also draining the excess so there isn’t pooling.
Rain water is sometimes enough to keep your shade garden lush. I live in a dry climate so I need to supplement my watering. I use a long soaker hose that snakes through my garden and I will turn it on for an hour or two a week, or more if it’s really hot and dry. If you creating a shade garden in a warmer climate like zone 8, zone 9, or zone 10, usually rainwater isn’t going to be enough.
You’ll have some plants that will tell you it’s time to water. Hostas, Annabelle hydrangeas, and ligularia for example, will all droop and hang and look really sad until they get a good drink and they will be revived.
You can use a hose or sprinkler to water, I recommend you do this in the early morning, or evening, not in the heat of the day if possible. If you notice something is desperate for a drink in the afternoon, aim directly for the root of the plant without spraying the foliage. If you have an irrigation system, you’re lucky, set it and forget it!
Sometimes we can water and water and water and there is still a dry cracked crust on the soil of the beds. The water might be running off the beds without getting the chance to soak in. By adding mulch, it will act as a sponge to hold onto the water and slowly release it into the soil.
I’ll be honest, I don’t love the look of bark chip mulch. It’s fine for landscaped yards, but it’s definitely not my thing in gardens. If you have a garden with just a hosta here and then another hosta there and everything in its own space, then consider bark mulch. It will hold moisture in for your plants.
But mulch doesn’t have to be thick chips of bark, there are other options. Alpine mulch is a fine mulch that has a soil like appearance. Shredded cedar mulch has a spongy texture and it smells divine when water hits it. Look at your local landscape supply store for various mulch options.
What I like is using ground cover that acts as natural mulch. I like every space stuffed with plants, it’s my personal aesthetic. When I see soil, I see blank canvas and want to layer something in. In this case, the groundcover is the natural mulch. The roots and creeping leaves of the plant hold moisture in. This is the way nature intended, if you go to the woods there is a plant growing from every available nook. Lysimachia, ajuga, and sweet woodruff are great examples of groundcovers that can be used as natural moisture retainers.
I like to rely on the top dressing of compost that I apply yearly to give my plants the nutrients they need and not commercially produced fertilizer. Also, I like to use a natural and organic product derived from the sea that really boosts the micronutrients and the overall health of my soil.
I use a locally made product that I buy from a local garden center. It is a dark black liquid that I add a few capfuls to a watering can and water my garden. It’s a 0-0-6 blend that is chalk full of micronutrients. I water with thus mixture a couple times a year. Once early on, once about halfway through. I have also used worm casting tea, which is a locally made product (find the crazy worm people in your area, they exist, they’re awesome!). Or start your own worm bin, its easy and the kids love it.
I add a good amount of the compost tea to a watering can and water my beds with it. These are living products that add good bacteria and microbes back into your soil. Good soil is alive, and teeming with microbes and bacteria that are essential for the health of your plants. You can also make your own compost teas and water with that. When it comes to gardening, local products are usually the best choice, they are made to work in your area’s soil. Fertilizing does make a difference in how big and lush your plants will get.
Provide Wind Protection
Shade gardens generally need protection. There would be a lot of tree canopy and protection in shady plants’ native habitats. So a lot of the plants, like hostas and ferns, do not tolerate a lot of wind. Their leaves will shred and curl. In order to avoid this, create little pockets, or micro climates to protect the plants from the weather.
Do this by planting near trees, or consider planting a shade friendly shrub in the direction the fierce wind in your area usually blows in from. Dogwoods are nice shrubs that tolerate shade. ‘Ivory Halo’ in particular is a beautiful variety with variegated leaves and bright red stems that grows big and bushy and can protect other plants. Or plan your shade garden near your house, or fence. My little hosta garden is tucked into an area that is protected by mine and my neighbor’s house.
I come to consult in a lot of gardens where people want to grow magical lush fairy gardens underneath huge evergreen trees. This can be an impossible task. I’m not saying you can’t grow anything under your spruce. You’re just going to have to think about how much time and effort you’re willing to spend on this endeavor.
Large evergreens have tons of tiny fibrous roots that run close to the surface. They scoop up every drop of water they can and drain the soil of nutrients. This is why under spruce trees the soil is just a sandy powder. This is a great place to edge out a large tree well and fill in with bark mulch.
But if you insist on growing here, you will need to add lots of compost and lots and lots of water. This will be an ongoing effort to keep it moist. I will also recommend planting perennials that tolerate dry poorer soil conditions. Bergenia, pulmonaria, and rhubarb will all grow under large evergreens.
