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Wednesday, October 5, 2022
Growing Together: Simple solutions to have it made in the shade
Brunnera is a good shade plant
Brunnera is a good shade plant Joanne Young

Many homeowners long for a shady retreat – until they try to select plants that will successfully grow there.

Most of us can only think of hostas and ferns. But a shady yard doesn’t mean your gardening days are doomed. Numerous options abound for creating eye-catching shade gardens.

Here are some easy solutions to help turn your shady yard into the colourful retreat you’ve always wanted.

Shady places that provide cool, refreshing areas of beauty during summer’s heat also can contribute colour and interest to the landscape throughout the growing season.

First, what constitutes a shaded garden? 

Full sun is an area that receives at least six full hours of direct sunlight each day.  Partial Sun / Partial Shade are terms are often used interchangeably to mean three to six hours of sun, preferably in the morning and early afternoon.

If a plant is listed as partial shade, the plant will usually need some relief from the intense late afternoon sun, either from shade provided by a nearby tree or by planting it on the east side of a building.

Full Shade receives less than three hours of direct sunlight each day, with filtered sunlight during the rest of the day. Full shade does not mean no sun. There are not many plants, except mushrooms, that can survive in complete darkness.

Determine the various degrees of shade in your yard. Knowing how much sunlight areas receive — and when they receive it —  will dictate what kind of plants will thrive there.

Gardening in the shade doesn’t have to be frustrating. Some plants will tolerate relatively low light and a few thrive in it.

You can choose from an array of flowering annuals, perennials, bulbs and shrubs for colour. Densely shaded areas beneath large trees or under the overhang of a building present more of a problem because it is not just the lack of light, but the presence of roots and dryness that are concerns. 

With few exceptions, shade-tolerant plants will do best in well-drained, relatively fertile soil. Both sandy soils and heavy, clay-like soils will benefit from the incorporation of organic matter such as compost or well-rotted manure, all helpful in areas of hard, compacted soils.

Light is not the only major concern when gardening in shady areas. Frequently, inadequate moisture can be a problem. The thick canopy of a large tree or the overhang of a house will act as an umbrella, deflecting rainfall away from the ground directly beneath it.

Worse yet, trees and shrubs will compete with smaller plants for every drop of moisture that reaches the ground. It is vital that plants growing in the shade of large trees and shrubs, or sheltered by your home or garage, be watered regularly even during times of seemingly adequate rainfall.

Help conserve moisture by adding organic matter. Mulch it with shredded leaves, evergreen needles and other organic materials.

HELPFUL HINTS: Consider how changing seasons affect sun and shade conditions in your yard. Even a yard filled with shade trees can support bright, spring-flowering bulbs, as long as they emerge before your trees are fully out.

Plant smaller bulbs that naturalize – meaning spread on their own – such as crocuses, daffodils, grape hyacinths, scillas and winter aconite.

Most shade-loving perennials are not long bloomers. Make foliage a mainstay. Allow different colours and textures to complement each other, like broad caladium leaves against frillier fern fronds or the fine-texture of dwarf bleeding hearts against a large blue hosta.

Use a couple shade-loving shrubs to anchor beds, add height and structure, and provide an understory layer. Such shrubs could include pagoda dogwood, viburnums, red-twig dogwood, snowberry and hemlock.

In areas where plants won’t grow due to tree roots, use some creativity to get interest.  A mulch pathway or dry river can add visual interest. Larger rocks can also give an impossible garden area a complete look. Set colourful pots into the garden and add additional colour such as a pot of coleus, a large-leaf hosta or begonias.

It’s possible to replace dense shade with dappled light through judicious tree pruning. But don’t prune more than one-third of a tree’s branches in one year.

For a low-maintenance, attractive shady spot, try groundcovers such as pachysandra, sweet woodruff, ginger, lamium and lamiastrum. Plant seedlings in staggered rows rather than straight lines. They’ll expand, fill the area and form a nice carpet.

These are just a few tips to get the most out of your shade garden.

Joanne Young is a Niagara-on-the-Lake garden expert and coach. See her website at joanneyoung.ca.