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Shade Gardening

You probably have one of these frustrating spots in your garden, your yard, or on your property: it’s very shady and nothing will grow it seems—at least nothing except dirt and moss. Gardening in the shade can be tricky, depending on the severity, but it is not impossible. You need to cultivate the right conditions and find the plants that prefer to get out of the sun. In fact, you will probably get to know some wonderful new plants and be glad that you discovered them. Take that dirty, shady patch and turn it into a cool, dark, and beautiful garden.

Consider Your Shade Type

Not all shade is created equal, and if you have a lot of trees on your property you may have several different kinds of the sun-deprived areas. Watch your shady spots throughout the day to determine just how much light they are getting and whether it is direct or reflected. Your trickiest area will be your full-shade locations. Full shade refers to a spot that gets just a couple of hours of direct light. Any less than that and you will have a hard time growing anything. If you have a full or deep shade spot, you can try to add more light by trimming back a few branches from the trees or shrubs creating the shade.

Partial or half shade refers to approximately a half day of sunlight. You will have more success with a spot that gets morning sun and afternoon shade. With at least four hours of bright, direct, morning light, you have a great chance at getting a garden going. If you have an area that is shaded all day long, such as a wooded spot, but gets light filtered through the tree branches, you have dappled shade. There are plenty of plants that can grow in this type of sunlight too.

Moisture And Soil

When gardening in shade, especially when very close to a tree, lack of sunlight is not your only challenge. In the battle for nutrients, your trees will always win, which means the soil may be somewhat depleted. You can enrich the soil with compost to give your new plants the edge, but you might also consider starting your shade garden at a little distance out from the tree. If you find that the addition of nutrients causes the trees to produce more feeder roots, you could put your plants in containers and set them under the trees to avoid the competition and to avoid disrupting the roots of the tree.

Moisture is another area of contention between trees and shrubs and your shade-loving plants. The roots of your trees will out-compete your plants for soil moisture every time. They will also likely act as an umbrella when it rains and deflect much of the water away from your shade garden. You will need to consider the fact that you may have to water these plants regularly in order for them to survive.

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The Plants

Now that you understand the particular needs and considerations for your shade garden, it’s time to pick out some shade-friendly plants. Those that have an excellent chance of making it in the shade are plants that are native to your local environment. Visit a nursery nearby to find out what kinds of plants are native and thrive in the shade. Your next best bet is perennials. There are some annuals that will survive or thrive in the shade, but most prefer plenty of sun. You may also find success with certain bulbs, which will bloom in the spring before the shade from your trees becomes too intense. For a useful shade garden, some of your herbs and leafy vegetables may tolerate your shady spot.

  • Groundcover. Plants that are low and spread over a large area are called groundcover, and many are well suited to shady areas. They are a good, low maintenance choice for those spots that are just dirt at the moment. You can transform that brown patch into a lovely shade of green. Some will even produce lovely flowers in the spring or summer. Lily of the valley, periwinkle, pachysandra, goutweed (also known as bishop’s weed), wild ginger, barrenwort, wild violets, and hosta lilies are all groundcovers that will survive and even thrive in full shade. Keep in mind that pachysandra and periwinkle are not as hardy as the others and may need to be insulated in the winter. A good cover of snow will do the job.
  • Bulbs. Bulbs that bloom in spring are great choices for shady areas, especially those that bloom earliest. Before the leaves have fully fleshed out on the trees, these flowers will have a chance to thrive underneath them. By the time the leaves come out on the trees, the blooms will be done and you will be left with greenery. The best bulbs for shade planting are crocus, grape hyacinth, daffodils, snowdrops, scillas, and tuberous begonias.
  • Herbs and vegetables. Some herbs and vegetables will tolerate partial shade, although all prefer to have sunlight throughout most of the day. The herbs do best in soil that is moist and nutrient-rich. The best herbs for shade include all types of mint, coriander, chives, sage, sorrel, parsley, tarragon, chervil, and basil. As for vegetables, try growing some of your leafy plants: lettuce, spinach, kale, mustard greens, Swiss chard. Their growth will not be as robust as if they were grown in full sun, but it is still a good way to make efficient use of your shady spots.
  • Perennials. Many perennials tolerate shade and some will even thrive in deep shade. These are plants that return year after year and bloom only for a couple of weeks. Bleeding heart is an exception and is a lovely addition to a shady area. It will produce flowers throughout the summer. Woodland flowers are a great choice for shade perennials, and if you live in a wooded area, you should be able to find those native to your environment. They are not as showy as annual flowers, but these woodland plants are beautiful in their own way and include bellwort, hepatica, harebells, bloodroot, lungwort, trillium, bluebells, Jacob’s ladder, jack-in-the-pulpit, meadow rue, and Dutchman’s breeches. Other perennials that will tolerate your shady area include daylilies, hosta lilies, leopardsbane, coral bells, astilbe, meadowsweet, columbine, and monarda. Although they produce no flowers, ferns of all types are beautiful in shady areas.
  • Annuals. If you are looking for a showy and colorful display in your shade spot, annuals are the way to go. Annuals are flowers that will bloom throughout the summer and into the fall, most until the first frost. They are very bright and colorful and produce large flowers. The downside to annuals is that they can be expensive, they need to be watered regularly, and most require full sun. The more sunlight, the more profuse the blooms they produce. However, there are a couple of types of annuals that will tolerate and even bloom well in partial shade. None will thrive in deep shade. The most popular shade annuals are wax begonias and impatiens. Both come in a wide variety of colors, which makes them a good choice for creating colorful displays. You may also find success with feverfew, fuchsias, lobelia, coleus, dwarf salvia, balsam, and browallia. They do not provide the number of color choices as impatiens and begonias, but they can add some variety and interest to your beds.

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