Shade Gardens

Worried the shaded corners of your garden aren't getting the attention they deserve? Create a stunning shade garden.

Credit: iStock

hosta, lady’s mantle and heuchera

Create a shade garden filled with subtle beauty

Fill those dark corners of your garden with a rich palette of green, purple and gold foliage I am waiting for the day when the trees in my yard get big enough that it all becomes a shade garden. Not the area where the raised beds for vegetables are, of course, but that better part of an acre that is trees and shrubs and perennials, fenced off to keep the dogs in and moose out.

The lower maintenance this will offer is a good thing, but I’m also finding that shade gardens provide a wealth of subtle beauty that can’t be found in the intense light of the sunny garden, where every plant is competing for bigger brighter flowers to attract the pollinators and gardener.

Made in the shade

Shade gardens can also be easier to design as they are primarily about the colour and texture of the foliage, which don’t change all that much through the growing seasons. In sun gardens the flowers are generally the focus and they’re not always in bloom when you are purchasing the plants, let alone designing gardens. In shade gardens you don’t have to worry about clashing bright colours or fading pastels, or fret about the uncertain succession of bloom in unpredictable weather.

Whatever the degree of shade, it is all about the rich and varied palette of greens and purples and golds, shot through with highlights of subtle pinks and reds and blues that blend rather than scream for attention. A walk in any undisturbed wild area can give you some idea of how natural landscapes develop in layers, according to the available light.

Shade gardens don’t need to be boring

Under the heavy shade created by a canopy of mature trees, low-growing plants prevail, as there is no point in even trying to compete with the giants overhead. This simplicity is far from boring – in a square metre out behind my shop I can count more than 20 different species without even trying.

There is a wealth of colour and texture from first snow melt until it is once again buried by the snows of winter – and it is all perfectly maintenance-free (unless you want to count the pruning provided by my neighbourhood deer, who nibble but do not destroy any of this delicate beauty). The trees overhead are a mix of mature aspen (Populus tremuloides) and birch (Betula papyrifera), which provide summer shade and an annual layer of soil-enriching leaf litter.

The planted shade garden next to this natural area, with the same tree cover, holds my treasured rhododendron collection, assorted seed-grown primroses (Primula) and shooting stars (Dodecatheon), a mix of ferns, and a few of the native groundcovers, including the bunchberry, twinberry and wild sarsaparilla.

This is largely a spring garden, with the primroses and then rhodos blooming, and it’s a great place to hide out when the chores in the rest of the yard get too overwhelming. It would be a logical place for a small gazebo one of these days. Maintenance consists of weeding out the dandelions a couple of times a year, beating back the wild roses around the edges, and (for the sake of the rhodos) remembering to turn on the sprinkler every week or two throughout the summer.

Stormy Seas, Heuchera
Huecheta ‘Stormy Seas’. (Photo: iStock)

My other shade area, a bit more exposed with some morning light, fills in an area at the bottom of a bank near the shop. It is a newly planted tapestry of astilbes (Astilbe) with green, reddish-green or bronze foliage, coral bells (Heuchera) showing off a multitude of purple, red, silver and nearly black mottled, marbled and streaked leaves, variegated Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium) in fountains of cream and bright-green leaves, a dozen different hostas large and small, variegated white, cream and chartreuse against blue and green, and a scattering of ferns for additional texture.

An assortment of seed-grown primroses give shots of bright colour in the spring, growing under and around a collection of hydrangeas, azaleas and mixed dogwood shrubs (Cornus stolonifera and C. alba cultivars). Newly planted over the past two summers, this area will need some weeding for a year or two more until the plants grow in and cover the granular aged wood-chip mulch. (This is found at old sawmill sites throughout the north. It is not the fresh raw flakey chips that are sold for livestock bedding.)

Bone meal was added at the time of planting, but no chemical fertilizer was or will be used. By letting the plants grow at their natural rate (without added nitrogen), their leaves are less appealing to deer and slugs.

Less work for me in fertilizing these beds results in less work in pest control – and that’s a win/win situation! Less labour, more time to appreciate the garden, and more time to contemplate the lessons offered by nature.