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Plant a Shade Garden

Well-chosen plants that thrive in shade can transform your yard into a relaxing green oasis.

Front yard garden.

Choosing a Site for Your Garden

Do you want your shade garden close by the front door or path? Why not hide it away in a private corner of your yard? Maybe a particular area of your yard needs a little improvement. Whatever your choice, keep in mind that many elements affect shade environments:

  • Soil quality
  • Adequate water
  • Proper drainage
  • The time of day or year
  • Existing structures or buildings
  • Trees or hedges

Also remember that shade plants shouldn't have to battle for water and nutrients, so avoid placing your garden in an area that is overrun with tree roots. And, since most plants will not survive in dense shade, choose a site that receives morning sun. Afternoon shade protects plants on hot summer days.

Understanding Types of Shade

Hydrangeas.

The amount and availability of light are critical to plant life and will change with the seasons. The following descriptions apply to shade in midsummer during the peak of the growing season:

  • Light shade - Bright, open shade. Offers indirect light in addition to direct sun.
  • Partial or half shade - Shade is present during part of the day. Area receives two to six hours of direct sun a day.
  • Dappled shade - Sunlight filtering through trees creates dappled shade. Different patterns of light and shade exist throughout the day. Inspect trees in early summer to determine whether the shade they cast is dense or dappled.
  • Heavy shade - Solid shade created by tall buildings or large evergreens. If the shade is the result of tall buildings, it can't be manipulated; however, reflected light can be present if the building is white or light colored. Reflected light allows you to use a wider variety of plants in the garden. Some trees and shrubs can be pruned to allow more light.
  • Dense shade - Constant shade with no direct sun at all and no reflected light. Plant selection is limited. Some possibilities include hosta, cast iron plant, rubber tree (ficus elastica), jack-in-the-pulpit, and Algerian ivy.

Improving Your Soil

If your property is wooded, your soil is probably rich in organic matter created by tree trunks and fallen leaves or branches. However, areas under trees can have lifeless soil, particularly if the soil is root infested or the ground is covered with pine needles. Similarly, gardens located by tall buildings often need soil improvement, especially if the building is in a newly developed area that has been stripped of its topsoil. In these cases, you may need to improve the soil or try your hand at container gardening.

Improve Soil

To improve the soil, add two parts humus (compost, leaf mold, or peat moss) to one part builder's sand and one part clay soil. Thoroughly work the mixture into the soil with a sharp spade. The humus makes the soil light and porous. While the coarse sand helps to ensure good drainage, the clay provides necessary nutrients.

Tangled Roots

If tangled roots under mature trees make it difficult to work the humus mixture into the soil, add two to three inches of humus on top and taper it near the edge of the trunk. Try not to change the grade or pile soil around the trunk. Stay away from the root systems when you plant shrubs or other plants to avoid damaging the tree.

Soil Testing

Purchase soil-testing kits and test for pH levels. A pH of 6 to 6.5 is great for most common shade plants. Azaleas and rhododendrons do best when the pH is around 5.5. Your local Cooperative Extension also offers soil analysis services.

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Selecting Plants

Mixed plants.

Plant your shade garden in the spring or fall when temperatures are cooler and it rains more often. Be sure to choose plants that love shade, and pay attention to the kind of shade the plants prefer.

In shade gardens, the emphasis is on foliage due to the limited number of plants that flower in the shade. Plan your garden around contrasting textures and foliage, such as variegated instead of flowering plants.

Start your garden by selecting shrubs. For spring blooms, try azaleas, rhododendrons or mountain laurel; for summer blooms, hydrangeas. Next add perennials. Available in a variety of sizes, colors, and textures, ferns and hostas are perennials and shade garden staples. When you choose your perennials, try to include plants that flower in spring, summer, and fall.

Once the shrubs and perennials are in place, think about adding bulbs to your garden. Less overhead foliage in springtime allows flowering bulbs, such as tulips, hyacinths, daffodils, and snowdrops to flourish. Caladiums and certain varieties of lilies are perfect for summer. When everything is in place, fill in the bare spots with colorful shade-loving annuals, such as impatiens, begonias, and coleus.

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Good to Know

Remember some plants do well in light shade, while others thrive in partial or full shade. Check the plant tag for sunlight requirements.

Maintaining Shade Gardens

Hosta flower plant.

Fertilizing is simple for shade gardens. The soil in woodland areas is probably nutrient rich. Falling leaves, decaying branches, and tree trunks improve the soil. If you plan to add flowering annuals, add a slow-release fertilizer to your beds in the spring to help produce larger, more colorful flowers. Add compost or other organic matter to a garden located near tall buildings once a year.

Mulching your garden conserves soil moisture and smothers weeds. For low-maintenance mulch, try adding a ground cover. Ground covers leave little room for unwanted plants. Pachysandra, ivy and periwinkle are two popular choices. Hostas shade out weeds that try to grow beneath them and serve as living mulches. Mulching a garden well reduces the need for watering. In the hottest part of summer, you may want to water your garden well at least once a week. Water in the morning so moisture evaporates more slowly.

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Controlling Pests

Control pests.

Familiar pests that love shade gardens include slugs, snails, root weevils, and deer. Eliminating slugs and snails is nearly impossible. Often, the best you can do is control them with pesticides. For a more organic approach, put on a pair of garden gloves, remove them by hand and place them in a jar of soapy or salty water. Frogs and toads help control slugs too. Make your garden toad-friendly by keeping a shallow dish of water in a protected corner of your garden.

Another problem is root weevils. These small, dark-colored snout beetles attack plants at night and hide during the day. They especially love rhododendrons and leave bite marks along the edges of leaves. Tender, young plants are most at risk.

Deer round out our list of garden problems. For a foolproof deterrent, build a high sturdy fence over which the animals can't jump over. An easier alternative is to grow plants that deer dislike. They tend to avoid plants that are sticky, poisonous, or thorny. Examples include holly, boxwood, wintergreen, sweet woodruff, bleeding hearts, and periwinkle.

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Pruning

Pruning a shade garden.

Shape up your trees and bushes with selective pruning. Prune only dead or diseased branches from trees. If a tree has outgrown its allotted space, consult a professional tree-trimming service. Shrubs are easier to deal with. Rhododendrons, hydrangea, and mountain laurel may require removal of dead, broken, or diseased branches. Cut these branches back to healthy, green wood immediately. If the wood is diseased, do not allow the trimmings to compost naturally. Remove them from your garden area to prevent contamination of healthy plants.

Prune spring-blooming shrubs after they have flowered. Prune summer and fall blooming shrubs in the springtime. Keep your pruning tools sharp and clean to guard against the spread of disease and to ensure good cuts.

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