What are Shade Gardens?
A shade garden is a garden that has minimal or no sunlight. As we all know, plants need direct sun in order to grow and flourish, so managing shade gardens can be extremely difficult at times.
But don’t despair! There are plenty of plants that can be grown in shade, so we need to understand how best to utilize our space. This article covers benefits, maintenance, plant choices, and useful tips to get the most out of a shady garden.
Why Design a Shade Garden?
Ideal relaxation on a hot day: Shade is perfect to be able sit in and seek solace from the hot afternoon sun on a boiling summers day. Stay cool and relaxed, even during mid summer.
They use less water: Shade plants do not usually need as much water to grow as their sun loving counterparts. So, shade gardens tend to be better at conserving water.
Wildlife: Shade is attractive for many wildlife species who also seek respite from the sun. Designing areas with plenty of shade gives you the chance to create new habitats. Great for bird lovers.
Something different: Everyone knows sun loving plants, so a shady outdoor space gives us the chance show off some extra plant varieties that garden lovers might not be used to seeing.
Types of Shade
Not all shade is the same and it helps to know the different types of shade that people refer to. Here’s a quick overview on the different kinds of shade you’ll see in your gardens.
Light shade is an area that receives sunlight but not directly. Sunlight is screened via objects, or trees above, but the area is still fully exposed to light.
Partial shade is an area that gets direct sunlight for some time during the day. This is generally next to buildings or certain trees, depending on the direction of the sun.
Full shade is when no sunlight hits an area at all, during any time of the day. This is usually due to dense canopies or man made structures.
Spots of light filtered or reflected through things a tree canopy. Dappled shade is indirect sunlight that moves throughout the day.
Shade Garden Design Elements
Water Feature: The sound of water is perfect for relaxation, and water features are ideal for shade gardens in particular because water will reflect light and brighten things up a bit. A great option for any garden design.
Hardscaping: Section off and define certain areas using walls, or make it easier to access sections of your garden design by adding in pathways. Other hardscape elements like decking or patios can also add some interest to otherwise dull areas.
Seating: Relax in comfort. Seating areas can be functional, look great and there are plenty of options for any garden style you’re trying to recreate.
Lighting: Must have for enjoying your gardens well into the evening. Well selected lighting can be incredibly effective and atmospheric.
Containers: Containers are a must depending on your plant choices. Growing in containers gives you the flexibility to move certain plants around according to the season.
Structures: If you want to create shady areas then adding in enclosures, like an arbor or pergola, can be great choices. Garden structures look attractive, are a great focal point, and can be used to add a vertical dimension.
Shade Garden Plants
Choose plants that provide color and texture to your designs, but be mindful that are suitable for the type of shade available. Once you find plants that complement each other, don’t be afraid of repetition in your planting.
Here are some of our favorite shade tolerant options.
There are many shade loving annuals that thrive in shade or partial shade. Some good options for shade tolerant plants include:
Always a popular option for shady gardens. Begonia come in many different types, colors and shapes. These work well with other shade loving plants or as solo options.
Great bedding plants that come in a range of colors. Try New Guinea impatiens; they are more disease resistant and thrive with some shade.
Tropical annuals with heart shaped leaves that add a dash of colorful foliage to any shady areas. The foliage color is a hugely popular choice for areas with part shade.
A favorite for everyone, including the birds and the bees. Bright colored flowering plants with attractive foliage that can be grown in hanging baskets.
Beautiful variegated leaves coming with varying shapes and markings depending on type. Plenty of coleus varieties appreciate the shade. These colorful leaves will brighten up any garden space.
Trailing flowers that look great in containers or a hanging basket. Another plant that appreciates having a partial shaded area to live in.
Another that need the shade to avoid the summer heat. Fast growing smaller flowers that are even edible. These like a cooler climate and can do well with partial sunlight.
Popular due to its large leaves and ability to grow in deep shade. Comes in a variety of shapes and sizes.
