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A Guide to Shade Gardening

Written by Stephanie on June 9th, 2013

Do you have a lot of shade in your yard and despair of ever growing grass there?  Turn it into a shade garden!  Shade gardens can thrive during the heat of the summer when everything else is parched and brown.  They provide focal points for plants with interesting textures, shapes, and colors.

You can choose from an array of annuals, perennials, bulbs and woodland plants for color.  Many groundcovers do well in the shade as well.  You might have to experiment a bit to find the plants that do best in your locale.  Further, some plants may do well in  one season, such as the summer when the deciduous trees are in full leaf, but burn up in another, such as winter when the leaves are off the shading trees.

First, let’s define shade.  Most sun loving plants demand full sun, which is defined as at least seven hours of sun a day.  Light sun is three hours of shade or more or dappled shade, where the sunlight shines through but is broken up by a tree or structure.  Six or more hours of shade a day is heavy shade.    It is harder to grow things in deep shade than in light shade or dappled shade.

The second problem to worry about is moisture.  Those same trees that shade the light out also create an umbrella effect during rains.  Your unshaded areas might have received a good inch of rain while your shaded areas might only have received a trace amount.  You will have to water your shade garden more often than the surrounding area.

Finally, soil fertility can be a problem.  The trees and shrubs use feeder roots to suck every last nutrient and drop of water out of the soil.  You will have to fertilize regularly and amend the beds with compost to make your shade plants grow well.

Sandy soils and heavy clay soils will benefit from working in compost or peat moss into the beds.  The recommendation is three inches of compost over the bed.  Spread that and then till it in to a depth of six inches.

Annuals can work well in your shade garden except in dense shade.  They are the showiest of your garden plants and will bring color to it.  Impatiens, browallias, coleus, wax begonias, and dwarf salvias are shade tolerant plants.  Start with robust bedding plants and they will bloom shortly after planting.

Spring flowering bulbs will bring color to your garden if you treat them as an annual and replant each fall.  Some spring bulbs such as crocus, scillas, snowdrops and some tulips bloom and produce leaves early enough in the spring, before the tree leaves shade the area heavily, to come back each year.

Perennials are not as apt to bloom in shade, but have interesting leaf colors, shapes, and textures that lend interest to your shade garden.  In addition, the perennials that do bloom in the shade may be followed by seed pods or bright berries that add color to the garden.


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