Gardening in Shade
Shade gardening can be a challenge. For many people their shade gardening experience
starts with an unsuccessful attempt to grow lawn grass un-
der trees. Even shade tolerant grasses, however, need at
least 4 hours of sun to grow. While many plants do not
grow well under low light conditions, or under trees due to
massive tree root systems, there are plants that will survive
and even thrive in these environments. Moisture, tempera-
ture, soil conditions, and nutrient and light availability are all
factors that must be considered when selecting plants. The
first step in shade gardening is to become familiar with your
shady area so you can match plants to your landscape. A
successful shade garden can be a relaxing place and well
worth the effort.
Heather Miller, MS
Types of Shade
All shade is not created equal. The different types of shade are:
Dappled Shade— produced by trees and creates an ever-moving pattern of sun/
shade. High canopied trees or small leaved trees such as honey locusts provide this
type of shade. It provides the widest range of gardening options for growing both
shade and sun-loving plants.
Open Shade— describes a north-facing yard. The shade is often cast by an adjoining
wall, fence or building. The amount of shade is determined by the season, making it
a challenge for plant selection. Plants get no more than 3 to 4 hours of shade.
Medium Shade— is created where open shade is further obscured by trees in the
landscape. Medium shade also occurs under decks and south-facing entrances with
no direct sun due to structures or trees. Plants get about 4 to 6 hours of shade per
Dense Shade— is the deepest shade, and found where tall walls and fences block
out all but the narrowest strips of light. Dense shade can also occur under trees with
dense foliage such as maples and some conifers. Plant selection for dense shade is
very limited. Sod thinning is a major problem in this type of shade. Plants receive no
Dry Shade— can be the most challenging as it often occurs under trees especially
maples. Because many trees are shallow rooted, this does not allow for ease of plant-
ing, and the tree may also take the majority of the available nutrients and water. Sod
thinning or complete death of the sod tends to occur in this type of shade.
Plant Response to Shade
Plants require or tolerate different amounts of shade. Understanding these differences is im-
portant for the success of the garden. Many plants are adapted to growing in the shade, and
are therefore, more sensitive to light and are more efficient in utilizing what sunlight is avail-
able. However, this sensitivity to light also reduces a “shade lover’s” ability to withstand direct
sunlight for an extended period of time. Direct sunlight bleaches leaves; typically causing
scorching of the leaf margins, or burns spots on the leaves. Shade-loving plants in the sun
may quickly deteriorate, especially if they are getting too much hot late afternoon sunlight. Plants that prefer
sun may live but not thrive and perhaps may not flower.
After you assess the amount of light available in the landscape, you may
find that you have varying degrees of shade and sun. You can plant part
of the area with true shade-loving plants and other parts with plants that
will take part shade. Often times, you can also utilize some sun-loving
plants in part shade as long as they receive enough hours of sunlight at
some point within the day. Burning bushes for example, will just take
longer to turn red in the fall if they do not get enough sunlight where they
are placed in the landscape, but will survive in a part-shade situation.
Rather than starting a new bed at the same time all the way around a
tree, plan to work the garden in sections over several years. Establish-
ing and maintaining plantings in the shade can also be a challenge.
Often times the shade is created by trees, creating the issue of planting
between roots. The competition for water and nutrients also becomes a
factor when working around existing root systems of large trees. Shal-
low rooted trees such as maples can be particularly difficult, and are
also one of the most commonly found trees in the landscape.
To improve aeration and drainage add a 2 to 4 inch layer of organic matter on the soil surface. Chopped
leaves or grass clippings can be used, although they may tie up some of the available nitrogen in the soil
creating the need for an additional application of fertilizer. You should carefully incorporate this into the soil
profile to a depth of 6 inches. If the roots are too thick to dig this deep, then start with a 2-inch layer and go
at least 3 to 4 inches down into the soil. This is typically best done carefully by hand, as a rototiller can dam-
age vital tree roots. Adding organic matter can help your new plants get a good start when competing in this
type of environment.
Many home gardeners try to overcome the problem of bare and compacted soil beneath mature trees by in-
stalling a raised planting bed. However, these beds quickly become filled with dense, fibrous tree roots.
Trees have many of their feeder or surface roots within the top 2 to 3 inches of soil and will quickly fill in a
raised bed to take up additional water and nutrients. In addition raised beds are not healthy for the trees.
Therefore do not add soil or mulch to the soil line around the base of a tree. This can contribute to bark de-
cay around the trunk, and limit the availability of oxygen to the root system. The addition of the organic mat-
ter layer can basically “suffocate” the tree over time, leading to eventual death. For example oak trees are
very sensitive to changes in soil depth or too much disturbance within their root zone.
The extensive root system of a mature tree often makes it too difficult to plant large shrubs. Planting smaller
plants between roots is a better option. When planting shrubs, be sure to trim excessive roots, rather than
bending them within the planting hole. Bent roots will never straighten and may eventually girdle the plant,
where as cut roots will quickly form lateral roots that aid in plant establishment.
