It’s July … and it is hot! But gardeners still want to be out and about in their gardens. The best way to appreciate the summer garden is from a restful vantage point in and amongst the beautiful, lush plants that thrive in a shade garden. Gardening in the shade can add interest to the landscape, but it can also be difficult and challenging. However, it can be much more enjoyable than gardening in the hot, sunny perennial border during July and August.
We are so lucky to have such majestic mature trees in the Midlands. Many of the older neighborhoods are defined by the monumental, sprawling oak trees that are planted in the tree zones by the city. Other established neighborhoods are shaded by the tall canopies of pine trees that thrive so prolifically in our sandy and well-drained soils. These trees are the dominant factor of a shade garden, but many of these shady areas are neglected or ignored by gardeners. These areas can be a challenge but with the correct preparation and proper plant selection, a shady area in the garden can be a wonderful respite from the harsh summer sun and temperatures.
What is shade?
Shade is difficult to define. We use the terms ‘partial shade,’ ‘light shade’ and ‘full shade,’ but there is no numerical scale to define which is which.
Part shade can also be referred to as semi-shade or half-shade. Part shade is an area that alternates between full sun and full shade. A garden spot that receives morning sun and afternoon shade is preferable. This type of sun/shade exposure is beneficial to many plants and shrubs that add beauty and interest to the shade garden.
Light shade can also be called dappled or moving shade. Light shade is that area which lies between part shade and full shade. Confused? This type of shade is usually created by the sun filtering through the feathery leaves of a deciduous tree.
Full shade is that area in the garden that never receives sunlight in the growing season. This degree of shade can be created by the shadow of a building or under a densely foliated tree. These areas are usually damp and are definitely dark.
Choose the site
You may choose a shady spot in the garden that is an eyesore or an area that is long neglected. You know that one spot that makes you cringe when you walk by or drive up? Is the shady area caused by a tall, mature tree, or is it created by the shadow of a building or house? Don’t tackle more than you can manage. If the area is very large and you don’t want to invest a lot of time and money, the area can be left natural. Define the borders of the natural area and apply a thick layer of hardwood mulch or pine straw. The mulch will have to be replaced periodically and the bed lines redefined so that the area stays neat and tidy. Choose a spot that you can really improve and make a difference. Create a shady oasis that will pull you into the garden in the summer – a quiet place to putter.
Interesting ingredients to add interest to the shade garden
Fountains — make sure the one you choose has a large pipe so that it doesn’t get clogged. Add a streambed with or without running water to meander through the shady oasis. Birdhouses and birdbaths included in the shade garden will create a gentle and cool area for our feathered friends and will add another desired natural element to the garden. Build a bench around a tree trunk. Add a meandering path defined by mulch and stones to lead the visitor to a peaceful destination in the shade garden. It is always nice to include a bench, swing or even large interesting boulders used as benches at the final destination so that the visitor can sit and relax in the cool, tranquility of the shady garden.
Degrees of shade
Scout the desired space for the new shade garden. How dense is the shade? Is it shady all day? It is possible to replace dense shade with dappled light by judicious tree pruning. Most plants will perform better with dappled light or indirect light than in deep, dark shade. If an area is complete shade caused by a building as opposed to an area covered in shade by a tree that can be pruned to let in more light, it may be more practical to treat that area as a naturalized area defined by sharp borders and a thick layer of mulch. Moss is also a beautiful alternative to try in a dark, damp area.
Planting under trees
In real estate lingo, the three most important things are location, location, location. In gardening, the three most important words are preparation, preparation, preparation. Be very careful when planting under trees not to disturb or damage the trees’ roots. Use a stiff garden rake to work the soil around the roots and install the new plants farther away from the trunk where the roots aren’t as thick and will be less likely to be disturbed. Large trees can take lots of nutrients and moisture out of the soil so grass is usually a bad choice under large shade trees. Amend the soil by adding nutrients and organic matter and by mulching with shredded leaves, pine straw or hard wood mulch. When replacing the mulch, leave the old mulch to decay and add a thin layer on top to freshen the look of the garden.
Shade plants to consider
Annuals for the shade garden: Ageratum, begonia, impatiens, caladium, coleus, torenia and periwinkle.
Perennials for the shade garden: Fern, hosta, heuchera, astilbe, foam flower, hardy begonia, creeping jenny, trout lily, wild geranium, hellebore, pachysandra, mayapple, false soloman’s seal and mondo grass. These perennials look best when planted in large swaths in the shade garden.
If you are lucky enough to have a loamy, well-drained site with dappled shade, you may be able to include azalea, camellia, hydrangea and oakleaf hydrangea in the shade garden. These plants definitely need light shade to bloom and thrive. If the shade is too dense, these plants will not bloom and will struggle to survive.
The stars of the shade garden are fastia, aspidistra, ferns, hosta, creeping jenny and mondo grass. If there is a tree as the focal point, I like to start the layer closest to the trunk by planting a few fatsia as close to the trunk of the tree as possible. Then add aspidistra in a random, zigzag pattern around the perimeter of the tree and in and among the fastia. Add a mixed layer of Autumn fern and hosta. Then add clumps of green and variegated hosta. Hostas with white variegated leaves are very beautiful during the day and night and add light and variety to the shade garden. Caladium bulbs are also a great choice for the shade garden. These warm weather bulbs come in many different color combinations and variations. They are especially alluring when planted in large clumps amongst dark evergreen plants to add interesting foliage and variegation to the shady site.
Care of the shade garden
Many plants grown under the shade of a tree will have yellow leaves. This is usually not caused by a lack of light but by a lack of water. It is difficult to grow plants at the base of a large tree because there is so much competition for water between the tree and the plants. It is essential that shade-loving plants growing at the base of a tree get regular and consistent irrigation. Imagine how much bigger the roots of a tall tree are compared to the tiny roots of a small fern. Early morning watering is the best time to water, as nighttime watering in a shade garden can lead to disease. It is most beneficial to give the shade bed one or two long watering times per week than to give it a light, shallow watering every day. It is always best to thoroughly soak the planted bed.
Gardening chores for July and August
• If the vegetable plants in the garden are on their last leg, plant a fresh crop. You may get lucky and get an abundant second harvest.
• Deadhead flowering perennials and annuals to promote new blossoms and to neaten the look of the garden.
• Cut back herbs such as mint, oregano and basil to keep plants more compact and to keep them from going to seed.
• If you have chrysanthemums planted in your borders, pinch back the tips. This will keep the plants more compact and neat and the stems will not flop when the blooms appear in the early fall.
• Prune all summer flowering shrubs after they have bloomed. Prune for health and appearance.
• Scout the garden for insect infestations and disease and treat accordingly.
• Weed the vegetable and flower garden … no fun but it must be done!
• Layer low branches of hydrangea by placing a brick on the limb pinning it down to the ground. You should have a new plant with healthy roots by next spring or summer.
• Harvest, enjoy and share vegetables.
• Create beautiful flower arrangements using flowering annuals, perennials, foliage and interesting branches.
• Keep a log and photo journal of the successes and failures in the summer garden. This is such a great resource to use year after year to constantly improve the look and appearance of your garden.
• Last but not least, enjoy the new shade garden.
Blooms to look for in the garden
Abelia, Althea, buddleia, crape myrtle, oleander, salvia, butterfly weed, Cleome, cosmos, daylily, impatiens, lantana, Liatris, Moon Vine — absolutely gorgeous at night especially when accented by outdoor low voltage lighting, petunias (these really respond well to dedicated deadheading), plumbago — white and blue varieties, rudbeckia, sunflower, vinca and zinnia.