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Creating Shade For Woodland Plants

creating shade for woodland plants

By Marianne Willburn, gardening expert and author.

Shade in the garden is mentally and physically cooling. For the gardener it provides a respite from the more brutal days of summer, and when used to best effect, it gives the garden a feeling of enclosure and serenity. But it can also open up a whole new world of plant discovery for the adventurous gardener – a world that is sadly off limits without a bit of shade.

If you have felt yourself drawn to plants such as astilbe, dicentra or pulmonaria and dream of shady spaces in your outside life, you may have already started the process of planting large shade trees to create a woodland or bring a single element of shade into your garden. However, this process takes time, and although you want to plant for the future, you probably also want to enjoy a little shade in the present.

So what can you do in the interim to create a bit of shade and perhaps expand your planting palette? There are actually many ways to approach the problem, and they’re easier than you might think! 

use your home

Use your home to Create Shade

Don't ignore the most obvious shade-maker – your house itself. The north and east sides of your home can provide some of the best shade around, but there are factors that the gardener needs to consider for successful planting:

The area of shade provided to you is very much dependent on the height of your home and your geographical location. To avoid burning sensitive plants it is extremely important to measure this area at the height of summer when the sun is high and less shade is cast. It might be substantial, or only ten feet wide. Take some time to monitor both morning and afternoon shade on the north and east sides of your home, allowing you to successfully pair the right plant with the right place.

If your property lines are very close to your home, don’t immediately discount the potential of narrow, shady spaces. Trash and recycling bins are often placed in this "out of the way" spot, but there's no reason you can't make it one of the loveliest areas in your garden. Showcase gorgeous shade lovers such as golden varieties of hostaautumn ferns, and Solomon's Seal along a gentle pathway that adds to the sense of flow in your garden and brightens the space with color and texture.

Particularly if your house is newly built, the area just around your home is often compacted and highly alkaline – two of the conditions that shade loving plants rarely enjoy. Conduct a soil test to see if you need to adjust soil pH, and amend your soil with compost, rotted manure, leaf mold or any other high-organic soil conditioner. As you add to your soil, be careful not to create high areas that slope toward the house.

Along with shade, your house may also cast a rain shadow of varying widths, making it necessary to irrigate your shade garden even when it rains. Pay attention to your soil after a rainstorm. If you find that it is fairly dry, you can alleviate some of the watering chores by planting dry-shade choices such as epimedium, toad lily or brunnera.

Use Fast-Growing Shrubs and Small Trees to Create Shade

There are many small trees and large shrubs that can create shade for a garden and the resident gardener. In a small space, the benefit of utilizing these over their larger canopy cousins is obvious, but if you are currently putting in a woodland area in a larger space, the benefit is time.

While woodland trees grow, you can create edge-of-forest environments with fast-growing trees and shrubs such as viburnum, redbud, elderberry, euonymus, bottlebrush buckeye, or paw-paw - all of which are equally at home in the sun or as understory trees (as larger trees mature).

Other large shrubs such as butterfly bush, crepe myrtle, fig or chaste tree can fill a space quickly and temporarily and be removed later as canopy trees mature and block the light they need for successful growth. If you are concerned about the aggressive seeding of some flowering species, make sure to prune out the flower heads as soon as they fade.

In addition, keeping many of these plants limbed up attractively allows you to utilize the soil at their feet for shade lovers such as big-root geranium, hydrangea or lily-of-the-valley. Euonymus, chaste tree and elderberry are particularly suited to such treatment, adding a lovely small tree element to your garden - and quickly. Undertake this training from the beginning – removing lower limbs and planting your shade-lovers in the soil near the feet of the shrub as soon as it begins to put on a bit of structure (usually within the first two to three years).

For small space gardeners, these fast-growing trees and shrubs serve a dual purpose. They give your garden a feeling of maturity while giving you shade where you need it. Adding one or two small trees that are slower to mature, such as a dogwood or a Japanese maple can also add shade and solidity without overwhelming the space with huge roots and a large canopy.

Use Temporary Structures to Create Shade

virginia bluebells
Create a shade oasis and fill any bare area with Virginia Bluebells for a low-care coverage.

One of the quickest ways of setting up shade in garden beds is by using shade sails or cloths strung between poles buried in the ground or attached to a home’s structure. These sails have become so popular in recent years for shading patios and decks that they now come in a range of colors that shade your plants and enhance your garden. Most heavy duty shade sails are made to allow wind to flow through them and are not intended to keep off rain, but this is a winning situation for a gardener that needs to keep plants irrigated.

These sails should be removed during the winter months to prolong their lives, but this is actually a bonus for the shade gardener. Doing so mimics the pattern of deciduous woodlands and allows winter sun to coax ephemeral beauties such as Virginia bluebell, Dutchman's breeches, trillium and twinleaf into flower in early spring.

Other solutions can be as easy as making a teepee or screen out of bamboo canes or tree trimmings and allowing a fast climbing vine to grow over it – shading plants either nearby or underneath. Willow teepees and tunnels made with newly cut willow wands in the late winter will sprout and grow, creating a living structure that provides a shady retreat for gardeners and their plants.

Use a Sheltered Deck or Patio

Often homeowners do not think of the potential a covered porch or screened-in deck holds for growing shade loving plants. Using large, deep containers that hold moisture well and a rich potting medium, you can grow small shrubs and perennials just as well if not better than you could in the ground. And as your shady areas begin to mature in your garden, you can transplant these plants to permanent homes later.

Consider hydrangeas for flower, hostas, ferns and caladium for foliage or add a tropical look with a canna or two. Flowering shrubs and perennials that prefer shade usually need a little light for best bloom, so experiment with where you place the containers for maximum effect.

Because that sheltered area keeps the rain off just as efficiently as it keeps out the sun, you’ll need to water your plants at least every other day if not daily. It's worth the extra work. Adding a bit of lush green and a string of white lights to an outside porch or deck is what will turn that space into a restful and relaxing haven – even more than adding expensive furniture and the latest lighting fixture.

Shade – The Undiscovered Country

Once you start setting up areas of shade – be they under a temporary shade sail or under the limbs of a more permanent small tree or large shrub – you can begin your shade gardening journey. And it is a journey, as shade loving plants come in such a rich mix of texture, color and form that gardeners will find themselves drawn deeper and deeper into this versatile, challenging world. There are just so many plants to discover!

From early woodland ephemerals to traditional favorites of the shade garden, you’ll come to adore the plants that make you feel a little cooler out there – both as a knowledgeable gardener, and as a human being coping with the hot summer sun.

About the Author: Marianne is a Master Gardener and the author of the new book Big Dreams, Small Garden. You can read more at or follow The Small Town Gardener on Facebook or Instagram.

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