Sunlight is overrated. Sure, lilacs and lavender need hours of sunlight to thrive. But give us shade plants such as hostas, ferns, tree peonies and lacecap hydrangeas luxuriating in a dappled shade, and we’re over the moon. It’s shade gardens – not sun-loving cottage and Mediterranean gardens – that conjure mystery. First kisses and love affairs don’t begin in broad sunlight. They take place strolling down a shaded path or sitting by a gurgling pond in a secret woodland layered with trillium, wild violets and rhododendrons.
The best shade gardens overflow with masses of shrubs, flowers, and statuesque trees, not the stuff of timid borders.
So, why have shade gardens been given such a bum rap? Somehow, a perception emerged, probably among amateur gardeners, that it was hard to grow visually interesting and colorful plants beneath a dark cover and in often very wet or impossibly dry, hard soil. Shade became equated with lackluster displays.
Here’s a secret: Shade gardens can be among the most captivating outdoor spaces, a gift from Mother Nature. “It’s such fun to see how they change as a season progresses – leaves and colors emerge, shade increases, and at the peak of summer, they become a cool, restful retreat,” says Chicago landscape architect Robert Hursthouse.
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He and other landscape professionals stress the importance of understanding what makes these idiosyncratic gardens successful.
Chicago landscape architect Doug Hoerr of HoerrSchaudt Landscape Architects adds an important, yet very basic caveat: “Accept the reality of the site, and you'll make smart choices.” Before you know it, feathery tall astilbes, colorful limelight hydrangeas, and vinca minor or liriope ground covers will thrive under your favorite hackberry, Eastern redbud or ginkgo tree. Here are eight tips from some of our favorite garden pros:
Layer: A shade garden lends itself to layering. In gardens designed by Ryan and Claire Kettelcamp, ground covers create a base, shrubs are planted midlevel and mature trees arch above.
Go matchy: Match a garden’s three main components – trees, shrubs and flowers – to your topography, soil, climate and the amount of light that may peek through. To secure the best results, take snapshots of your site, study the amount of light at different times of day, take soil samples, measure the size of areas to landscape and share this information with an expert at a favorite garden center or nursery. That person will suggest possibilities.
Study the soil: Understand that soil can be the single biggest challenge, even more than the amount of light. The earth where the shade garden is planted may lack sufficient organic matter that helps reduce water and nutrient loss. Your garden center pro can advise how to amend it with additional materials.
Dig, plant, repeat: Go bold in an area or two with repetitive massings of the same plants that work well on your site to achieve dramatic effect. “Think of the massings as big brushstrokes that are memorable, especially in a larger garden. You'll find yourself thinking, ‘I can’t wait for May when my rhododendrons bloom,’” says Chicago landscape architect Ryan Kettelkamp. One favorite that he and his wife and partner, Claire, favor is Rhododendron ‘Calsap,' which survives well in the Midwestern climate.
Contain it: Remember to include container gardens, those portable wonders that should vary by the amount of shade: light, medium or heavy. They can introduce punctuation marks of color and height, won’t compete with invasive tree roots, can be drip irrigated and can move indoors when weather changes. Some of the Kettelkamps’ favorites: Dragon Wing begonia, Gartenmeister fuchsia, Angelonia, maidenhair fern and Oxalis ‘Charmed Velvet.’
Plant a surprise: Use color, texture, size and form to punch up your design. Choices that work range from astilbes with purple flowers to yellow ligularia, grape hyacinths and other bulbs that thrive in shade, and big hostas with colorful leaf variations, says landscape architect Steve Gierke of HoerrSchaudt. Varying texture, size and form will pack a strong graphic wallop, even when colors aren’t in bloom, says Hoerr, adding that this is no time to be meek: “Think in extremes.”
Increase your range: Mix together different heights, which will add rhythm as people move through the landscape and will change during the growing season, says Hursthouse. At the lowest level, ground covers unify a garden. Study a forest floor for ideas such as vinca, liriope, pachysandra and sedges, he says. At mid-height, plant materials such as bottlebrush buckeye, and for greater height, think about trees such as shade-loving redbuds and dogwoods.
Add water: Don’t forget the pleasant sound of water, an integral part of many shade gardens. It can fall over large rocks in a pond or trickle gently in a recirculating fountain. If that’s not a possibility, consider a dry-bed stream that suggests water and requires minimal maintenance.
Have a seat: Remember to include one spot to sit – whether a large boulder, a group of big rocks, a bench or a pair of chairs where you can rest and savor views of the shade garden and cool off from the heat in the sunny parts of your yard.