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 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 hosta, autumn 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).