Daniel Gill, Merrill, Thomas A.
Gardeners often gripe about how difficult it is to grow plants in shady areas of their landscapes – although trouble occurs mostly when sun-loving plants are planted in the shade.
Gardening in the shade can and should be just as enjoyable and successful as gardening in the sun. When the proper plants are selected for shady areas, the results can be beautiful and enduring.
Shady areas often are created by trees as they grow larger over the years. So at some point, the original landscape will have to be modified to deal with the reduced-light conditions. For inspiration, take a drive around older neighborhoods with mature trees. You’ll see how beautifully areas under and around large trees can be landscaped using a variety of ground covers, annuals, perennials, shrubs and even small trees.
The most important thing to remember when creating a landscaped area under a tree is to respect the root system of the tree itself. Avoid severing any tree roots that are two fingers in diameter or larger. Use a gardening fork to loosen the soil under the tree rather than a shovel or spade, since the fork will damage fewer roots. Then work in a few inches of organic matter – such as compost and/or finely ground pine bark.
If you need to bring in extra soil to create the bed, select a high-quality topsoil or garden soil, and use no more than 2 inches to 4 inches. Do not pile several inches of soil up around the base of the tree trunk, since this can lead to decay. That means you’ll need to pull the soil back slightly around the tree trunk when you’re adding it. In addition, if you intend to fill over an area that will cover a large part of the tree’s root system (which extends out well beyond the reach of the branches), do not apply more than 2 inches of soil.
Once the area is prepared, you could simply plant it with a ground cover, such as monkey grass (Ophiopogon japonicus) or Asian jasmine (Trachelospermum asiaticum). Both of these ground covers are reliable, easy to grow and relatively fast spreading.
Monkey grass, although not a true grass, looks a lot like a grass and will tolerate light traffic.
Asian jasmine requires more maintenance, since it is a running vine that must be edged and cut back periodically to keep it looking neat. It grows equally well in sun or shade – making it ideal for planting areas that include sun as well as shade.
Another point to remember is that ground covers will hide exposed tree roots, which often make it difficult to mow under some trees.
Other ground covers suitable for larger areas include ferns, Japanese ardisia (Ardisia japonica) and creeping liriope (Liriope spicata). Ground covers provide variation in plant height, texture and color in the landscape.
You don’t just have to stick with ground covers, however. Indeed, gardening in a shady area provides chances to grow a wide variety of beautiful plants. Gardens in shady areas also are often easier to maintain, since there generally are fewer weed problems and they are more pleasant to work in during summer heat.
For colorful bedding plants, try impatiens, coleus, wax begonia, browallia, pentas, salvias, caladium and torenia in summer.
Shade-tolerant perennials include ferns, hostas, ground orchid (Bletilla striata), strawberry begonia (Saxifraga stolonifera), indigo (Indigofera kirilowii), ligularia, aspidistra, ajuga, acorus, acanthus, wild ginger (Asarum), cardinal flower (Lobelia), toad lily (Tricyrtis), Indian pink (Spigelia), violets and the many tropical gingers to name a few.
Shrubs to consider include hollies, azaleas, nandinas, cleyera, ligustrum, aucuba, fatsia, mahonia, pittosporum, hydrangea, red buckeye, sasanqua, camellia and many others.
There are even small trees that like partial shade, such as parsley hawthorn, silver bell, dogwood, Japanese maple, red bud, fringe tree, Japanese yew, cherry laurel and yaupon.
Many hardy ferns can be planted into the shady areas of your landscape. The different species range in size from under a foot to as much as 3 feet.
The leaves of ferns are called fronds and provide the primary ornamental feature of the plants. The fronds generally are finely divided and delicate in appearance, so they contrast beautifully with coarser textured shade plants such as hostas, aspidistra, fatsia, gingers and aucuba.
Some excellent ferns for use in the landscape include Southern maidenhair fern (Adiantum capillus-vernus), holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum), leatherleaf fern (Rumohra adiantiformis), Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), wood fern (Thelypteris kunthii), royal fern (Osmunda regalis), autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora), lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) and Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’).
If you have a shady area, consider turning it into a beautiful garden with shade-loving plants.