Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

Six principles for successful shade-garden design.

By Doug Hoerr


6 principles of shade gardeningMost gardens and landscapes have some areas in shade, which can range from wet, dry, root-infested, or dappled to the worst case, which is closetlike darkness. Correctly assessing what you have to work with is more than half the battle. Since this is a national magazine, I won’t begin to describe specific plants. There are dozens of great resources for finding the right plant to suit each of these types of shade in your specific region≠, including your local botanic garden, arboretum, garden center, or favorite nursery. Instead, I’ll outline a few ways to think about shade that will, I hope, help you get the maximum value for the time and money spent taking on one of the toughest challenges gardeners face.

Surrender to the Look of Shade

The first thing to keep in mind is that plants living in shade behave differently from those living in the sun. Trying to design in a formal manner will pretty much be a frustrating experience. Formality is balanced and controlled, and sun is a prerequisite for this look. Instead, look to nature for inspiration on how to combine randomness, asymmetry, and lots of green textures without bright colors or definitively shaped plants. My rule of thumb is that 80 percent of a shade-garden plant list should be composed of a handful of plants that are happy to be there and will fight each other to take over. A mentor once advised this exercise: After making an initial plant list, eliminate half and double the remaining. This applies to most of garden plant selection, but it is especially helpful to achieving success in shade gardening.

Look Carefully

First, study the forms and characters of the plants that already exist in the shade area. What are they? What needs to be removed to expose the bones of what is most pleasing? When designing for shade or natural/native areas, design is often as much about managing and revealing as it is about adding.

Think in Layers

Shade typically involves trees. When deciding how to plant underneath them, think about understory planting as a series of layers. Visualize how each layer fits and interacts with the one above it. Remember that every plant added creates more shade for those below it. Among the layers, tallest are the understory trees (these are smaller trees that live in the dappled light cast by taller trees); then shrubs; next groundcovers and perennials; and finally the ground-hugging ephemerals or bulbs. After I’ve evaluated what exists and taken out what I don’t want, I look at the “negative spaces” that surround the canopies and shapes I’ve chosen to work with. New additions will fill these negative spaces, so it is important to choose plants with forms and growth habits that fit comfortably within and underneath the skeleton pieces. The first layer I add is the understory trees. These often add the interest of blooms or fruit.