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Got shade?

Celebrating the shade in your landscape.

Here’s a question for you:  Would you rather spend a sweltering hot July afternoon battling weeds in your perennial bed, sweat dripping down your face, or would you prefer to relax in the 10-15 degree cooler shade of dogwood trees, admiring the magnificent foliage of your shade garden? 

I know what my answer is! Sure, I love my full-sun loving flowers and greatly appreciate all of the beautiful trees and shrubs that can survive Atlanta’s hot, dry summers, but I intentionally choose and plant varieties that look good through those long months with minimal care!  I’d much rather spend my summer days in the cooler areas of the garden, and develop even more shaded retreats for new gardening adventures.

Many gardens acquire more shade as trees become larger in the landscape. A large expanse of lawn that once was in full sun all day long becomes a mixture of the sun part of the day and dappled shade for the remainder of the day, as shade trees mature. Or, a sunny backyard, planted with small ornamental trees and shrubs when the home was first built is now is shady by early afternoon.

Homeowners are often puzzled as to how to deal with these changes in the landscape. They may notice that the plants that have always performed well in those locations just aren’t doing well, and replace them with similar plantings. Before too long, though, the new plants succumb to the same maladies as those that they replaced. A perfect example of this is turf. The once country-club like Bermuda lawn that’s now shaded by 50-foot oak trees will never return to its previous state—now that it’s almost fully shaded eight months out of the year, from early morning until mid-afternoon. No matter how often you water, fertilize and resod this lawn, a turfgrass that thrives in full sun will never adapt to shade.

So, what’s a homeowner to do?  Instead of groaning about limited light in your garden, celebrate the perks of shade: slower-growing weeds, fewer pests, less need to water, and cooler temperatures. It’s really quite simple -- turn to shade gardening to match your site! There are so many ways to take advantage of the shade that is found in your landscape. Once you learn how much variety there is in shade-loving plants, and how easy it is to adapt your landscape for these plants, you’ll join me in seeking out even more shade in the garden.

What kind of shade?

There are different variations of shade. Recognizing which kind of shade you’ve got to work with will help you design and select plants suitable for your particular garden.

Any area that receives less than six hours of direct sun a day is considered shade. These categories will help you select the right plants for the shady spots in your garden:

Full sun describes a garden or landscape area that receives six hours or more of direct sun each day.

Partial shade means that the area receives direct sun in the morning or afternoon, or lightly dappled sunlight all day (sunlight shining through trees to create a confetti pattern of sunlight).  Many plants that grow well in full sun can also survive in partial shade.

Light shade gardens only get an hour or two of full sun, which is sufficient for a wide range of shade tolerant plants.

Half shaded areas are shaded for four or five of the brightest daylight hours; if your garden gets no direct sun, but lots of reflected sunlight, it also fits in this category.

Full shade indicates no direct sun is cast on the garden.  Mature trees with dense canopies, such as maples and oaks, will provide full shade to a garden area.

Heavy (or deep) shade is created by tall, dense trees and buildings that cast long, deep shadows.   If tall trees are the source of this deep shade, this can be a problem for the gardener, since you can bet that the tree root hairs are ensnarled in the surrounding soil, greedily using up all of the water and nutrient

The best light condition for shade-tolerant plants is a morning sun/afternoon shade combination. The morning sunlight provides gentler warmth than the hot afternoon sun, yet provides the plants with plenty of light for photosynthesis and blooms. An eastern exposure ensures that these light conditions will prevail.

Changes in sun and shade over time

Depending on the time of year, and the type of trees planted in and near your yard, light conditions change. Often a shady garden receives more sunlight in winter, due to deciduous trees that lose their leaves in autumn. This is beneficial to the garden because it allows many early blooming spring bulbs and wildflowers to thrive. When these trees begin to leaf out, these early bloomers such as crocus, daffodils, trillium, and hepatica become dormant and require shade, which the leaves on the trees provide. Perennials and winter flowering shrubs such as Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis), winter daphne (Daphne odora) and paperbush (Edgeworthia) welcome the winter sunlight but are protected in the warmer months by the shade of the tree’s leaves.  Recognizing the seasonal changes in your landscape will help you decide the best plants for your garden.

Rich soil required

Just as in a woodland forest, the best soil for shade-loving plants is a humus-rich, good-draining soil. In the woods, this is achieved naturally over the years by decomposing plants, leaves and microorganisms helping the process along.

A shady, uncultivated corner of your yard may miraculously have great soil, but for most homeowners, regular old Georgia dirt needs a little help. No matter how poor the condition of your soil to begin with, your goal is to transform what’s already there into good, nutrient rich soil.  More precisely, fertile soil that will maintain a good moisture level, but permit excess water to drain away quickly.

