"Do something shady in your garden," by the Whistling Gardener

Gardening in the shade can be a tricky business but once a gardener figures out their space it can be very rewarding.
Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville. Photo courtesy of Sunnyside Nursery.

This weekly column is being reproduced with the permission of Steve Smith, The Whistling Gardener, and owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville.

In light of all this heat we are having it just seems appropriate to talk about gardening in the shade since that is probably where most of us are hanging out these days.

Gardening in the shade can be a tricky business but once a gardener figures out their space it can be very rewarding.

Here are some factors to consider.

Shade comes in an assortment of flavors. Everyone has some sort of shade in the garden. Every house has an east side where there is morning sun and afternoon shade and a north facing side where there is total shade except for early morning and late evening this time of year.

There is partial shade or what we might call filtered shade under trees and there are areas that while shady have a good deal of reflected light from adjacent buildings.

The most difficult place to grow plants is under the eaves where winter rains cannot reach.

Finally, there is dry shade and moist shade. All of the above conditions will dictate what can and can’t grow in our gardens.

Shade gardening has a lot to do with trial and error. Because of all the above variables it is hard to say for sure what will thrive or struggle.

Plants that will grow well in dry shade like under a tall evergreen will still need a good deal of pampering the first season before they can be left on their own (actually the same is true for so called drought tolerant plants that we put in full sun).

Competition can be fierce underneath large trees. Their roots form a tight matrix everywhere and sometimes the only way to get something to grow is to put it in a large container.

Nevertheless, there are a good many perennials and a few shrubs and trees and lots of bulbs (but not tulips) that once established with do very well in shade.

If you are lucky enough to have a moist shady area then the options are almost endless. Ferns, astilbe, hosta, bleeding hearts, bugbane, hellebores and Heucheras are just a few of the choices that will add pop and sizzle to what is normally a mostly monochromatic landscape.

There are many golden-leaved plants that will lighten up a dark area including my all-time favorite “Gold Heart” bleeding heart. Golden grasses are also a real winner for the shade whether it is dry or damp.

Creating an attractive shade garden has more to do with using foliage and building textural contrasts than it does using flowers for visual excitement.

There are of course quite a few perennials and annuals that will liven up a shady area but for the most part the energy needs to be focused on foliage and there is no shortage of choices.

Hostas are the quintessential choice for boldness while ferns and grasses give us the fine textures.

For year ‘round effect both hemlocks and yews (both coniferous evergreens) are very reliable and in filtered shade cypress works well too (stay away from pines and junipers).

Most broadleaf evergreens like holly, boxwood and Nandina will grow in both sun or shade and you can’t lose with Camellias, Aucuba, Sarcococca or Skimmia.

Like in the sun, spending time and money on soil preparation pays huge dividends. Amend the soil with lots of compost and after planting be sure and lay down a 1-2 in layer of mulch (underneath which you have dusted the soil with a slow release organic fertilizer). Water well and enjoy the fruits of your labor.

For more info on growing in the shade and all the fabulous plant choices come to our class on Saturday the 11th of July at 10am here at the nursery.

Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and can be reached online at

Our gardening sponsor.


Our featured sponsor

Google ad