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In Praise of Shade
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In Praise of Shade



Summer is arriving, and those 90-degree-plus days are coming with it. Your clients are thrilled to have their watershapes to cool off in, but they can’t spend all their time in the water!

I’ve discussed shade structures and shade trees before, and it’s an important feature to discuss with any clients whose yard you are designing. But there’s more to shade than what you do overhead, and you need to discuss what you’ll be planting in those shaded areas.

There are two problems here. For the most part, people don’t know what to plant in the shade – nor do they know how to take care of it once it’s in the ground. As a result, well-shaded areas often go unplanted and even become eyesores in many gardens. That’s a shame, because planting in the shade is actually quite simple once you know a few basic rules.


I love shade gardens and see no reason to avoid designing, planting and setting them up in such a way that my clients can maintain them with relative ease. Consider these ten points:

* You can have just as much color in a shady garden as you can in a sunny garden. As the list I’ve provided in the second sidebar below shows, there’s quite a broad palette of available colors.

* Varying the color of the foliage can add to the interest you create just as much as adding in flowers of various colors. Setting dark greens next to light or chartreuse greens, for example, or adding in plants with variegated foliage adds a great deal of visual interest to the composition.

* White is your greatest asset if a client wants to brighten up a shady spot. In fact, using plants with white flowers or variegated foliage can create the illusion that they’re growing in a sunny spot.

* The shade is actually quite versatile in terms of attainable styles. You can plant almost any style of garden – English cottage, Japanese, contemporary, Mediterranean – in the shade.

Irrigation Basics

You need to watch out for the different watering needs of plants in shaded areas and in adjacent sunny areas.

Evaporation isn’t as rapid in shady spots, so the soil tends to stay wet longer and requires less irrigation. If you don’t balance the needs of different areas, you run the risk of drowning plants in the shady areas or leaving those in the sunny areas high and dry.

In cases where I can’t put shady and sunny areas on separate irrigation systems, I use low-spray or low-flow heads. As the names imply, they release less water, giving it time to soak in before puddling occurs.

— S.R.

* Evaporation occurs much more slowly in shady areas, so the soil generally stays wet longer and requires less irrigation. As a result, you should try to set shady areas up as separate irrigation zones from sunny areas to avoid drowning the plants. (For more information, see the sidebar at right.)

* In time, neglected, long-unplanted shady areas become great wastelands filled with soil so hard you’ll have trouble getting a shovel to make a dent. Watering the area to make the soil more workable – then rototilling and adding amendments – will help you produce better results.

* Deep shade has its limitations, but fear not: There are plants that grow in the shadiest of places – typically larger-leafed plants with deeper-green foliage.

* You can always cover a shady area with Baby Tears (Soleirolia soleirolii) – an approach that has good long-term effects. If the soil is sandy, for instance, and drains and dries out more quickly, an extremely shade-tolerant ground cover such as Baby Tears will keep the soil moist longer and can prevent much of the evaporation.

* If you live in a hotter climate area, you may be able to grow many sun-loving plants in light shade – and they may even thrive there. I’d suggest putting one or two of a particular type of plant into your client’s shady spots before you commit to an entire expanse of the same plant. Experimenting will help you figure out what will work in the long run.

* Depending upon type and specific requirements, orchids love shade. Many orchids are easy to maintain, and most of your clients will be very impressed if you recommend scattering a few of them in pots among the rest of the plants. (Consult a grower in your area for suggestions on which ones might thrive outdoors in your zone.)


To find out which plants will do the best in shade in your planting zone, you have a few options. For starters, you can always consult with your local nursery and ask about their experience with shade plants. It’s also a good idea to ask for advice on how to grow plants in the shade, what kind of soil amendment to use and which types of fertilizers work best.

Better yet, take a trip to a few nurseries in your area and see for yourself. Look for the area of the nursery shielded from the sun by shade cloth or a lath house: If it grows in the shade at the nursery, it will probably grow in your client’s shady area, too.

My Favorite Shade Plants

The list of plants available for planting in shaded areas is extensive, but I have some particular favorites I’d like to suggest to you. As always, please bear in mind that success with any of the plants listed here will depend on your climate zone; consult your garden books or local nursery for details.

[ ] Trees:

* Acers, including maples and box elders: I love using Japanese maples in gardens, especially the burgundy-leaf varieties. There are also some unusual Japanese maples with red bark that stands out in winter. My favorite, however, is the variegated box elder (Acer negundo ‘Variegatum’), which, when placed under larger trees, really brightens up the shade and offers an unusual display when it produces its weeping seed pods.

* Palms and Tree Ferns: Many of these do quite well in the shade.

[ ] Shrubs:

* Abutilon: A large shrub with Chinese lantern-like flowers in many colors.

