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Hosta, Coral Bells, Hydrangea, and Astilbe in Shade Garden

Understanding Your Garden Shade And How To Plant For It

Do you get frustrated by the shady spots in your garden? It’s more likely that you’re frustrated by planting sun-loving plants in the wrong place and watching them fail. Though it would make things a lot easier for gardeners (and growers) if shade fit neatly into categories of ‘part’ or ‘full,’ such is rarely the case in an average garden, and this leads to frustration when plants don’t bloom or exhibit weak growth. Once you understand the light exposure of different parts of your property, you can make better choices when selecting plants, and give them what they need to thrive.

First things first, get excited! If you have shade in your garden, you are extremely fortunate. Not only are there a wealth of wonderful plants available to create a lush, inviting space, the coolest place to be in the heat of summer is quite literally a shady garden. Instead of ignoring your shade or feeling exasperated by it, we'll help you understand it!

To understand shade, first you must assess it, with a few simple steps. Pick a day during the spring and summer months, where you can be home all day, and set an alarm to ring every hour. Each hour, make a note of whether the area in your garden is sunny or shady. When you put those notes together, you’ll have a much better idea of what you’re really dealing with and can plant accordingly. Chances are your shade falls somewhere in the following five categories:

  • Part Shade
  • Dappled Shade
  • Summer Shade
  • Bright Shade
  • Full Shade

Read on for planting suggestions for each type of shade.

Part Shade (or Part Sun) in the Garden

This is one of the most popular categories of shade (for growers and gardeners), as plants in a part-shade location experience 4-6 hours of sun each day and some sun lovers can adapt quite easily – such as day lilies and garden phlox. Experiment, and be aware that morning sun is usually much gentler than afternoon sun, which can burn foliage and flowers of shade lovers who need light to bloom.

Dappled Shade in the Garden

The slightly opened canopy of some woodlands allows pools of light to move around the forest floor, giving 2-4 total hours to shrubs such as rhododendron that need light to bloom well. Dappled shade isn’t only for woodlands however. It could be neighborhood houses or trees that create this exposure in your yard. Doing some judicious tree trimming can create dappled shade and give flowering plants and shrubs the small amount of light they need to put on a show.

Summer Shade in the Garden

This is the winter woodland exposure that coaxes ephemeral beauties like bluebells and snowdrops out of deciduous woodland floors with sunlight in early spring, then darkens the stage until autumn arrives. If you are fortunate enough to have woodlands on your property, you are fortunate indeed. The incredible, delicate woodland flowers for early spring are numerous and miraculous. Help them out a bit by clearing your woodland of invasive thugs like garlic mustard when you see them (Alliaria petiolata), and take the time to clear a walking path so you can enjoy the show!

Plants for Summer Shade in the Garden:

Bright Shade in the Garden

When you can see the sky above you but direct sunlight is blocked by a building or a tree to the north or east, you’re dealing with bright shade. Sun lovers will get leggy here, but as the site isn’t directly beneath a tree, and more moisture is usually available, this is a terrific situation for many ferns, wild gingers and other plants whose foliage is both fascinating and colorful.

Plants for Bright Shade in the Garden:

Understanding Full Shade in the Garden

Full shade can also be termed ‘Dense Shade’ and is challenging due to a double whammy of very low light and low available water. Don’t panic – you’ve got options. First, consider opening up the canopy slightly, or at least trimming up lower branches to create a high ceiling effect. Doing so will visually lighten the space, even if actual light levels are low.

Low light means that grass will not do well here, but the good news is, neither will weeds. Consequently, if you create mulched or graveled spaces under the trees, they will remain neat and free of weeds for much longer. Many of us need a play area for kids, grandkids or pets – dense shade is a terrific opportunity to put those treehouse/doghouse/playhouse plans into action.

If you are focused on plants instead, consider creating a small container garden here – perhaps with a garden bench to enjoy the cool shade on a hot day – making sure that pots are separated from the soil by bricks or other risers (some trees will find drainage holes and sneak into them).

There are plants that cope well with the dry shade under deeply rooted trees (Beech and maple are notoriously shallow rooted), but do your wallet a favor and buy them small, allowing them to be tucked in between roots. And make sure you give them additional water to make up for the surrounding trees.

Plants for Full Shade in the Garden:

Other People's Shade in Your Garden

Okay, so it’s not really a category, but it can be a tool. Read and study up on the shade gardens of others, and when you visit public gardens, or the gardens of friends, spend time in their shady spaces asking questions about the actual shade exposure of certain areas and corresponding moisture levels. Doing so will help you compile lists of plants and their favored exposures so you can confidently begin to create your own shady oasis.