Ever been flummoxed by the challenges of planting design for an area that has a lot of shade? Doug Hoerr highlights six guidelines for good shade garden design in his recent article for Organic Gardening Magazine. I’ll summarize, but go to the whole article for more detail and then come back here to enjoy some shade garden eye candy.
Yes, a formal parterre might be just what you had in mind, but if it’s in deep shade, it probably won’t work very well. Look at what grows naturally in shade and you’ll find asymmetry, lots of green texture without bright colors, and randomness! Embrace this aesthetic and you’re on the right road.
2. LOOK CAREFULLY
What is already growing happily in your shade area? Sometimes the best gardening decision is what you remove, not what you add. Can something be taken away to reveal the bones of something beautiful?
3. THINK IN LAYERS
In many ways, planting design is like solving a puzzle of positive and negative space. Doug suggests thinking about space in layers. Beneath the top layer created by tall tree canopy are combinations of understory plantings that need to work together to be successful: understory trees need to fit comfortably beneath the tall trees, then shrubs under that, and finally groundcovers and perennials, and ephemerals or bulbs. Keep in mind that every layer adds shade for what comes beneath it! Select plant types that will mature into available space beneath each layer.
4. CHOOSE PLANTS THAT LOOK LIKE THEY’VE ALREADY BEEN COMPETING FOR SUN
Most plants from a nursery are grown in the maximum sun possible for its variety to minimize the length of time it takes to grow. As a result, the gorgeous specimen you bring home from the garden center may look significantly different after six months of growth in your deep shade. Find plants that are already acclimated to the conditions you are bringing them into. We like to look in abandoned nurseries for these gems, but get creative – your neighbor may be trying to get rid of just the thing you need (ask first!)
5. PLANT IN LARGE GROUPINGS OR DRIFTS
Shrubs will thin out once planted into shade, so planting them in masses and in a variety of sizes helps them blend together in a way that looks natural. This also works well for the perennial and ground plane layer, where the depth of shade means everything is competing for light and soil. Find plants that are happy to be in deep shade. Doug advises, “80 percent of a shade garden plant list should be composed of a handful of plants that are happy to be there.”
6. IT’S ABOUT TEXTURE, NOT COLOR
Vary texture and leaf size to create interesting contrasts that remain beautiful throughout the season. Doug’s planting design rule of thumb (in shade or sun) is that it should be as beautiful in black and white as it is in color!