* Brunfelsia: Also known as Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow because their flowers are purple the first day, lavender the second day and white the third day. At any given time, you will have all three colors on the plant at once.

* Camellia: The great shade-garden standard, they offer easy care and reliable flowering in a wide range of colors.

* Fuchsia: Their striking tropical flowers tend to be quite fussy but are a conversation piece in any shade garden.

* Hydrangea: The queen of the shade and a quick, prolific bloomer, they remind many people of the floral bathing caps from the ’60s. I particularly like Oakleaf Hydrangeas, whose flowers are shaped like cornucopias.

* Osmanthus: My favorite hedge plant because of the powerful apricot scent given off by their inconspicuous flowers. Anyone who enters a garden with this plant in it will end up searching for the source.

* Rhododendron and Azalea: Both offer a wide range of plant shapes and flower colors. Check with your local nursery to determine which varieties are most reliable in your area.

[ ] Perennials:

* Acanthus mollis: An extremely hardy selection in many zones, with large, dark-green leaves and shoots of digitalis-like flowers in a taupe/white combination.

* Alchemilla mollis, or “Lady’s Mantle”: A low-lying plant that brightens up the shade with its lime-green/yellow flowers.

* Anemone: With flower stalks that tower above mounds of soft, medium-green leaves, they are simple but striking.

* Aspidistra elatior: Appropriately known as the “Cast Iron Plant,” it’s a hardy choice that will survive in the deepest, darkest shade.

* Clivia: With its distinctively dark, strappy leaves, it’s an attention-grabber with orange flowers that bloom in winter or spring (depending upon your zone). It also comes with yellow flowers if you just can’t stand orange.

* Digitalis, also known as Foxglove. Yes, this is familiar to some as a heart drug, but it also sends up the most beautiful spikes of flowers imaginable. This plant is a must for any shade garden.

* Ferns: Always a shade standard, they come in a huge number of varieties and forms.

* Helleborus: One of my all-time favorites. It has white, pale green or mauve flowers – definitely a conversation piece in the shade.

* Hostas: Annuals in warmer climates and perennials in colder ones – another very reliable and striking plant that will perform well year after year.

[ ] Annuals:

* Impatiens: I hesitate to recommend this unbelievable common annual, but it can add color to an otherwise colorless shady area. I prefer to plant the New Guinea variety, which is a much more interesting plant with darker leaves and more substantial colors than the typical specimens you’ll find at your nursery.

* Begonias: Many are perennial, and they come in beautiful varieties that have rosette-shaped flowers in a wide range of colors. Check with your local garden center to see which ones they can get – the more unusual the better!

[ ] Ground Covers:

* Campanula: A large family of plants of which I particularly like the “muralis” variety because the flowers have a great blue/purple color and disappear quickly when faded. (Some of the more common varieties, such as “poscharskyana,” tend to look weedy when the flowers fade.)

* Lamium maculatum: One of the most beautiful ground covers with one of the worst common names: “Dead Nettle.” I particularly like “Beacon Silver.” It has pink flowers above variegated leaves, and it’s great paired with Campanula as a colorful base for shade-garden designs.

* Pachysandra: Although little used in my area, it’s a staple of east-coast gardens and provides good, solid coverage.

* Soleirolia soleirolii: Otherwise known as Baby Tears, it’s the most reliable of shade-tolerant ground covers, particularly where there is plenty of moisture. I wouldn’t recommend it, however, in a desert garden or in drier climates.

[ ] Vines:

* Hedera: Commonly known as ivy, it isn’t one of my favorites, but it’s a dominant species and grows well in areas that just won’t take any other plants. Try the needlepoint varieties, or a variegated one to brighten up the shade.

* Parthenocissus tricuspidata: Better known as Boston Ivy, it’s great for covering any wall. Its crimson color in the fall makes it a standout in any design.

* Trachelospermum jasminoides: It may sound like a disease but is more commonly known as Star Jasmine. Although it’s not a true jasmine, it’s extremely reliable and hardy and is known for its sweet springtime fragrance.

[ ] Tropical Plants:

As an overall category of plants, those typically labeled “tropical” tend to do well in the shade. Check out their location at the nursery, or consult a garden guide for your zone to determine each plant’s preferences.

— S.R.

There’s one other thing you might consider as you hunt for appropriate specimens: Look for plants in the sun that have leaf burn or appear to be damaged by the sun. Particularly during July and August, I tend to see a lot of otherwise sun-loving plants that look like they’re begging to be moved to the shade.

Once you spot a sun-weary plant, check your local garden guide to see what the plant’s chances are for survival in the shade. And take a chance: You just might get lucky!

Stephanie Rose wrote her Natural Companions column for WaterShapes for eight years and also served as editor of LandShapes magazine. She may be reached at [email protected].

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