Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

Six principles for successful shade-garden design.

By Doug Hoerr


6 principles of shade gardeningChoose Plants That Look Like They Have Already Been Competing for Sun

It’s important that these first additions respect the context into which they will be fitting, from both a survival and an aesthetic standpoint. In the nursery, I look for imperfect plants; the stamped-from-a-mold, uniform-looking, carefully groomed plant will look out of place the moment it is added to a shade garden. As it acclimates and loses the fullness it had from growing up in a full-sun nursery, it will look sickly. I tend to choose irregular, multistemmed, loose specimens that will immediately look at home in a shady context.

Plant in Large Groupings or Drifts

The shrub layer is planted next. I look for shrubs that won’t overfill the negative spaces but rather complement and add texture and contrast. Shrubs will thin out once transplanted into shade. To plan for this, I often plant them in groupings and in a variety of sizes. I like shrubs that lose their clearly defined shape over time and grow together into a larger mass. Once things blend together nicely, you can add some accents to spice it up.

I suggest the same approach for the perennial and ground plane layer, which is the most challenging because of all the root competition and rivalry for light and water. Consequently, planting large masses and strong drifts of plants that are happy to be in deep shade will yield the best result. Personally, I prefer to have healthy, rather pedestrian perennials that prosper rather than a “circus dog” perennial that fights to survive and constantly needs fussing over.

It’s About Texture, Not Color

Pick plants that vary in leaf size and texture rather than worry about blooms or bloom color. Shades of green and bold leaf textures and contrasts are pleasing to the eye. Gardens with too much of the same textures tend to look weedy, flat, and uninspiring. My favorite gardens are successful and interesting even if none of the plants bloom!

Shade plants look most natural when their forms are loose, and not too formal or symmetrical.