Made in the shade

Published 6:00 am Sunday, October 4, 2015


Often when people think of creating a garden, they think of a bright and sunny spot where they can grow blooming plants that will give them pleasure for months. However, it’s also possible to have a varied and enchanting garden in the shade. While it’s true that shade gardening does present its own unique challenges, it also rewards the attentive gardener with unique blooms and foliage.

Technically, a shade garden is defined as one that receives less than six hours a day of direct sunlight. When you think about it, that’s probably most of your garden if you live in an area that’s been fully developed for a while or none of your garden if you live in a newer subdivision. But gardening is all about growth and change, so if you don’t currently have a shade garden, you can grow one. Shade can be created from installing plantings such as large shrubs or evergreen and deciduous trees. Shade can come from the side of the house or out buildings or from constructed additions such as pergolas or lattices to support growth, depending on their orientation.

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“Shade changes the environment by affecting the temperature, the amount and quality of light, and the soil moisture,” observes Gerald Klingamen, Ph.D, a noted horticulturalist. Gardening under trees, which are most often the major creators of shade in the garden, requires that the gardener be very conscious about the light and water needs of the selected plants. Trees absorb the hot portion of the light spectrum, so the plants in the shade garden experience — as we have all enjoyed on a hot summer day — the cooler part of the light. Trees also absorb water, especially shallow rooted trees such as maples.

And, there are different kinds of shade. Deep, dry shade is the most challenging with the least potential for successful gardening. The ideal shade garden for our area gets a few hours of morning sun and is in the shade for the rest of the day. This is the kind of shade that the plant tags usually indicate as “part shade.” Many plants that grow in full sun in cooler climate prefer partial shade in our hot Mississippi summers. Partial shade with moderate water opens up a variety of opportunities for the gardener.

Lucky lawn

I was fortunate with my property in that there was a corner of the backyard that offered the perfect situation for a shade garden. Some tall nut trees, a few understory dogwoods, and an outbuilding provided relief from the blistering sun for hostas, ferns, azaleas—and me. Since this is an area of dappled shade with adequate water from the sprinklers, I’ve been able to add a variety of shade plants for season-spanning interest and color. The early bloomers like delphinium, astilbe and bleeding heart bloom there and pass much of the year showing off their interesting foliage. The foliage of variagated Solomon’s Seal and acuba offers nice contrast throughout the growing season. Hellebores (Lenten roses) provide blooms in late winter and pretty greenery the rest of the year. A variety of ferns including Korean painted fern, shield fern, Maiden Hair, and some others I call Taylor ferns offer texture and interest for a great part of the year. One of the stars of my shade garden is the bottle brush buckeye that blooms in early summer with striking white flowers providing a bright focal point in the shaded area. Begonias, lambs ear, creeping jenny and azaleas also add their special touches.

And, of course, there are hostas. What’s any shade garden without hosta? I have a number of different varieties ranging from blues like “Elvis Lives,” multi-toned ones like “Stained Glass,” some miniature ones in varying shades of green planted in a leaky bird bath and several variegated ones that provide contrast all season.

If you’re interested in learning more about shade gardening, the Oxford-Lafayette County Library offers a wonderful collection of books on shade gardening that provide very specific details and comprehensive lists of plants that do well in the shade along with their light and moisture needs. These books can help you design just the spot you and your plants need for some relief from the hot Mississippi summer sun. Start by planting trees. We can always use more trees. And remember; shade gardening is no more difficult than full sun gardening; it’s just more comfortable.

The Lafayette County Master Gardeners is a service organization that provides assistance to the Lafayette County Extension Service. To arrange for a free consultation with a Master Gardener about your gardening challenges, call the Lafayette County Extension office at 662-234-4451 or visit