When it comes to planning a new garden, or just adding new plants and borders to an existing one, there are usually plenty of different factors to take into account. You may have areas that luxuriate in full sun, are boggy and wet, or are so well drained and dry that plants at home in the most arid of deserts feel perfectly at home there. No matter what the conditions there is something that will grow and flourish.
Something that often goes overlooked is shade. That shade could be created by your home and outbuildings, or might simply be patches of ground beneath larger plants and trees. Perhaps it’s our instinctive feeling that sunlight is what matters most to plants , and that those shady parts aren’t worth worrying about. In fact there’s no shortage of interesting and fun plants of all sizes that can occupy these shadowy parts of our garden, adding texture and interest to places that might otherwise remain bare. A well balanced garden will be home to shrubs, trees, creepers of all shapes and sizes, giving a layered depth to our green surroundings, and that includes the shady corners.
Before embarking on your search for what to plant in these seemingly tricky areas it helps to understand what type of shady area you are looking to populate. Most gardeners break these down into four main types –
- Light Shade: Although these sites are open to the sky direct sunlight is impeded by an obstacle of some description, perhaps a wall or a group of trees.
- Partial Shade: This would be defined as having shade during the middle part of the day. So an area that is in sunlight for two or three hours in the early or late parts of the day. This means they are only subjected to sunlight when it is at its weakest.
- Moderate Shade: An area considered to be in moderate shade receives dappled or diffuse sunlight, such as an area that sits beneath a canopy of other plants when the sun’s movement allows light through sporadically.
- Deep Shade: This is often the most neglected sort of area, found beneath dense deciduous trees or overgrown or conifer hedging, through which very little light – if any – can penetrate.
Once you have identified the area you are dealing with you can move on to the other complexities that these shady areas can bring. It is not unusual for the ground very close to walls and solid structures to be very dry, especially if the wall is protecting the area from the prevailing wind; this will also mean it receives less rainfall. Planting a foot or so away from the wall aids this, as will encouraging your selection of greenery with a good mulch. This will allow more water to be retained for use by the plant.
Planting beneath very dense evergreen trees, such as conifers, can present unique challenges. Not only do these spots tend to be dry due to the umbrella-like coverage of the tree, but the carpet of needles results in what can be rather acidic soil as they rot down into the earth. Fortunately there are plants that can thrive in acidic conditions, although this type of area really is for those who like a challenge. More success will be had around the fringes of the shaded area, especially on the side that gets the prevailing winds (and thus rain). Holly, yew and ivy are worth a look, and with some care and good compost on well prepared ground you could see some impressive results here.
A handy tip for any canopy-shaded area is planting in fall. This means that the new plant has a better chance of settling in with some fall and winter sunlight before the larger plants regrow their leafy canopies in spring. Mulching and watering in the dry months will also increase your chances of a healthy plant once the shade returns in full.
Above all, don’t neglect those dark and seemingly uninhabitable spaces on your property. With a little care and some effort you will end up with a display you can really enjoy. To get you started here are a few plants that are worth looking at, but this list is by no means exhaustive. And if you are thinking you can’t be productive in these darker spaces, things like redcurrants and rhubarb, beetroot and lettuce can fare well.
- Camellia japonica ‘Brushfield’s Yellow’: An upright evergreen shrub with dark, glossy foliage and creamy-white, anemone-form double flowers which shade to light yellow in the center. Height: 2.5-4m (8-12ft). Spread 1.5-2.5m (5-8ft). Acidic soil required.
- Fuchsia ‘Mrs Popple’ AGM: A vigorous medium-sized upright shrub with small, dark green leaves. Flowers single, with bright red sepals and tube and violet-purple petals from mid-summer to fall. Height: 90cm (3ft). Spread 90cm (3ft).
- Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’ AGM: A robust, upright and spreading deciduous shrub with very dense panicles of lime-green bracts, turning pinkish at end of season. Height: 1.6m (5¼ft). Spread 2.2m (7ft).
- Rhododendron yakushimanum ‘Koichiro Wada’ AGM: A compact, dome-shaped small shrub with silvery young foliage becoming dark green with a thick fawn tomentum beneath. Rounded trusses of white flowers open from bright pink buds. Height: 90cm-1.5m (3-5ft). Spread 90cm-1.5m (3-5ft). Acidic soil required.
- Carex muskingumensis: An evergreen, slow-growing groundcover grass. Height: 50-60cm (20in-2ft). Spread 60-90cm (2-3ft).
- Luzula sylvestris ‘Marginata’: An evergreen, perennial forming a tuft of glossy leaves narrowly margined with cream, with open panicles of brown flowers in early summer. Height: 30-60cm (1-2ft). Spread 30-60cm (1-2ft).
- Cardiocrinum giganteum: A tall perennial with leaves to 30cm across, and terminal racemes of fragrant, trumpet-shaped white flowers marked with purple within the mouth. Height 2m (6½ft). Spread 45cm (18in).
- Convallaria majalis AGM (lily-of-the-valley): Creeping perennial producing scented, white flowers in late spring. Height 23cm (9in). Spread 30cm (1ft).
- Eranthis hyemalis AGM (winter aconite): A perennial to 10cm in height, with cup-shaped bright yellow flowers from late winter, surrounded by divided leafy bracts. Height 5-8cm (2-3in). Spread 5cm (2in).