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The Garden Decoder: What Is a ‘Shade Garden’?

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The Garden Decoder: What Is a ‘Shade Garden’?

January 31, 2019

It’s a wonder that I’m so bad at gardening considering it requires just three ingredients—soil, sunlight, and water. And yet, I am. Part of the problem is that it took me a while to realize that my yard, while technically outdoors, is so shady it might as well be indoors. Even after I figured that out, it was difficult for me to accept that sun-loving flowers like lavender and coneflowers wouldn’t fare well. Instead, I was supposed to make do with ferns? No, thanks. So I barreled ahead, ignoring the “bright sun” requirements on the plant labels, and promptly planted the sun lovers under a huge tree, no less.

Of course, my experiment in free-spirited gardening was a complete failure. The lavender I grew was anemic-looking, and the coneflowers never made it past the first season. It was time to let go of my dream of a sun garden and embrace what I had—a shade garden, one that was none too happy with my efforts to turn it into something it’s not.

What is a shade garden?

Heuchera &#8
Above: Heuchera ‘Green Spice (at upper left) looks beautiful mingled with other ground covers including clover (at upper right), Virginia strawberry (at lower left), and creeping cinquefoil (at lower right). Photograph by Patrick Standish via Flickr, from Gardening 101: Coral Bells. For more, see Coral Bells: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design.

If your garden is located under a canopy of trees, on the north side of your home, or in a corner that gets little sun, you have the perfect spot for a shade garden. Simply put, it’s a garden made up of plants that thrive despite little or no direct sunlight. How little? Not more than four hours of sunlight a day. Plants native to woodlands usually do well in shade gardens (think hostas, ferns, and heucheras).

What are the disadvantages of a shade garden?

Mold is more of a problem for plants in shaded areas. Photograph by Kabacchi via Flickr, from The Shade Gardener&#8
Above: Mold is more of a problem for plants in shaded areas. Photograph by Kabacchi via Flickr, from The Shade Gardener’s Challenge: Impatiens Blight.

With a shade garden, you might have fewer weeds, which flourish in direct sunlight, but you may have to contend with tree seedlings instead if you’re planting under a tree. As you would with weeds, you’ll have to pull the seedlings out by the roots. Another drawback: Because plants in the shade take longer to dry after watering, they may be more susceptible to fungal diseases. And last, shade gardens simply don’t have the breadth of color enjoyed by sun gardens. But what you’ll lack in colorful blooms, you can make up for in interesting foliage.

Are there any colorful options for a shade garden?

Pink astilbe lights up a corner of the New York Botanical Garden. Photograph by Kristine Paulus via Flickr, from Gardening loading=
Above: Pink astilbe lights up a corner of the New York Botanical Garden. Photograph by Kristine Paulus via Flickr, from Gardening 101: Astilbe. For more, see Astilbe: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design.

Yes! While it’s true that most shade gardens tend to be foliage-heavy, that doesn’t mean shade gardens are boring. Leaves come in many shades, from maroon to chartreuse to moss. Not to mention, if you are gung-ho on having some showy colors, there are some flowers that don’t mind less sunlight. Astilbe and foxgloves were among my only triumphs that year I tried to impose my will over nature, and there’s a reason for that: They are both shade-tolerant plants. Other flowers to consider for a shade garden include bleeding hearts, hydrangeas, and Solomon’s seals.

For more on shade gardens, see:

For more in the Garden Decoder series, see:

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