Gardening in the shade challenges the talents of many gardeners because they fight the shady conditions rather than adapting to them. You can't grow a lovely lawn or an English flower border under trees. But you can grow a diverse, beautiful garden. Instead of struggling to grow sun-loving flowers and lawn grass on a shady site, why not design a garden that will actually thrive in shade? By carefully choosing flowering shrubs, perennials, annuals, groundcovers, and ferns adapted to shady conditions, your garden will be not only colorful and interesting but also easy to care for!
The Challenges of Shade Gardening
Study your shady site to decide if you have dense, light, or partial shade. In partial shade, where some direct sun shines for a few hours a day, you'll be able to grow a wider selection of plants. Light or dappled shade also allows a wider selection than dense all-day shade cast from a thick-foliaged tree. If tree shade is very dense, you might want to thin out a few tree branches (cutting them off at the trunk) so that more light reaches the ground, creating a light or filtered shade. You may have to thin out branches every few years to maintain the effect.
In a shady area, it's often the case that poor, dry soil limits plant growth more than lack of light. Shade spots under trees can often be remarkably dry, because the trees' surface roots suck up all the available moisture and nutrients. The lack of moisture, not the shade, often limits your endeavors. You'll know if dry, root-clogged soil poses a problem because the ground will feel hard and compacted, and you'll have trouble digging a hole with a trowel.
If the soil in your shady spot is compacted, you can layer chopped-up leaves and twigs over the area. In a year or so, they will decompose into a rich humus. Chop the dry leaves to the size of 50-cent pieces with a bagging lawn mower, and spread them several inches deep beneath the tree boughs. Sprinkle the leaves with a compost activator and keep them moist. Repeat this procedure annually until the leaves have rotted into a deep humus. By then, earthworms will have moved in and begun to loosen up the subsoil. Only when you have a loose, friable soil can you begin installing a diverse shade garden, though tough groundcovers such as epimediums (Epimedium spp.) will grow in dense tree shade and poor soil.
Sometimes tree roots interfere with digging a planting hole for a shade-loving shrub. When this happens, dig an extra-large planting hole and sever all interfering tree roots smaller than 1 inch in diameter. Mulch the soil with compost to nourish the young shrub. The large planting hole should give the shrub enough growing room to get established before tree roots return.