An important concept in good gardening is ‘right plant, right place.’ This is vital when it comes to choosing plants for shade. Plants get their energy from sunlight, and some need more than others. If a plant doesn’t get enough energy it won’t grow well and will be more susceptible to diseases and pests. Plant your sun-lover in the shade and it’ll be miserable and never really flourish. Much better is to learn to love your shade, and find plants which will thrive and be happy in your garden. And there are plenty of shade-loving plants – they are often more subtle, but just as beautiful.
It’s certainly worth understanding the shade patterns in your garden. (We cover this as part of the hands-on gardening course). But it’s also useful to understand that shade cast by trees isn’t the same as shade cast by fences, walls or houses. There’s a useful article here which explains it well.
Often plants are described as preferring semi-shade, or half-shade. This means that they will be happy in a position which gets sun in the morning, or the afternoon (ie several hours of shade per day). If a plant is described as being able to grow in full shade, they still need some indirect light.
Because plants growing in shade may struggle to get sufficient energy from the sunlight, make sure all the other conditions are optimal. Ie, Make sure your plant’s got good soil, has enough moisture (but isn’t waterlogged) and plenty of fertilizer and compost.
Designing for shade:
When you’re designing for shade, I think it’s helpful think about forests. Forests consist of vertical layers of plants: a canopy of trees; an under-story of shrubs or herbaceous perennials and a ground-cover of smaller plants. There might also be climbers scrambling through the trees and shrubs. (You can even choose from edible plants, such as fruit bushes – this is the basis of ‘forest gardening’.)
Choosing shade-loving plants from these different groups helps you to think about different levels, height and contrast, and gives you lots of plants to choose from.
How to choose plants for shade:
In general, the more growing, flowering or fruiting a plant needs to do, the more energy (ie sunlight) it needs. So choose plants with beautiful foliage (rather than showy flowers) and shrubs rather than herbaceous perennials. (These have to regrow each year, so generally need a sunny spot, but there are a few which will do well in shade). Most of the brightly flowered annuals and bedding plants won’t do well in shade, so cross these off your list.
An exception to this rule is spring flowering plants and bulbs. These plants have evolved to grow under deciduous trees, and cleverly get all their flowering done by the time the trees come into leaf in spring. Some of these make lovely ground cover plants: one of my favourites is the cyclamen.
When it comes to spring bulbs, there are plenty to choose from – camassias are less well known but a great choice for a shady garden – see my post about them here.
It’s helpful to look at where a plant grows naturally in the wild. For example many garden shrubs, such as pittisporums, viburnums or hydrangeas, come from forest environments. Unfortunately for us in Seaford, many of the most beautiful shade plants such as Rhododendron and Pieris won’t tolerate our clay or chalk soil.
Generally speaking, the greener the leaf, the more efficient the plant is at photosynthesis (ie producing energy). So plants with leaves which are yellow, red or variegated might do less well in shade than a plant with deep, green leaves. Likewise, bigger leaves mean more efficient photosynthesis.
However – these are all general rules – it’s best to research your plant ideas before you buy.
Finally, a warning! Shady spots are often good homes for slugs and snails, so I’d suggest avoiding plants which are particularly susceptible, such as hostas.
Useful books and resources:
RHS How to Garden, Pages 76 – 79
Alan Titchmarsh – Gardening in the Shade
Plants for shade – a nursery specialising in shade-loving plants. Useful for browsing.
Information from the RHS: annuals, bulbs and perennials for shade, shrubs for shade, climbers and wall shrubs for shade.