Every landscape will have some areas that are less than ideal for gardening, sites may be too wet, too dry, nutrient poor or too shady. Rather than trying to force plants to struggle for success under conditions for which they weren’t meant, perhaps focus on finding the right plant for the conditions. Since every landscape has some shady, and maybe currently barren areas, below are a few tips for successfully designing and maintaining a garden in the shade. Additionally, make sure to take advantage of the copious resources available for finding the appropriate plant for your region, these resources can include; your local nursery, your arborist, a botanical garden, the agricultural extension in your area or an arboretum.
The primary item to keep in mind is that shade tolerant plants will look and behave differently than sun-loving plants and will have differing needs. A formal garden design may not suit their habits and could be a source of frustration. Observe shade loving plants in their natural habitat for inspiration for your garden design, embrace asymmetry, randomness and varieties of textures as well as the color green. A good rule-of-thumb is to plan for approximately 80% of the plants in your shade garden to be just a handful of species which are highly shade tolerant and competitive, they will fight each other to take over and fill in quickly. A helpful hint in shade garden planning is to take your plant wish list, cut out half of the species and then double what remains.
If there are already plants that have naturally colonized the shady areas of your landscape, observe them carefully; what species are there? Are there species that can be easily and successfully removed to expose the bones of what can potentially be sustainable and beautiful garden? Your design may well be a function of managing what is already there, removing and keeping out weedy and invasive species and encouraging native, hardy plants to grow.
Shade is caused by something blocking out the sun, in your landscape this may already be a healthy, functioning part of your garden; trees. The trees can be an important part of a layering garden design; think of a forest understory and visualize how these layers naturally interact and fit together. Keep in mind that every layer will provide shade for the layer below; mature trees shade understory trees which shade shrubs which shade perennials and ground cover which possibly shade ephemeral herbaceous species and bulbs. Once you have taken stock of what is currently present in shady spaces and removed undesirable species, evaluate the negative spaces you have left; plants chosen to fill those spaces must have habits which fit the shape of now-available space. Choosing understory species is a good place to start.
Perhaps choose plants that already seem to have been competing for light resources. Plants that are uniform and meticulously maintained will look out-of-place in your shade garden; these will be installed looking full but may lose fullness and vigor as they acclimate. Look for imperfect plants; irregular, multi-stemmed or loose plants which will almost immediately blend right into their shady home.
Shrubs would be the next layer to install, choose species that won’t appear to overfill the space but rather provide complementary texture and contrast. Shrubs will probably thin out a bit once transplanted into the shade, try planting them in clumps with varying heights and stem sizes, the idea is that they will lose their individuality over time and grow together in a large mass. The perennial and groundcover layers can be similarly approached but will prove more challenging due to increased competition for resources and root crowding.
And finally, focus of texture rather than color when selecting species. Bloom quantities and colors will not be as variable as shades of green, leaf textures and contrasts found in shade-loving plant varieties. Gardens composed of plants lacking blooms can still be incredibly aesthetically pleasing, and very low-maintenance if you choose correctly. Consult your arborist for assistance with plant choices, site selection, fertilization and pest and disease prevention and treatment.