Take a soil sample to your local extension service and have it tested, specifying the types of plants that you intend to grown in the area.  The test will reveal the pH of the soil, as well as amendments needed for good plant nutrition. While most plants will by happy in soil with a neutral pH level (7.0), acid-loving plants such as azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias will perform much better with soil amended to a lower pH level. This can be achieved by adding soil conditioners such as sphagnum peat moss and composted oak leaves to the existing soil.

If you’ve got exposed tree roots in the planting area, be very careful when amending the soil. Unlike a generous planting bed where the topsoil, compost and granite sand can easily be mixed in with a rototiller, you’ll need to gently incorporate these additions into the soil.  Adding a two or three inch layer (called topdressing) of compost to the garden a couple of times a year will also help condition the soil. Layer no more than three or four inches of soil over exposed tree roots, so that you won’t damage the trees. Watch out for roots and dig carefully when planting in these areas.

The right plant in the right place

As in any garden design and planning, being conscious of the way that sun and shade affect your garden is one part of determining which plants will survive. Another important factor is the amount of moisture that the soil retains. Some areas are naturally wetter than others, and the plants you’ll want for those areas will have roots that are tolerant of staying wet. More frequently you’ll find dry soil in Georgia gardens, particularly in the years we suffer from insufficient rainfall.

While hostas are one of the most popular shade plants because of their variety and low maintenance, there are countless shade-loving plants of every shape, size, color, and type.

Shade gardeners learn quickly that the flower isn’t everything when it comes to variety in the garden—foliage can take center stage, and a variety of textures and colors of foliage make a stunning display!

Here are some top-performing shade-tolerant plants for Georgia gardens:

* indicates showy flowers

Trees: 

  • American beech (Fagus grandifolia)
  • Eastern redbud (Cercis Canadensis)*
  • Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida)*
  • Franklin tree (Franklinia alatamaha)*
  • Ironwood (Carpinus Carolina)
  • Japanese maple  (Acer palmatum) –particular cultivars tolerate shade
  • Korean dogwood (Cornus kousa)*
  • Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)*
  • Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
  • Silverbell (Halesia)
  • Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum)
  • Stewartia
  • Sweet bay (Magnolia virginiana)*

Shrubs: 

  • Anise tree (Illicium)
  • Azaleas, native (Rhododendron)*
  • Bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora)*
  • Camellia *
  • Daphne odora *
  • Fothergilla*
  • Hydrangea *
  • Leucothoe*
  • Osmanthus
  • Pieris *
  • Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia)*
  • Sweet box (Sarcococca)
  • Viburnum *--particular cultivars tolerate shade
  • Witch hazel (Hamamelis)*

Groundcovers/Vines:

  • Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens)*
  • Clematis armandii*
  • Confederate jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides)*
  • Ferns
  • Hosta
  • Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis)*
  • Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis)*
  • Mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus)
  • Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum)*

Perennials and bulbs:

  • Aconite *
  • Anemone*
  • Arum
  • Bear’s breech (Acanthus mollis)*
  • Bleeding heart (Dicentra)*
  • Celandine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum)*
  • Columbine (Aquilegia)*
  • Coral bells (Heuchera)*
  • Epimedium*
  • Flax lily (Dianella tasmanica)
  • Foamflower (Tiarella)*
  • Ginger (Asarum)
  • Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema)*
  • Lungwort (Pulmonaria)*
  • Mayapple
  • Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum)
  • Spiderwort (Tradescantia)*
  • Toad Lily (Tricyrtis)
  • Wood Aster (Aster divaricates)

Annuals:

  • Begonia*
  • Browallia*
  • Caladium
  • Coleus
  • Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)*
  • Johnny Jump-up (Viola)Impatiens*
  • Lobelia*
  • Torenia *

You’ll be amazed to find that a combination of trees, shrubs, groundcovers, vines, perennials and annuals will transform a shady, unplanted area into a lush, inviting garden. Carving natural areas out of a too-shady turf area will provide places to plant a wide variety of shade-loving ornamentals, which will in turn afford you much more leisure time—cutting your lawn maintenance chores dramatically.  Gardening in the shade is the choice for me, particularly when hot weather arrives—join the millions of gardeners who have discovered the pleasures of this cool pastime!

Photo courtesy of Michael Jackson Landscape Company


About the author

Mary Kay WoodworthMary Kay Woodworth is Executive Director of the Georgia Urban Ag Council. In her spare time, you can find her digging in the dirt, pulling weeds, and writing garden-related articles for publication.