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Creating a shade garden

If you're looking for colour and texture, know that some perennials, shrubs and evergreens love shade.

Shade is not a curse! Just think of those unbearably hot days of summer and how wonderful it would be to have a garden oasis to escape to when the heat is just too hot to handle.

As lovely and enticing as they are, shade gardens can pose a few dilemmas. Here are a few suggestions and guidelines for your new shade-loving garden, turning a problem area into a blooming success story!

How do you measure shade?

We may tend to think of sun and shade in black and white terms, but the range from total sunlight to darkest shade is a gradual one.
When it comes to selecting plants that will be suitable for certain light conditions, use the following as a guide

  • Dense shade: 2 hours or less of direct or filtered light per day. Areas where sunlight is blocked by dense foliage or buildings.
  • Moderate shade: 3 to 4 hours of direct or filtered light per day. Areas around tall trees or along walls with northern exposure.
  • Partial shade: 4 to 6 hours of direct or filtered light per day. Areas where the light is filtered through fine or delicate foliage.

Light requirements

It is important to select plants according to the sunlight they require. Shade plants can be distinguished by their levels of chlorophyll; simply said, shade plants have more of it than plants suited to direct sunlight. This makes them more sensitive to light, and means that their foliage will tend to burn or turn yellow when exposed to too much sun.

  • Light is a must! All plants need a certain degree of light in order to grow, so it is vitally important that you understand your available light, assess your garden and learn which types of plants you can plant where.
  • Consider a few containers for difficult spots in the garden, which you can move around if necessary.
  • Decorative ground covers (hemlock or cedar mulch, ramial chipped wood, decorative stones) not only give a garden a polished, finished look, they can also fill in spots where it is simply too difficult to plant.
  • If the amount of shade prevents you from maintaining a lawn around your garden, you might want to look at shade-loving moss as an alternative.
  • Elevating trees is also an option to let in more light; this involves cutting off the lower branches of large trees.
  • When it comes to plant selection, take advice from the experts!

Type of soil

Shade gardens prefer organic soils, similar to woodland soil. Add plenty of organic matter to your shade garden location, such as compost, leaf mould, or very well-aged leaf wood bark. Remember: when the new crop of leaves arrives on your shade garden next fall, leave them! The leaf litter will only improve the soil.

  • Remember: organically-rich soil is key to a successful shade garden. Add 3 to 6 inches of an organic mulch to add nutrients, improve soil composition and conserve moisture. Do this before planting and replenish every year.
  • The roots of trees and shrubs can compete with smaller plants and use up nutrients, so it may be necessary to fertilize with an organic, balanced fertilizer. Never cut tree roots to accommodate new plants, the effects could be disastrous!
  • Understand the soil you have to work with, and understand the soil requirements of the plants you want to include.
  • The benefits of leaf litter are huge. In fact, if you add shredded leaves around the base of a tree, you can build up the soil requirements for a number of shade plants in just a few years.


There are so many plants to choose from to suit your needs and taste

  • Consider plants with light-coloured foliage, pale yellow or light green, to brighten up dark corners. The colour white tends to glow in shaded areas, so place your impatiens and foamflowers strategically, as well as plants with white or silver variegation.
  • Sculptural elements are particularly suited to shade gardens, and water features are an absolute bonus.
  • Don't forget a few benches so you can sit down and enjoy the fruits of your labour on those hot and humid summer days!