Demystifying The Shade Garden

By George Graine, Fairfax Master Gardener
Nature soon takes over if the garden is absent. -Penelope Hobhouse

Glorisu Shade book cover“Good grief” and “woe is me” are comic expressions for “What can I grow in the shade?” The Grainethumb has often been asked this question, and he has provided some basic solutions. Some folks have asked and given serious thought to taking down some big trees. Really — Is this to help install a shade garden or is it a way to lower the heat bill by going solar? Others consider the color green (underbrush and weeds) and brown (leaves starting to decay) a non-starter. Help is on the way because the solution for growing plants in the shade is available in a no fret — no threat book by Jenny Rose Carey. Furthermore, she seeks to alter many negative attitudes about gardening with shade. By keeping an open mind you should consider her newly published book called Glorious Shade: Dazzling Plants, Design Ideas, and Proven Techniques for Your Shady Garden (Timber Press, 2017). The advice provided in this book is not only practical but shows how to make the variations of shade gardening simple to understand and useful for any shade condition you might think about improving.

This book encompasses so much more than others about shade gardening. Often these other books tend to dazzle you with color photos of plants and only include a smidgen of horticultural care and maintenance instructions. Unfortunately some of these texts are not up-to-date and lack recent research findings. Additionally, they pay little heed to the overall aspects of gardening with shade and how it will enhance your plantings. (Read the title of Carey’s book again and you will begin to see the thrust of this article.) This is where Carey differs from other authors because she explains in non-horticultural jargon the nuances of shade and its permutations. By using clear language she shows how shade will enhance your garden. The author has presented us with a comprehensive and illustrated tour de force book about gardening with shade. It is interesting to note how designing a shade garden promotes intimacy given a preponderance of available plant diversity, your own landscape design and uncontrollable seasonal change by Mother Nature. What is not to like about a serene environment that is away from the many cares of a hectic life.

Shade should be embraced and celebrated because the two-color palette noted above (green and brown) will become a faded memory as Carey shows you the way forward. When you get right down to it, her book is about the practical (that word again) aspects of gardening in the shade and how to maintain this type of garden. Want proof? Starting with the second half of the book, it includes 200+ color photos in a chapter called “The Plant Palette.” Before delving into specific plant selections, read the introduction to this chapter as it provides a good understanding for the how and why of choosing plants. You will surely be inspired by these plants for a shade garden. Furthermore, you will see shade in a different light (pardon the pun) and as an ally and not as a foe as part of your landscape to be ignored. To help you choose plants, the author breaks down different plant types in alphabetical order for each type including trees and shrubs, vines, ferns, herbaceous perennials, tropicals and annuals. By using the index you can quickly find plants that are familiar to you; however, turning to the plant palette section you will discover many other plants that are viable in the Mid-Atlantic region. Included with each color photo is an indication of type of shade, soil type, plant hardiness zone, height and width that emphasizes the how-to of shade gardening.

This brings us now to the important first half of the book. Each chapter emphasizes how a shade garden “works” and how you can enhance your garden to make it personal. Here you will understand that shade is not a constant. It is continuously changing by season as, for example, in spring the tree leaves emerge and then shed their leaves in fall. You need to recognize these seasonal changes in your shade garden as well as the different types of shade. These sun-shade nuances are carefully explained by Carey as well as how they impact your plants. A calendar is a reasonable predictor (Farmer’s Almanac?) of what to expect weather-wise. Even better would be to keep a garden journal of past experience. Some gardeners do not heed the advice of having a “quality” soil test performed about every third year. This will determine the nutrient composition of your soil and provide recommendations to remediate a problem. We need to dig further (another pun) and recognize that the intertwined and underground world of soil and roots of a shady area is unlike what one would find in a sunny garden. Carey does a superb job of clearly explaining the intricacies that you will face while gardening in the shade. Not to be slighted and in order to have a successful shade garden, the chapter that explains techniques and maintenance is a must read. Yearly growing cycles provide an appreciation of nature as plants grow and transform. It is this type of change that is exciting and represents personal achievement. You can now see how the mystery of shade has come alive.

It is important to note that technicalities of shade are clearly spelled out in the book. It is more than the absence of light because shade is like a moving target. It does not stay the same during the day. You have probably noticed that shade is surely different in winter than when compared to other months of the year. You need to recognize these changes in order to enhance your ideal planting arrangements. In other words, understand your light conditions in order for plants to grow and flourish. None of the technicalities noted by Carey should cause you to refrain from gardening in the shade. Take the challenge! Understand what conditions of shade you have as this will help in your decision-making of what to plant where in addition to understanding what already exists on your property. You may decide to extract some plants and replace them with those of your own choice. Understanding the changes and nuances of the sun will make you a knowledgeable shade gardener. To understand shade is to apply the gardener’s mantra of right plant — right place. Are you now convinced to dig deeper with your soul and shovel to see if gardening in the shade is something that you should embrace?