Melinda's Gardening How-To: Shade Gardening

Melinda's Gardening How-To:Gardening in the Shade

Learn how to get the most enjoyment out of shady locations.

Shady spots in the garden are treasured on a hot, sunny day. But, these areas do create a challenge for gardeners looking to spruce them up with attractive plantings. Fortunately, you can choose from a variety of plants and planting strategies.


Where to Start...

Monitor the Location

• Sunlight - Observe the area throughout the day and the growing season to see how much sunlight the space actually receives. You may be surprised to find the area receives more sunlight than you initially thought.

• Soil Moisture – A lack of moisture can also prevent plants from growing in the shade of a tree or overhang.  The dense tree canopy or overhead structure prevents much of the rainfall from reaching the plants below. And what rain makes it to the ground is first absorbed by the tree roots.

Review Past Planting

• List the plants you have grown successfully and those that have failed in this location.  This information will help you and the professional staff at Pasquesi select additional plants for the area.


Selecting Plants: Here are just a few perennials to consider.

• Hostas are a favorite in shade gardens. They thrive in shady conditions and the variety of sizes, shapes and leaf color make them a great addition to shady areas. You’ll enjoy the hummingbirds that visit the flowers and juncos that feed on the seeds.

• Ferns are the other popular shade plant.  The feathery fronds provide nice texture in the garden. • Coral bells are another group of plants with great diversity. Their small scale is perfect for small landscapes, containers or as edging plants in larger shade gardens.

• Lungwort is a hummingbird favorite while the deer and rabbits tend to leave it be. The white, pink or blue flowers appear in spring and the white markings on the leaves brighten the shade. • Siberian Bugloss (Brunnera) has blue forget-me-not like blooms in the spring. Many like Jack Frost have variegated foliage that adds interest to the shade garden throughout the growing season.

• Barronwort (Epimedium) provides multi-season interest and is tolerant of dry shade once established. The heart shaped leaves emerge with a red tinge at the same time the yellow, white or red flowers appear. The leaves add nice texture to the garden and turn red in fall.

• Astilbes grow short to tall and bloom early, mid or late summer depending on the variety. Just be sure to provide sufficient moisture throughout the growing season.

• Toad lily (Tricyrtis) is a subtle beauty providing a beautiful end to the growing season. The tiny orchid-like blooms are sure to make you stop and take a closer look.

• Turtlehead is both shade and moisture tolerant. The unique flower shape inspired the common name of this late summer to fall bloomer.

• Variegated Solomon’s Seal adds a different dimension to the shade garden with its 2 to 4 feet tall arching branches. The white bell shaped flowers, white edged leaves and yellow fall color provide season long beauty in the garden.

• Sedges are grass-like plants that contrast nicely with the bolder leaves of hostas. Include some of the yellow or variegated varieties for an extra bit of color.

• Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa) is a shade tolerant, ornamental grass. The fine foliage creates a delicate mound of beauty. Keep the soil moist the first few years to successfully establish this plant.

 • Coral Bells (Huechera) thrive in a sunny or lightly shaded spot. The heart-shaped, foliage creates a rounded mound with small flowers that rise above the leaves on delicate stalks.  Mostly loved for their wide range of leaf colors and patterns.


Use Annuals for a more Colorful Display

• Create a wave of color in shady locations with impatiens, begonias and coleus. Just be careful when planting under trees as described below.

• Combine a few shade-tolerant annuals to your perennial shade gardens for a splash of color. See the tips below for ways to make this easier on you and the trees.


Plant with Care

• DON’T kill the trees for the flowers.

• Do not pile soil over the tree roots. As little as an inch of soil can kill some types of trees o Do not deeply till the soil surrounding the tree. The majority of the roots that absorb water and nutrients are in the top 12 inches of the soil. Regular tilling destroys many of these roots and can lead to the tree’s decline.

• Set pots of annuals among ground covers for a bit of extra color and seasonal displays. 

• Sink a few old nursery pots in the ground surrounding the tree.  Then plant annuals in a slightly smaller pot and set it in the buried container. It looks as if the annuals are growing in the ground but you will avoid yearly digging that is hard on the tree and your back.


• DO Plant Carefully

• Dig a hole between major roots that is big enough to accommodate the plant’s roots and a bit of compost.

• Cover the roots with soil and water thoroughly.

• Fertilize with a low nitrogen or organic fertilizer at planting. Follow label directions.

• Mulch the area with a 1 to 2 inch layer of shredded leaves, evergreen needles or twice shredded bark.


On-going Maintenance is Critical

• Check soil moisture around new plantings several times a week even if it rains.

• Closely monitor plantings for the first year or two as the plants become established.

• Water thoroughly when the top few inches of soil surrounding the perennials are starting to dry.

• Once established, the plants will be more tolerant of these drier conditions.


Written by gardening expert, Melinda Myers. Melinda Myers is a nationally recognized gardening expert with more than 30 years of horticulture experience. She is a wealth of knowledge and we are pleased to share Melinda’s Gardening How-To with you!