Shade and Turfgrass Establishment
Establishing turfgrass under mature trees is a major challenge for many home gardeners. The competition
for light, nutrients and water can stress and weaken existing turf and keep newly seeded areas from filling in
properly. Many areas under mature trees also become compacted due to root systems and people enjoying
shade in the hot summer months.
Trees that have a dense but shallow root system, such as many maples, are extremely competitive with
turfgrass for moisture. Many trees, such as the silver maple, have also been found to give off toxic sub-
stances into the soil, which have a negative influence on Kentucky bluegrass growth. Trees with larger
leaves such as sycamore, oak, maple and linden may block nearly all available sunlight. Trees such as
honey locust, ash and most flowering trees allow some filtered light to penetrate to the turf.
Shade can also create areas with poor air movement and high humidity. The plant foliage stays wet longer cre-
ating a perfect environment for diseases. To help prevent disease problems select disease-resistant varieties,
space plants farther apart in the shade to allow more air movement, and water from below (using drip irrigation
or soaker hoses) to avoid water on the foliage. Removal of the lower tree limbs may create better air circulation
underneath the tree canopy and allow more sunlight to penetrate.
Since shade is a poor environment for turfgrass, it is essential to
develop a good management program for shady places. First, be
sure to select a high quality, shade-tolerant grass seed. The fine-
leaf fescues are considered the most shade tolerant of the cool-
season grasses. Creeping red fescues, Chewing’s fescue, sheep
fescue, hard fescue, rough bluegrass and some Kentucky blue-
grass cultivars have all performed well in dense shade and moder-
ate shade. Fall seedings tend to be more successful than spring
seedings because they go into the first summer with a more estab-
lished root system and more food reserves. Frequent leaf raking is
essential to the development of new seedlings as leaves left on the
lawn shade the young seedlings and slow their establishment.
Also, do not over fertilize lawns in shade. Shade grasses do not require as much total nitrogen as sunny turf.
Late fall — November — fertilization of cool-season grasses is extremely beneficial in shaded environments.
If all attempts at establishing turfgrass in shade have failed, shade tolerant ground covers are good alternatives.
You must still prepare the soil for planting by adding organic matter and working it into the existing soil. You
must also provide adequate water for the first year during establishment. Groundcovers need the equivalent of
one inch of water per week. You will also need to apply mulch to the area to help retain moisture.
Designing in Shade
Shade gardens are often more subtle and restful than sunny landscapes. Plant textures, forms, and slight color
differences become crucial elements when designing in the shade.
Texture is a key component in the shade garden. Hostas are an example of a large-leaved plant, which pro-
vides a coarse texture, while the fronds of ferns provide a fine texture to the landscape. Strong contrasts in tex-
tures stand out more in a landscape and are best left where focal points or accents are desired.
Forms in the shade garden also provide interest. Pyramidal or upright/columnar plant forms serve best as ac-
cents in the shade. Rounded, weeping, or spreading forms create a more spacious effect.
Adding plants with glossy leaves tend to have more impact in the shade garden than velvety or dull-leaved
plants. Variegated or yellow-green foliage rather than solid green or blue-green foliage stands out in the shade
garden. Light colors such as white, cream, yellow and pastels are noticeable in the shade especially from a
distant view. Deep reds, blues and purples may fade into the shade unless backed or set off by a contrasting
lighter color. As a rule of thumb, try to emphasize specific focal point plantings in the shade, and concentrate
on plants with light-colored flowers or foliage.
Successful shade gardening requires good soil preparation, but also adequate water, fertilizer and mulch. Sea-
sonal garden cleanup is also crucial to the success of the shade garden. Mulching will help keep the soil cool
during the hot summer months, reduce water loss due to evaporation, suppress weed growth, and aid in long
term improvement of soil tilth. A layer of mulch 2 to 3 inches deep is usually recommended and should be ap-
plied in the spring before weed growth begins and before the summer heat. Mulch can also provide winter pro-
tection to plants, so replenishing mulch in thin areas is a good habit to establish. Using a pre-emergent herbi-
cide specifically recommended for landscape beds may also be used to reduce weed competition.
One of the most important rules to remember when shade gardening is to water deeply and less often rather
than frequent light watering. Slow, deep watering encourages plants to develop deeper root systems that are
better able to withstand droughty conditions.
Remember there are different variations of shade. Determine your type before starting
your landscaping project.
• Match plant needs and tolerances to your type of shade.
• Soil preparation and proper garden maintenance specific to shady areas is crucial to suc-
• To establish turfgrass use shade-loving grass species.
Remember even shade tolerant grasses need at least 4
hours of sun. Rake leaves in fall to allow air movement
and as much light in as possible to the new seedlings.
Do not over fertilize.
• Shade-loving groundcovers may work to fill in the area
that was left bare from thinned or non-existent sod.
• Designing the shady landscape requires variation in
forms and textures. Using lighter colors or variegated
plants brings light into the landscape.
• Proper shade garden maintenance includes routine
cleanup, adequate water, proper mulching and timely
applications of fertilizer to optimize growth.
Here are just a few of the many possibilities of plants for shady gardens.
Torenia 'Clown Mixture'
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