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Shade Gardens
by Linda Tominson
August 18, 2000

Shade gardens are one of the hardest to establish but once they are established they are the easiest to maintain. The time, effort and money put into creating a shade garden, with comfortable seating, is well worth it. On hot days it will provide a cool place to relax and entertain friends and family. Shade gardens are the most utilized place in any yard.

The first step in creating a shade garden is discovering how much sun the garden receives. Take time to observe the area at different times during the day noting how much light reaches the garden. Does the garden receive any direct sunlight or is it always filtered through leaves? Is the shade caused by buildings or fences? The amount and type of light that reaches the plants determines the plant selection.

Once the amount of sunlight is determined look carefully at the soil. Is it wet or dry? If the soil is consistently dry, add more organic matter to the soil as it will retain moisture.

If the soil is wet and soggy, combine sharp sand with the existing soil to improve drainage. If the sand isn’t sharp, it will fill existing air and drainage holes in the soil creating hard lumps. To avoid this disaster, test the mixture by mixing small quantities of soil and sand together in a pot, then wet the mixture and allow it to dry naturally. If the soil is still soft and pliable, mix the sand with the existing soil. If it is hard and lumpy, discard the sand and look for a new source.

Another alternative is to create a raised bed by adding 8 to 12 inches of top soil over the existing soil. The majority of the plant’s roots will stay in the drier top soil avoiding the problem of becoming water logged.

Take time and choose the plants for a shade garden carefully. Shade or lack of direct sunlight has a direct impact on plants. Many plants thrive in shade but most plants grow and develop at a much slower rate than ones planted in full sun. Like wise, plants growing in the shade will often be shorter and flower up to two weeks later than ones grown elsewhere. Plants that are not shade tolerant grow tall and spindly searching for more light. These plants rarely flower even if they do survive the location.

When planting a shade garden, take in account the slow growth of the plants and off set it by using more plants and putting them closer together. Instead of planting one plant in an area use two or three. Shade gardens are usually peaceful and relaxing places this is reinforced by mass plantings as opposed to the busy look of many different plants in a small area.

A solid pathway into a shady area is a must, as grass will not survive the wear and tear of regular foot traffic. The pathway should be comfortable to walk on, easy to maintain and aesthetically pleasing. It like the plants, must blend in with its surroundings.

A wet and cool shade garden is also home to garden pests. Slugs are the worst offenders. If left unchecked, they can devour many plants in a short period of time. To avoid this problem, start baiting or removing slugs now before they have had time to reproduce. Commercial baits work but be sure to keep them away from birds and pets. Slugs will congregate under rotten boards, citrus shells or leafy ground covers allowing you to collect and dispose of them each morning.

Take time to encourage wild life to visit the garden. Bird houses, feeders or bathes will encourage birds and butterflies. Clay toad houses tucked away in a cool corner will encourage toads or frogs.

All these extras will add to the enjoyment of the shade garden.

-I have a Diploma in Horticulture from Olds College and a B.ed from Uof C. I've worked for the City of Calgary, mostly in the Devonian Gardens down town. I've also worked for various nurseries and landscape companies. One was in Australia. I've taught a number of adult Ed courses in Horticulture in Rocky Mountain House. I presently write a weekly column for The Red Deer Advocate on gardening. the rest of my time is occupied with family and Girl Guides.

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