Avoid an August Meltdown by heading for the shade — shade garden, that is! Expert gardener P. Allen Smith is here to share a few tips for cultivating your own retreat. Enjoy! xo, Tobi
Lucia Lavender Blush Lobelia
Whenever I talk to people about their gardens, one of the most frequently asked questions is, “What can I grow in the shade?” Plenty — since I see these places as little havens to go to in order to beat the heat.
My best advice for how to begin to design a shade garden is to start small. Begin with making small vignettes to build up your confidence and to learn what will work in the space.
Observe the area throughout the day and note the light conditions as they change from morning to night. What I’ve discovered, in the warmer parts of the country, is that the afternoon sun is especially hard on shade dwellers. Hydrangeas, azaleas and hostas struggle when exposed to several hours of afternoon western sun, while they seem less bothered with the same amount of morning light.
Dolce Blackcurrant Heuchera is a perennial that will tolerate light shade. Huechera are available in a fantastic array of foliage colors.
Not everything in the garden needs to bloom. Discover all the beautiful varieties of coleus, caladiums, ferns, variegated foliage shrubs, vines and ground covers that will brighten shady areas with their colorful and interestingly shaped leaves.
Once you’re ready to tackle a bigger shade garden project, here’s how to approach it. Draw your garden to scale on graph paper. Sketch in the trees and buildings that make the shade. Note where the water supplies are located.
Watch the shade over a day or two. Where does it go? Draw in the dappled shade areas, the areas of daylong dim light, and the darkest nooks and crannies.
Then, define the planting areas on your drawing. Be sure that they’re big enough to make an impact using quantities in multiples of 3’s and 5’s.
Virginia Sweetspire ‘Little Henry’ is a favorite of mine.
Draw in two anchor plant clusters –use either evergreens like boxwood or flowering shrubs like Azaleas or Virginia Sweetspire — and plan to repeat them several times for continuity in your design.
Hydrangea ‘Incrediball’ is suitable as a foundation planting or really nice when added to shady wooded slopes, bluff bases, shaded banks, ravines and along streams.
Plan for bold and varied leaf textures. For instance, select spots that you will want to look at and use plants with big, coarse leaves to lead your eye there. Shrubs like viburnum and hydrangea will work great, as will perennials such as acanthus or try cannas and iris which will bloom in dappled shade. So you see the point is to play off the big leaves with small-leaved plants or ones with strappy leaves to mix it up.
Sketch in smaller shrubs and perennials to fill in the visual gaps. Maybe add silvery color to your shade garden with the variegated leaves of hosta and the grey tones of wormwood and dusty miller. These colors will also help to capture light and make the darker spots glow. Make a place for some interesting garden art, too — placing color and/or curiosity where you’ll see it.
Use the seasonal shade under deciduous trees for summer bloomers like Belladonna Lily.
Angelface Blue Angelonia enjoys partial shade and it’s nice to use as a cut flower.
Layer in some flowering clumps of shade color plants such as summer bulbs, angelonia, lobelia, impatiens or begonias for a color pop here and there.
Rockapulco Purple Impatiens have rose-like blooms — impatiens are a mainstay for adding annual color to shade gardens.
Moss gardens are also making a huge comeback.
Lastly, finish off your design with great shade-loving groundcovers like vinca, variegated wintercreeper, liriope and different mondo grasses. Try some moss in those areas that don’t seem to grow anything.
Pretty soon you’ll be kicking your feet up and sipping a refreshing ice tea in your new shade garden!
Find more expert home and garden advice from P. Allen Smith on his blog.