A Shade Gardening Primer
Landscaping in Bergen County
Shade is everywhere. Be it man-made or natural, shade is an integral part of the landscape. All of us have some degree of shade, most of us don’t know what to do with it. Myths and misconceptions abound when it comes to shade gardening, The most common being that few plants can thrive in the shade, when in reality there is an abundance of beautiful and interesting plants that flourish in shade. All with a diverse selection of shapes, textures, sizes and a broad palette of colours and hues.
Whether its a woodland garden or a shady perennial bed, you will find a wide range of colors, textures and foliage to choose from. Shade retains moisture better than full sun so shade plants as a whole require less watering. Their flowers hold their colors longer and many times bloom longer also. Pests are more uncommon in shaded areas, preferring sun loving plants instead.
Perhaps the best quality of a shade garden is the “peace and tranquility” that only a shade garden can provide. Perhaps a cool retreat with a hammock or garden bench, decorated with garden decor.
Principles of Shade Gardening
When you apply the term “shade” to gardening there are an infinite number of definitions. For every kind of shade you can imagine, there is a term to describe it. To simplify this problem, gardeners, landscapers and nursery professionals use four general terms to describe the shade situation.
1 – LIGHT SHADE
This is an area of shade for no more than three to four hours per day. This can be an open area where a sun/shade pattern moves across the plants, such as a pattern created by a high, thin canopy of deciduous trees, the leaves and foliage thereof filtering the sunlight. Light shade provides for the greatest range of possibilities for planting because of the greater number of sun-loving plant species that will tolerate several hours of dappled and/or filtered shade.
2 – MEDIUM SHADE
This is also called “partial shade” and has between four to six hours of shade per day. This shade is either in the morning, afternoon or intermittently throughout the span of the day and is usually caused by either trees or buildings. Within these areas woodland plants and wildflowers do extremely well as do numerous perennials and annuals. Shade loving shrubbery is inclusive of rhododendron, azaleas, Oakleaf Hydrangea, Serviceberry and many more.
3 – FULL SHADE
An area totally shaded the entire day with no direct sunlight, but some indirect or filtered sunlight. Full shade is located beneath full leafed-out mature trees such as maples, oaks and elms. These trees are large, full and rounded, providing a sun-blocking dense canopy with lots of shade. Any growing area facing north will be in constant shade even if open to the sky. Some shade loving shrubs for these areas are hydrangeas and rhododendrons.
4 – DENSE SHADE
This is the deepest shade possible, found under a grove of evergreen trees, unders shrubs, beneath decks and gazebos, under steps and in dark corners and narrow passages between homes. There is no direct sunlight and very little indirect sunlight. Usually the ground is dark and of a dry texture. It is also the most difficult to plant. Some ferns and a few groundcovers will grow here but usually container gardening within these areas is your best bet. You can rotate them in and out to sustain growth.
Shade Garden Considerations
Determine your shade bed layout by tracing its design with a can of spray paint and evaluate by watching where the light falls on this area for a few days to get a sense of what will get what and when. Use this time to check for any shallow tree roots and also to add maybe 2 to 3 inches of composted soil to the bed area. Mounded beds do well in shade gardens as the water and moisture drainage is much more effective.
Prune any low lying or drooping tree branches now.
Trees with shallow root systems (difficult for underplanting)
2 – Black walnut
3 – Norway Maple
4 – Pin Oak
5 – Red Maple
6 – Silver Maple
7 – Sycamore
Trees for good underplanting
1 – Birch
2 – Black Oak
3 – Cherry
4 – Crab Apple
5 – Hawthorn
6 – Honey Locust
7 – Red Oak
8 – White Oak
9 – Yellowood
Designing for Shade
Shade gardens are usually more subtle, lacking the bright, bold colors found in sunny locations. Plant textures, height differences, forms and color variations are important elements to consider.
Large leafed plants such as shade-loving hostas have a coarse texture while finely divided leaves such as male fern impart a fine texture. Take advantage of textural contrasts for the variety they offer.
Consider using height contrasts between plants such as dwarf conifers and their upright cousins to add interest. Weeping or rounded forms create a spacious feeling that add to plantings otherwise dominated by upright or horizontal, ground-hugging plant forms.
Glossy leaves such as those of pigsqueak bergenia have more impact than dull ones such as Siberian bugloss. Light colors – whites, cream or pinks – stand out in the shade. Examples are the silver and pink tones of Japanese painted fern and the creamy yellow shades found in some hosta varieties.
Some red-leafed plants such as ‘Chocolate Ruffles’ coral bells contrast well with green plant leaves.
Deep blues and purples tend to recede into the shade unless set off by a lighter, contrasting color. The tall, light purple blooms of upright European lilybells (Adenophora lilifolia) will have more impact if coupled with the yellow, spiked blooms of a perennial foxglove.
Utilize any and all of these elements to add interest to landscape planting designs for shade.
Fertilize – dig hole to size 1/3 larger than plant and add composted soil and a granular fertilizer as per specifications when planting.
Water – immediately after planting if root ball was not pre-soaked. Slight watering is still advised as this will moisten the soil added to the hole.
Mulch – helps conserve water, improves overall appearance of bed, helps maintain constant soil temperature, prevents erosion