Very attractive colorful flowers that need moist soil and some sun. Suitable for partial shaded areas. Full sun can burn or scorch their leaves.
Also called Lungworts, these produce little pockets of vibrant flowers. They can grow in full shade and prefer well drained moist soil, so these flowering plants are great for containers.
Shade tolerant plants with good looking foliage. Tiarella, or foam flowers, produce groups of white or pink flowers and are suited to milder climates.
Heucheras, also know as Coral Bells, are foliage plants that come in a variety of colors and forms. They are tolerant to low light and an ideal option for a shade garden.
Known as Solomons Seal, Polygonatum is another perennial that loves the shade and spreads well in lower light conditions. They’re tall plants that produce tube shaped white flowers.
Shade Garden Tips
Trees and Shrubs for Shade
If you want a shady spot, then make one! Strategically plant large trees to give you garden some shady spots for escaping the summer heat.
Another one of our shade garden design ideas is to plant deciduous trees. These provide a shady area at the time it can be most appreciated, from early spring until autumn. After the leaves fall, the area gets light again!
Keep in mind, if you have large trees and want a reduction in shade then you can prune trees to achieve this.
You Don’t Need a Lush Looking Lawn
Grass can often struggle to grow without some direct sunlight. If you have a lawn that you’re having difficulty maintaining, then consider replacing it entirely with some of our shade friendly plants listed above.
Another possible option for a shady garden is to use artificial turf. Then you don’t need to worry about patches of grass not growing in the dark space. Not ideal but it’s an option.
Using layering can be an excellent way to maximise space and improve the look of your garden design, when minimal light is available. Position taller plants to the back of your composition and shorter ones further forward. Adjust where each one sits depending on the amount of light needed.
It’s important to remember we can ultilize reflection when setting up spaces with limited light. Even without direct sun, having brighter colors or reflective surfaces will bounce the light around and can make your design feel less dark and dingy. Give your garden design more light!
There are plenty of options to reflect light:
Bright flowered plants
Light colored patios or walls
Water – A water feature or even a small pond
Maintaining your Shade Garden
Water your shade plants often, but be careful to not overwater. The soil moisture levels are going to stay higher than usual due to the lack of direct exposure to sun – make sure you’re conscious of that and check soil moisture beforehand. Plants will need plenty of water but won’t do well if the water is pooling and soil is not draining properly.
If you are in a cooler climate then rain water can be enough to take care of your shaded plants. Check requirements for your plant species.
Plants will generally grow slower with less sun and require less fertilizer, but nutrients are still an essential requirement for growth. We recommend going organic and using compost which will release the nutrients gradually – this should be enough for your plants to thrive and won’t risk over fertilizing.
If you have to use synthetic fertilizer then generally we suggest a more balanced formula like 10-10-10. Do not use too much and ensure it is slow releasing. Nutrient requirements will depend entirely on your chosen plants, so it’s worth putting some more time into making sure your chosen formula is ideal.
This is a general guide. Make sure to research appropriate levels for your plant species.
Finally, if you want to learn more about fertilizers, check out this explainer from RHS.
Being in the shade and having moist soil will attract pests. Usually that will mean slugs and snails because they love areas of moist shade. To prevent visits from these little friends you can use chemicals, which are said to be safe around pets and wildlife when commercially sold (due to strict regulations). Make sure to check the labels and only use the minimum amount required.
If you are concerned about the impact of using these chemicals, try adding a bird bath to your shade garden design instead. Adding in a bird bath will attract birds, and the birds will eat the slugs – problem solved!
Slugs and snails are also attracted to yeast, so you can try and bait them away from your plants using beer traps. Be careful when considering this though, you may attract more slugs into your garden then would otherwise be pestering you.
In general, always try and keep your garden as clean as possible because pests love the safety of a debris filled dark corner to hide from predators. Make your garden as unappealing to them as possible by keeping things tidy.
Here is an in-depth look at garden pesticides from RHS