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Shade Gardening

By Carl Wilson, Horticulturist, Denver Cooperative Extension

Landscapes change over time and require renovation to remain beautiful. One condition that often changes within twenty years of planting a landscape is the degree of shade due to maturing trees and
shrubs. The rest of the garden must change to keep up. While some plants do poorly in shade, many will thrive in these conditions.

The best way to adapt to low light levels is to choose plants that do well in less light. While some plants thrive in light shade, others will tolerate partial or even full shade. The degree of shade in a landscape may change with the season. Areas in full sun in the summer may be in partial shade in spring and fall when the sun is at a lower angle in the sky.

Available sunlight may sometimes be increased through selective pruning. While large shade trees are a valuable resource, removal of dead, diseased or structurally poor limbs can improve beauty as well as increase light available for plant growth. Another method to increase light is through reflection. Painting a fence or house siding a light color can have a significant effect.

Root competition for moisture is another consideration in shade gardening. Some shade tolerant plants adapt to low moisture situations while others require moist shade. Consider the competition from nearby plants when choosing plants and in irrigating them.

Designing for shade -Shade gardens are usually more subtle, lacking the bright, bold  colors found in sunny locations. Plant textures, height differences,   forms and color variations are important elements to consider.

  • Large leafed plants such as shade-loving hostas have a coarse texture while finely divided leaves such as male fern impart a fine texture. Take advantage of textural contrasts for the variety they offer.
  • Consider using height contrasts between plants such as dwarf conifers and their upright cousins to add interest. Weeping or rounded forms create a spacious feeling that add to plantings otherwise dominated by upright or horizontal, ground-hugging plant forms.

  • Glossy leaves such as those of pigsqueak bergenia have more impact than dull ones such as Siberian bugloss. Light colors - whites, cream or pinks - stand out in the shade. Examples are the silver and pink tones of Japanese painted fern and the creamy yellow shades found in some hosta varieties.
  • Some red-leafed plants such as 'Chocolate Ruffles' coral bells contrast well with green plant leaves.
  • Deep blues and purples tend to recede into the shade unless set off by a lighter, contrasting color. The tall, light purple blooms of  upright European lilybells (Adenophora lilifolia) will have more  impact if coupled with the yellow, spiked blooms of a perennial  foxglove.

Utilize any and all of these elements to add interest to landscape planting designs for shade.

Plants for shade - Many shrubs and small trees naturally grow in the shade of large trees in forests. These plants are useful to consider in small urban yards where both light as well as space may be limited. 

  • Suggestions include serviceberry; arrowwood, burkwood and leatherleaf viburnums; highbush cranberry; redosier dogwood; Oregon grapeholly; and spreading euonymous.
  • There are also a variety of groundcovers and shade tolerant perennial flowers to plant in shady situations.
  • Groundcovers for shady areas are carpet bugle, periwinkle, English ivy, mock strawberry, plumbago, sweet woodruff, woodbine, wintercreeper euonymous and dead nettle.
  • Perennial flowers to consider include daffodil, tulips, crocus and other spring bulbs that bloom and complete growth before trees leaf out late in the spring. Other perennials are coral bells, bellflower, pigsqueak bergenia, astilbe, bleedingheart, bugloss, cranesbill geranium, lady's mantle and the European type daylilies.
  • Don't forget ornamental grasses such as maiden grass and tufted hairgrass.
  • Annual flowers for shade plantings are coleus, foxglove, impatiens, lobelia, wax begonia, flossflower, and browallia.

Be sure to meet the moisture needs in growing these plants. Some require moist shade and some tolerate dry shade.

Photograph courtesy of Judy Sedbrook.

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Date last revised: 01/05/2010