Something Shady About Shade Gardens

Spring has finally arrived gracing us with warmer weather and lots more sunshine. Plants and trees are getting leaf buds and starting to flower. As spring approached many of us started planning our new flower or garden beds. This year’s new garden beds will be shade and woodland gardens. Two questions asked of me by some friends were, what type of plants grow in shade and what is considered shade? To answer those questions one needs to know the light requirements of the plant and the amount of light or sunshine the garden gets. Seems simple-right? Well it’s not that easy because some plants have crossovers in light requirements which are sometimes confusing. Light requirements for plants and light amounts in gardening fall into 7 categories which I’ll address shortly. It is necessary to know light measurements for gardening are usually based on sunshine between the mid-morning (10 am.) to evening (6 pm.) hours. I have simplified the categories a bit and have given an example or two of plants in the said category with the intention of reducing any confusion.

Full sun- A full sun garden means the area gets 8 hours or more of sunshine. This includes the hot midday sun and heat. Lupines, tickseed, crocosmia and coneflowers like these conditions.

Part sun- The part sun garden means direct sunlight for 4-6 hours usually referring to morning sun or afternoon sun. The plants in this group need at least the four hours minimum sun requirement but prefer more. These plants will tolerate the hot sun although they will need more watering care. Lilies and bellflowers fall into this category. Lavender will also work in this garden and it will tolerate the noon or hot sun.

Here’s where it gets a little shady with the shade categories.

Part shade- The part shade garden refers to 4-6 hours of shade not sunshine! This shade moves around the garden as the sun moves throughout the day. Buildings or tall trees block the sun for long periods of time creating this shade. Lady slippers, impatiens, coral bells and bergenias are several plants that do well in these conditions. The part sun and part shade plants sometimes are interchanged but the light requirements are different so read the label carefully. They are not the same.

Light shade- Light shade refers to the garden having between 2-4 hours of complete shade within the mid morning hours and evening hours. It does not have to be in one area of the garden for that amount of time just throughout the bed for 2-4 hours. Phlox and daisies do well in the light shade garden.

Filtered shade- This garden is completely enveloped in shade for the day but sunlight can filter through the tree canopy. The more open the tree canopy is the more light filters to the garden. For example, a tree canopy made up of locust, willows and birch will allow a lot more light to filter through than a canopy of maple and oak trees. How is this possible? Locust and willows have a more open branching style. Their leaf coverage is not as dense as the maple and oak trees with their heavy branches of dense leaves. Filtered shade is sometimes called dabbled shade. What works well in this type of garden are Jack in the pulpits, arums, lily of the valley and ligularia.

Full shade- The full shade garden is one where no sunlight gets to the garden or plants. This is usually created by buildings, over hangs, tall trees with heavy canopies or multi tiered canopies. A multi tiered canopy would be one with thick deciduous trees such as maples and oaks with a lower story of tree canopies of dogwoods, pines and sassafras. These are referred to as understory trees. The light that does get to the garden or plants is reflected light or passive daylight. Virginia bluebells, Dutchman’s Breeches and hosta do well in this environment.

Dense shade- This is the last shade category to be discussed. This is where no light of any kind gets to plants. It is usually caused by decks, huge pine trees and trees with low heavy branches. Hosta will tolerate dense shade but mushrooms are usually the only plant (fungus) that grows well in darkness.

Shade gardens do not have to be dull and boring. Many gardens have the different shade categories incorporated into one garden while others are straight forward. Observe the planned garden site and the amount of sunlight it gets; making note of the different areas of light. Plant the right plants in those areas by reading the plant care labels. The shade garden can be just as interesting as a sunny garden of brightly colored flowers by adding some of the suggested plants. Hosta for instance has a wide range of coloring in blues, yellows, green and varigated leaves. Check into the various types of ferns which will lend softness and texture to the garden. Lastly add hardscaping with benches, birdbaths and garden art to make it a relaxing and tranquil place to sit back and enjoy a few moments of pleasure and peace.

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