Deal With Boggy Patches
If you have spots in your garden that are constantly wet and boggy, not all shade plants will enjoy that. Hostas for example, love moist soil, but won’t tolerate constantly wet soil.
If your plants are turning yellow and rotting there is a good chance they are too wet. It’s really hard to amend wet soil to make it drier as it is usually a drainage and elevation issue. This sometimes requires landscape construction to solve drainage issues in gardens. I leave drainage to professionals, or make sure you know what you’re doing. You do not want to reroute the water and flood your home or basement.
There are definitely some plants that will love this. Some plants will even take more sun than they usually like if they are getting a lot of water. Ligularia and Annabelle hydrangea will both take wet soil (not submerged) with more sun. But for real boggy wet areas, Joe pye weed is your guy! It thrives in wet areas in the garden. If you’re in a warmer zone, king and prince tut grasses tolerate some shade and like being submerged as well (in zone 3 I grow these as annuals).
Working With Dry shade
I touched on this a little bit for dry shade under large trees. But there might be other areas in your garden that are dry shade. If you don’t want to water and amend, working with the soil is an option. Choose plants that can take dry shade. Bergenia, rhubarb, pulmonaria, lamium, and lily of the valley are some options.
With the exception of rhubarb, those are all ground covers. But covering a dry shady area in a hardy, aggressive ground cover is sometimes the best option to get something green. Vary the types of plants to add texture, or just one for a uniform large mass.
Shade vs. Partial Shade
I think this is a big one for shade gardens. Some people have different ideas of what shade means. Part sun or part shade is where your garden would receive 4-6 hours of sunlight. Shade is defined as 4 hours or less hours of sunlight. I will say, most plants that are grown for flowers fall into the part shade zone.
Annabelle hydrangeas, and false goatsbeard (astilbe) will not bloom in full shade conditions. They are still considered shade plants. But both the astilbe and the Annabelle hydrangea do require sun. Leafy or blue hued plants are better suited for full shade. Blue hostas, and ferns, for example, can handle full shade conditions.
Read plant tags before purchasing. If your plants look leggy and look like they are reaching for the sun, they should be moved into sunnier areas of the garden. Or if they aren’t blooming or stunted in growth. Try moving the perennial to a part shade location.
Planning For Deep Shade
There might be deep shade pockets in your garden that grow nothing. Place decorative rocks, birdbaths, garden art etc. In those spots. Sometimes it’s easier than fighting to get things to grow. I have a client that uses fake cedars in her deep shade, it provides greenery with absolutely no effort. I must say, I don’t like fake plants, but in the instance of deep shade, it’s actually a good option.
Some plants that can handle deep shade include ferns, creeping ground covers (lamium, lily of the valley etc.), blue colored hostas, and some shrubs, like boxwood and cedar, seem to do ok in deep shade. I find nothing really thrives in these conditions, they survive, but it will never reach its full growth potential.
Layer Plants For Lush Gardens
Shade gardens seem to thrive when plants are packed in together and can share water and humidity. It is also aesthetically pleasing to see different levels and layers of foliage.
Start with taller plant towards the back of the garden. Then start placing shorter plants gradually down in front and finish with a ground cover in the front. Maybe Joe pye weed in the back, Annabelle hydrangeas growing in front, companion planted with hostas and coral bells at the foot of the hydrangea and vinca vine swirling around the base of them.
When starting a new garden do give young plants the room they will need to fill in. But also remember gardens are never static, they are always growing and shrinking in various ways. I always stand back and look and then find a plant to fill a hole or to add a layer of height. Or I will move something. I have accidentally planted something that gets taller than I anticipated and covers another plant. So I rearrange and layer things right.
Factor in Bloom times
Plants do bloom in the shade. They bloom at various times. I specialize in getting my client’s gardens to constantly bloom throughout the season. This requires paying attention to plant choice and their bloom times.
I always think of this as an orchestra playing a symphony. If all the instruments played their solo all at once it would be a crazy jumbled mess. Then after they all played there would be just background noise to finish. The key is getting one instrument to shine in the solo, while the other instruments compliment and accompany the shining soloist. Plants are the same. If you pick only spring blooming plants it will be a crazy explosion of color. Then the rest of the season is all green.
