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Tips For a Beautiful Shade Garden

Updated on July 18, 2011

Shade gardens are a beautiful way to add interest to areas of deep or partial shade, where grass and other sun-loving plants may be unable to grow.Shade gardens may require a little more research and planning than gardens grown in full sunlight, but the results are well worth the extra effort.

Here are some tips to make the most of the shady spots in your yard:

Look at Shade as an Opportunity

Deep, or even partial, shade in your yard may prevent you from growing a few of your favorite plants, but it presents a wonderful opportunity to find new favorites. There are many beautiful and underappreciated plants that grow happily in shade, from old favorites such as columbines to more recent fads like hosta.

Mulch, Mulch, Mulch

Shady areas often have poor soil, and plants competing for root space can cause the soil to dry out even faster than sunny areas during dry periods. Mulch not only protects the soil, it also adds organic matter, which improves the soil's water holding capacity and nutrient level.

Be careful not to pile mulch too thickly against the base of tree trunks (volcano mulching), as this can cause rot and disease.

A beautifully layered, naturalistic shade garden. Photo by SleepingBear
A beautifully layered, naturalistic shade garden. Photo by SleepingBear

Think in Layers

When you think about a forest, the first thing you probably think of is trees. If you enjoy hiking, maybe you'll add a few shrubs and ground covers or woodland wildflowers such as ferns or Jack-in-the-Pulpit, but chances are, you'll mostly think of trees.

In fact, natural woodland ecosystems have not one, two, or three, but seven distinct layers. These are:

  1. The Canopy - the large, mature trees, such as oaks and maples
  2. The Low Tree Layer - young trees and smaller understory trees, such as redbud and dogwood
  3. The Shrub Layer - shrubs and bushes, such as viburnums or blackberries
  4. The Herbaceous Layer - wildflowers, ferns, and other smaller plants, such as bleeding hearts and hosta
  5. The Soil Surface Layer - mulch and low-growing ground covers, such as vinca or creeping jenny
  6. The Rhizosphere - roots
  7. The Vertical Layer - vines, such as Virginia creeper

By considering each of the seven layers of the natural woodland when designing your shade garden, you will not only create a beautiful, naturalistic landscape, you will also reduce the amount of work you will need to do to maintain the garden once it is established. Dense, multilayered plantings conserve water by keeping the soil cool and moist, and shade out weeds before they can become a problem.

A lovely hosta. Photo by sleepingbear.
A lovely hosta. Photo by sleepingbear.

Look Beyond Flowers

Although there are many beautiful flowering plants that thrive in shade, one of the great pleasures of shade is its ability to draw beauty from foliage, bark, berries, and other often-overlooked sources of beauty.

Hosta is the most famous of the many lovely foliage plants that thrive in shade. Other lovely choices include Coralbells (also produces attractive flowers), Ajuga, ferns, and many variegated shrubs and groundcovers.

Extraordinary bark is another great way to enliven shady spots. Beeches, birches, poplars, sycamores, shagbark hickory, and red twig dogwood are among the world's most beautiful and unique barks.

Berries are not only beautiful, many also attract birds, whose lovely colors and songs enliven the shade like nothing else. Many woodland berries are also edible for humans and a British gardener Robert Hart developed a system of landscape design he called "edible forest gardening," which emphasized the use of plants that were both beautiful and productive, for humans, wildlife, or both.


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    • carcro profile image

      Paul Cronin 

      7 years ago from Winnipeg

      I'm always looking for a way to enhance my home and yard. Thanks for this very informative and useful information!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I think I need to try and build a shade garden... our summers seem to be getting hotter and hotter every year...

      Great Hub and tips... thanks

    • dllhubpages profile image


      9 years ago from Southeastern US

      I love shade gardens, especially one that use lots of different leaf texture and varying shades of green.

    • RKHenry profile image


      9 years ago from Neighborhood museum in Somewhere, USA

      kerryg- one thing I enjoy most about your hubs, is the incredible links you provide.  It takes a lot of work finding the right link.  Take your soil link- excellent find.  It'd take me hours to find information like that.  Great writing, great tips and ideas.  Thanks again.

    • kerryg profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from USA

      Hope you find it useful, RKHenry!

      hot dorkage, my dad is a hosta FANATIC. He has dozens of different cultivars planted in their woodlot. There are some really unique and beautiful ones, so be sure to explore a little when you're choosing them.

    • hot dorkage profile image

      hot dorkage 

      9 years ago from Oregon, USA

      I'll do hostas in that troubling shady spot that just fills up with weeds. And I've got a calla over there that has survived my neglect. Thanks for this info.

    • RKHenry profile image


      9 years ago from Neighborhood museum in Somewhere, USA

      Hi! Thanks for answering this request. It's getting late for me, and I haven't had the chance to read it yet. But I book marked on my fav.'s list to read tomorrow. It looks great. I'll comment back once I've read it. Again, thanks.


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