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Planning a Garden in the Shade
by Dawn Tack
September 19, 2010

Often gardeners struggle with the thoughts of planning gardens in the shade. Once you have determined the degree of sun light and soil conditions there are many to choices in exceptional plant material. The other aspects that we tend to forget is how much better the temperature is for us when working in those gardens, less weeds and less evaporation of moisture all due to the lack of the suns rays.

When I personally think of a shade I picture a meandering path leading to a bench in a quiet place surrounded by gardens filled with a mixture of textures from the bold to the delicate in every colour from gold, all shades of green, burgundy and black.

Keep in mind not all shade is created equal. Deep shade is found under dense trees, beside walls or behind buildings on the north side; no direct sunlight at all at any time of the day. Medium shade is found in areas that are more open to the sky but receives no direct light. Filtered shade is relatively bright although the direct light is dappled through trees and/or structures like a lattice screening. Partial shade is direct sunlight but for limited time usually facing east. This space is morning sun only for 3-4 hours and less intense sunlight.

Soil conditioning is very important when creating any garden. So before you plant you should strongly consider improving the soil. This is the best opportunity to fully work the area. Taking the time to do these steps in the beginning will be your reward to long term success of this garden.

You may think that less light means more dull and dreary. This is not the case! The plant materials that actually enjoy less light are those that have more texture and great foliage colours.

In early spring the Lungwort, Primrose, Columbine, Bleeding Heart and Coral bells start to appear. I plant bulbs between later emerging plants like Hosta to enjoy until they decide to pop up. Ground cover or mulch will act as a moisture retainer. You can use Sweet Woodruff, Dead Nettle and fern ‘Berry Bladder fern’ for that airy look.

When purchasing any type of ground cover ask the grower if they will spread out of control. Some are more ‘spreading’ than others
If your shade is facing east and endears minimum of four to six hours of sun you can even add the darker shades of ‘Daylilies’ my favorite perennial like ‘Little Wine Cup’, ‘Strutter’s Ball’ and ‘Summer Wine’. Then more part shade lovers; Lupines, Pasque Flower, Bee Balm try Petite Delight shorter non-invasive and mildew resistant and Hardy Geranium. For structure and further interest you can add Solomon’s Seal, Ferns, Bugloss and Jacobs Ladder!

We can not forget about Hosta! 7,000+ varieties to choose from. Every size and colour including Blue, Gold, Green and every combo in between. They can create quite the tapestry of colour and textures. 2006 Hosta of the year is ‘Stained Glass’. For slug resistant varieties choose those with thicker substance to the leaves.

If you have specific shade problems like dry soil under a maple tree try;
Lady’s Mantle, Hardy Geranium, Lungwort, Foam Flower, Viola and Sedum. Ground covers such as;

Sweet Woodruff, Dead Nettle and Periwinkle.

If extremely moist then;

Ferns, Bugbane, Spiderwort, Ligularia and Astilbe will do just fine.

So don’t’ feel perplexed gardening in the shade can be just as rewarding due to the awesome plant choices, help and knowledge out there we have to work with today! I feel that the only problem with shade for me is the lack of it!

Dawn is owner of Gardens Plus, please visit her at

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