When it comes to gardening challenges, growing in the shade seems to be one of the most misunderstood. I even know a number of folks who believe having any sort of garden in the shade is hopeless.
The key is in understanding the environment and matching the plants to it. There's really no mystery to it, especially since at some point, someone went so far as to assign descriptive terms to varying degrees of shade to help define those ideal growing conditions.
So if you really want to fine-tune your shade garden, first determine what kind of shade you have since some plants grow better in one type than another.
Light shade covers an area for no more than two hours during the heat of the day, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Trees, shrubs or structures like a wall block the sun for a part of the time, then the light moves on and the area is sunny again.
Part shade means four to five hours of shade during the same time frame. Trees may be planted so closely together or a wall may be so tall that the sun is blocked longer.
Full shade lasts all day. It's the shade under building overhangs or multistory tree canopies.
Filtered-shade areas may seem shady, but sunbeams are squeezing through all day as branches sway and spots of bright light continually move over the area. High, lacy foliage from trees like locust or jacaranda provide less shade; heavy leaves and denser canopies like oak let fewer shafts of light penetrate. Overall, though, enough sunshine gets through to give the area two to four hours across the day.
Dense shade is the darkest all-day shade. It occurs under super-dense trees like Norway maple, thick groves of trees or in the skyscraper canyons of a city.
Check if the soil stays wet or dry. Most shade plants like moist, well-drained soil. If your site isn't naturally wet, or if you're in an area prone to drought, amend the soil and water regularly. Remember that just because an area is shady doesn't mean it's entirely cool. Areas next to paths, walls and driveways can pump a lot of heat into shady places.
Take care under trees. Shallow-rooted trees like maple or birch remove massive amounts of water and nutrients from the soil and crowd out most plants. Bishop's hat (Epimedium alpinum) and Dalmatian bellflower (Campanula portenschlagiana) are good choices for these crowded conditions.
The ideal environments for a shade garden are light shade and filtered shade. They support the largest selection of plants. In fact, lots of sun plants, like coral bells (Heuchera spp.), hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis), astilbe (Astilbe chinensis) and daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.), do well in light shade.
Part-shade plants include lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina), bishop's goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria), goat's beard (Aruncus dioicus), azalea and rhododendron (Rhododendron spp.) and Sweet William (Phlox divaricata).
English ivy (Hedera helix), periwinkle (Vinca minor) and pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis) are reliable full-shade standards. Use Siberian bellflower (Campanula poscharskyana), Solomon seal (Polygonatum spp.) and foam flower (Tiarella wherryi) to keep things diverse and interesting.
Even dense shade has its plants. Pig squeak (Bergenia cordifolia), bugbane (Cimicifuga racemosa), Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) and cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea) can survive.
A shade garden creates a cool, soothing respite from a busy world.
(Joe Lamp'l, host of "Growing a Greener World" on PBS, is a Master Gardener and author. For more information, visit
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