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Shade - The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Learn to love your shade garden and about the different types of shade you might encounter in your garden.

Contributors: Kerry Meyer

When a new gardener is envisioning their first garden, more than likely the image in their head is a sun garden.  Sun gardens are crammed with a multitude of colors.  Colors range from the bright and bold, like orange, red and fuchsia to the softer beauty of blues, creams and pinks.  But make no mistake, flower color is the main show and thousands of different plants can play their part. 

However, every gardener is inevitably faced with another kind of garden.  A garden that is more challenging, more subtle than exuberant.  Not less beautiful than that bold sun garden, but a different kind of elegant beauty - this garden is the shade garden.  I think many people approach shade gardening with at least a bit of trepidation, if not fear and loathing.  However, it is best to embrace shade gardening for what it gives you, rather than what it cannot give you. 

During those steamy dog days of summer a shade garden is a refuge from the heat, an oasis in a landscape that can be sun blasted and tiring.  In the middle of summer, just looking at a shade garden can make me sigh with pleasure at the thought of escaping the glare of the blazing sun.  Once you embrace the shady part of your garden as having a wonderful role to play in making the garden more beautiful and user friendly, what was once a chore becomes a labor of love!

The Basics

The first thing to learn about shade is that not all shade is created equal.  You might say that when it comes to shade there is the good (bright shade, dappled shade), the bad (deep shade, deep tree roots) and the ugly (the dark side of a wall, shallow tree roots).  Fortunately for us, good shade can be quite fun to work with, bad shade can often be turned into good shade and the ugly isn't all that prevalent.  Plus there are strategies to make even these deep shade environments look nice. 

Let's start by defining what shade is.  The rule of thumb for shade is an area that receives less than 4 hours of direct sun a day.  Full shade plants prefer to get little direct sunlight. They like less than 4 hours of direct sun a day and prefer morning and late afternoon sun to mid-day sun. Full shade plants will also do outstanding in dappled shade conditions. An area that will be shaded by a fence or wall will need to get several hours of sun in either morning or late afternoon for plants to do well. Full shade does not refer to dark places - all plants need at least some light. 

There is one other aspect of shade you should keep in mind, shade moves throughout the day as the sun moves across the sky.  It can be easy to over or under estimate how much sun versus shade an area gets.  However, learning how the shade moves across your yard, is a good thing to do. 

Now that we know, in general, what shade is, let's start looking at the different kinds of shade.

The Good

Good shade can be defined as areas that get morning and/or late afternoon sun, receive dappled shade all day and areas that are bright, but not sunny.  These types of conditions create shade that has enough light for a fairly wide selection of plant material to thrive.  Good shade can still be challenging, but usually those challenges can be worked around with relative ease.  Most shade plants will thrive in the conditions found in good shade.

Dappled shade refers to areas where there is a mixture of sun and shade, generally because a deciduous tree is nearby.  Plants in this category are often woodland plants and will do best with almost no direct sun (even morning or late afternoon sun).  The dappled shade area is usually larger than the tree canopy creating it.  Woodland plants thrive on full days of sun that has been filtered by trees. Bloodroot, Aquilegia, Wild Ginger, Wild Violets, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Heuchera, Hosta and Meadow Rue are some examples of woodland plants.

The Bad

Bad shade could also be called dense shade and can be defined as areas that get no direct sunlight but still get reasonable light, are too dark to be considered dappled shade and/or have complicating factors such as abundant surface tree roots that make gardening difficult.  Because these spots have more limited light, the plant palette is much more refined.  Bad shade conditions mean it can be difficult to establish a lush garden. 

This does NOT necessarily mean that you want to get rid of all of your dense shade areas, as dense shade can be a haven from the heat of summer.  One type of garden that works in dense shade is a woodland garden. Woodland gardens will largely rely on shrubs and foliage plants installed under a dense canopy of trees.  These gardens tend not to be densely planted and often use mulch to give a uniform appearance in the open areas.  Spring ephemerals, plants that grow and bloom before the trees leaf out in spring are a key element in these garden situations. To best make use of your woodland garden, install some benches or other seating so that you can sit and enjoy your respite from the heat.

Sometimes dense shade can be improved.  If you are going to try to turn bad shade into good shade, the first thing you need to do is identify why the spot is considered bad shade.  The first thing to come to mind is trees that are creating dense shade conditions.  If you have a deciduous tree or trees creating dense shade conditions, you can usually create good shade by simply trimming off the lower branches to allow more light to penetrate under the canopy.  The tree roots do limit plant selection somewhat, but the light is fantastic. 

If you are gardening under trees, roots are simply going to be a fact of life.  However, not all tree roots are created equal either.  Trees with relatively deep roots, such as Hickory, Oak and Black Tupelo, are comparatively easy to garden under.  Deep-rooted trees are easier to dig holes and plant under.  Shallow rooted trees, fall under the "Ugly" shade category.  When tree roots are a factor, you need to plan on utilizing plants that will tolerate dry shade.

The Ugly

Areas in your garden that are not only shaded, but are dark - are the most difficult type of shade in which to garden.  These areas get no direct sun, not even dappled sunlight.  These spots are usually created by walls or fences, often combined with trees.  While trimming nearby trees can make some difference, these spots usually cannot be turned into bright shade.  If your dark spot is due to a fence, you could opt for a more open type of fence, for example a wrought iron or picket fence rather than one made of solid wood, to help improve the situation.  However, if privacy is the goal of the fence, this is probably not an option.

There is a rather limited plant palette available for these areas.  If you have a dark spot you might want to consider transforming this area using hardscaping.  You could pave it and make it into a seating area or perhaps install a water feature to add ambience.  Using garden art, statuary, outdoor furniture or containers to add color would also be something to consider.  Despite the limited plant palette, a dark corner can be turned into an asset for your garden with creativity and persistence.

Another side of ugly shade is where there are shallow rooted trees, such as Maple, Birch and Beech trees.  Shallow rooted trees have roots very near the surface of the soil, practically on top of the soil.  These very shallow roots make digging holes for planting extremely frustrating, not to mention hard work.  You may be tempted to get around the root problem by installing a raised bed and simply adding soil on top of the roots.  There are two problems with this - first, the roots will eventually grow into this new soil layer.  Second, if you put too much soil over tree roots you can actually kill the tree.  Roots need to breathe and adding a dense layer of soil over the root system limits the oxygen the tree receives and can over time weaken and then kill the tree.  We will cover strategies for dealing with shallow rooted trees in another article.

The last ugly shade condition are trees with very low hanging branches, such as evergreens that have branches within a foot or two of the ground.  With very low-branched trees, you should probably plan on using mulch rather than planting.  If you do use mulch, do not over mulch.  The recommended mulch depth for trees is two to four inches, which will discourage weeds and improve aesthetics.  Using too much mulch will have the same oxygen reduction effect as adding soil.

Shade gardens can be wonderful additions to any landscape, you simply have to embrace what shade can bring to your garden.

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