I divide the seasons into early spring, late spring, early summer, midsummer, late summer, and fall. Find a plant that blooms in each of these categories. In northern gardens in particular, shade friendly perennials only have a window of 2-4 weeks to bloom. This is innate plant knowledge, plants will always bloom around the same time every year. So plan for a new plant to play its solo every 2-4 weeks.
Here is an example of a zone 3 shade garden bloom schedule:
- Early spring would have lungwort in bloom.
- Late spring anemone is in full show.
- In late spring/early summer bleeding hearts start flowering.
- In midsummer the soft fronds of astilbe start blossoming.
- Then late summer brings the tall yellow stalks of ligularia.
- We finish the season with the fall fragrance and lacey flowers of bugbane.
This is just one example. There are many combinations, and not just one thing has to be going at a time. flowers can pop up and overlap and fade throughout the summer. I think what’s important is not stacking all one season of bloomers, and I think it’s a common mistake for gardeners.
Check plant tags for bloom times. Often you will find plants in the nursery in bloom at an odd time. But once it’s in your garden for a season it will bloom when it’s supposed to.
Play with Foliage
I think this is why I love shade gardens so much. I am a foliage over flowers girl. Shade gardens offer so many options when it comes to foliage. Deep purple coral bells, dusky blue hostas, spotted lungwort, lacy ferns, frosted brunnera, I could go on! Perennial flowers will come and go, but their foliage will remain constant. So picking some plants with really striking foliage features will liven up shady beds throughout the season.
I find shade gardens can be very leafy, with less flowers. There are less big spectacular flowers that bloom in the shade, a lot of them have smaller, more delicate flowers. Also, some of the big shade flowers, like Annabelle hydrangea, actually require more sun than a full shade garden can offer.
What I like to do is add in some annuals to give some everlasting blooms to my shade gardens. Tuberous begonias are my go to for this. The NonStop series of begonias produces these huge rose like flowers in the shade. Grab a few of these and pop them in the front of the beds. I like little groupings of 3 or 5 for impact, so they don’t get lost.
Impatiens also grow well in shady areas. The smaller ones make a great border to frame a shade garden in a neat row of flowers.
I also use geraniums in part shade conditions. They work best if you buy already established plants that have lots of buds already on them. Not the tiny ones that need to grow up, those need full sun. Pop them in between ferns and hostas and anywhere that needs a quick pop of color.
Deal With Shade Pests
Slugs and snails. This is what comes to mind when I think of shade pests. Our shade plants love damp shady conditions, and well, so do slugs and snails. The little slimeballs love munching through our hostas and other low lying foliage perennials.
To deal with these guys, I have had great success with slug bait that I purchased from a garden center. It’s little pellets that I sprinkle through the garden weekly and it seemed to reduce the number of slugs significantly. I also will hand pick the slugs off plants when I see them. They usually can be found in little groups hanging around the stems.
I’ve also tried the trays of beer trick and it does lure the slugs in so I’ll say it works somewhat. But the slug bait is far easier and effective. You have to constantly change the beer and dump the slugs. Whereas the bait you sprinkle and the little slime balls disappear.
Consider Winter Interest in Shade
I live in an area where a good 8 month of the year are winter. Shade gardens are beautiful in the spring and summer months. But often they fade and disappear completely in the fall and winter months. Hosta, ferns, and other beautiful shade plants dissolve and disappear and then in winter you are left looking at nothing. Of course a garden doesn’t look amazing in the winter, but having a bit of interest through the cold and snow is nice. Especially if you view your garden from a window.
Leave your annabelle hydrangeas up. In the fall when you are cutting things down, consider leaving your hydrangeas up. Their flower heads dry out and look beautiful covered in snow.
Consider the ‘bones’ of your garden. Perennials disappear, but shrubs will stay. My favourite shady shrub to plant for winter interest are dogwoods. Their red colored stems look gorgeous in the winter. Consider evergreens, Boxwood loves shade and stays green year round. Cedars also like shady areas and will add year round green appeal.
Year round focal points are also good. Like a fountain, statue, or arbor. Leaving this around the garden will leave some height and interest through the winter months and then have plants growing up around them all summer.
I also dress up my pots for winter. Purchase or forage sticks, evergreen boughs, and pine cones and stick them into the pots before freeze up. They will freeze in and and look great all winter long.
All these steps can seem daunting if you’re considering setting up your shade garden. But if you start with soil and water and build from there you will be successful in creating your shady paradise. Shady area of the garden can be just as lush and diverse as sunny spots. Remember, nothing is set in stone, things can be moved around in the garden. So dig in and have fun. Happy gardening!