How to Have a Beautiful Shade Garden

The cool, soothing beauty of healthy shade plants transform gardens into refreshing sanctuaries — especially on warm summer days. Gardening in shade requires some extra thought and planning, but limited sunlight offers fresh opportunities for garden beauty. The secret behind creating a beautiful shade garden lies in understanding shade, shade-loving plants and the special care shade gardens need.

  1. Understanding Degrees of Shade
  2. Selecting Plants for Your Shade Garden
  3. Caring for Shade Garden Plants

Understanding Degrees of Shade

All plants, even shade-loving types, need some sunlight to live. However, shade plants vary significantly in the amounts they need. Plant descriptions in catalogs and on plant labels often use terms such as "partial shade," "full shade," "dense shade" and others to describe the degree of shade plants prefer. Creating a beautiful shade garden starts with understanding those terms and the various levels of shade your garden holds.

Partial or medium shade describes conditions where your garden spends about half its daytime hours in shade. This translates to roughly four to six sunny hours and four to six hours of shade each day. If "partial shade" and "partial sun" seem similar, that's because they are. However, with plants that prefer partial shade, the emphasis is on getting at least four shaded hours. With partial sun plants, the emphasis shifts to getting at least four hours of sun.

Full shade refers to areas that only get two to four hours of direct sun each day. With grass seed for shady lawns, this is often referred to as dense shade. With plants, full or dense shade does not mean no sunlight at all. It means these plants can thrive with only indirect light for all but a small portion of the day. Terms such as "light shade," "filtered shade" or "dappled shade" may describe areas along the edges of shady gardens or where sunlight filters through leaves and hits the ground all day.

When planning a shade garden, invest time into understanding the daily and seasonal shade patterns in your yard. Areas shaded at morning and night may get blazing hot sun midday. Lightly shaded spring gardens may become densely shaded when trees unfurl their leaves.

Once you understand what your garden offers you can work from there or give nature a helping hand. Thinning existing shrubs or trees helps increase light and reduce the degree of shade your garden gets. Adding shade-producing structures, such as arbors or trellises, limits sun exposure and increases your shade amounts.

 Shade and sun patterns shift throughout the day.

Selecting Plants for Your Shade Garden

In choosing plants to create your shade garden, look first for plants that flourish in your growing zone. Then focus on plants suited to your garden's shade. Most shade gardens are combinations of various degrees of shade, so keep in those differences in mind.

Plants at the back or center of a shade garden spend more time in shade than plants near the front or edges, where more sunlight reaches in. Your geography affects planting schemes as well. Plants that prefer full shade under hot southern suns may prefer more exposure in northern gardens where the sun is less intense.

By matching your plants' shade tolerances and preferences to the space where they'll live, you give them the greatest opportunity to shine. Annuals and tender perennials such as begonias orcoleus often take on their richest, most vibrant colors in shade. Perennial hostas that fade in sun take on beautiful depths of silvers, blues, greens and creams when shaded. Delicate fern fronds reach their full feathery potential only when protected from the sun's harsh, drying rays.

Many of the best choices for shade plants are native plants adapted to live beneath woodland trees. Early flowering small trees and shrubs, such as flowering dogwoods and redbuds, light up woodlands with white and pink each spring. Low-growing native groundcovers such as bunchberries deliver flowers as well as ornamental fruit. Many azaleas and hydrangeas need dependable shade balanced with sunlight to produce the gorgeous blooms and foliage gardeners crave.

Despite the wide array of plants that flourish in shade gardens, many flowering and fruit-bearing plants need gardens in full sun, including most favorite garden fruits and vegetables. By exploring and emphasizing additional qualities such as foliage color, texture, shape and height, shade gardens can provide as much diversity and depth as the sunniest garden built around blooms and berries.

Shapes, textures and foliage colors play important roles in shade gardens.

Caring for Shade Garden Plants

Because shade gardens, by nature, shelter plants and soil from drying sun and wind, maintenance requirements differ from sunny gardens. Shady and sheltered areas dry out more slowly, so they typically need less frequent watering. As with sunny gardens, water plants deeply and thoroughly when you water, but always check the soil before automatically watering again.

Water as needed to keep plants hydrated and soil moist, but never overly wet, and avoid overhead watering. Water early in the morning, and water the soil directly instead. Leaves that stay wet, without sunlight and good air circulation to dry them, are vulnerable to fungal disease.

Many shade-preferring plants have soil and nutrient needs that reflect their woodland origins. By grouping plants according to these needs, you enhance plant health and beauty and reduce your maintenance time. Azaleas and rhododendrons are acid-loving plants that do best in low pH soil, rich with organic matter, and a specialized fertilizer such as Pennington UltraGreen Azalea, Camellia & Rhododendron Plant Food 10-8-6. This premium fertilizer provides primary nutrients and the essential micronutrients that help acid-preferring plants thrive, and it keeps feeding for up to four months.

Shaded plants are susceptible to insects, such as mealybugs, whiteflies, and spider mites. Visible damage can be holes in leaves, or white cottony spots on stems and leaves. Apply Sevin Insect Killer Ready-to-Spray on infected areas or where insects are present. The spray kills by contact, will not harm your plants, and continues protecting for up to 3 months.

Shade-preferring hydrangeas may need acidic soil for blue blooms, but others flourish alongside plants that prefer more balanced soil pH and nutrition. A premium complete, balanced fertilizer such as Pennington UltraGreen All Purpose Plant Food 10-10-10 provides necessary nutrients for vigorous growth, beautiful leaves and blooms, and it keeps feeding your shade-loving plants for up to four months as well.

Shade-loving annuals can help brighten shady garden areas.

By understanding your shady garden plants and providing the care they need to reach their full potential, you can create a garden that soothes and satisfies the senses as it beautifies its shady home. Pennington is here to help you achieve your gardening dreams with premium lawn and garden products and timely advice and inspiration to help you make the most of all your garden holds.

Always read the product label and follow instructions carefully. 

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