Shade Gardening — What To Plant In Shady Backyard

Last Updated on June 15, 2023 by Grow with Bovees

Those with new gardens to lay out seldom have shady places and do not have the older gardener’s problem of what to plant in the shade.

The need for the knowledge of which plants will thrive in the shade, however, grows with your trees, and deciding which tree to plant where will be a major factor as to how much shade there will ultimately be.

It is as well to realize what will happen when these trees are grown and to have an idea of what to plant there in the future.

It adds considerably to the interest of the garden if you have a long list of plants to choose from when considering what to plant in a shady spot.

This article will show you lists of plants which will grow in the shade, but it is first necessary to describe the type of shade found in a garden and also the requirements that the plants will need to thrive.

How to Tell Which Plants are Shade-Lovers

Sunlight is the chief requirement of plants, which use it to build up energy and grow vigorously.

Most plants need sunlight for at least half the day, particularly before midday, when they are building up a new supply of sugar for the day.

It is not known scientifically why some plants can thrive with less sunlight than others. Many shade-lovers, like Impatiens, have comparatively broad thin leaves which are spread out to catch the light, while others have tough thick leaves, like Rhododendron.

On the whole, they have broad leaves, but if you think of the numerous sun-loving plants with big leaves like Poinsettia, then you realize that there are no hard and fast rules to follow in recognizing those plants which will thrive in the shade.

You simply need to depend on the experience of gardeners who have actually grown certain plants in shady places for generations.

A study of where plants come from in the wild and how they grow will immediately indicate whether they are shade-lovers or not. If they grow in nature in the woods or under rocks, then it can be presumed that they will enjoy shade in the garden.

Sometimes, however, they need different treatment on being grown in a country with a different climate.

Plants which grow happily in the open sun in countries which have soft sunshine and very few cloudless days will require a certain amount of shade when grown in warmer and drier countries.

For example, tulips grow in the open in Holland, while they need a certain amount of shade in the hotter parts of the world if they are to do well.

Tulips are now especially treated to resist heat.

The necessity for shade and moisture are often irrevocably bound together, for shade prevents those plants which need plenty of moisture from losing it too rapidly from their leaves.

Plants which grow out in the open sun on the seacoast where there is humidity, will often require to be grown in the shade in hot dry places inland.

Azaleas, and Hydrangeas will bloom, and will grow in the open sun at the coast in many places, but need shade in dry inland districts, or they will flag within a few hours on a hot day. In fact, it is advisable to spray their foliage with water on hot and windy days, for the wind removes moisture rapidly from leaf surfaces.

Types of Shade

When we talk of shade in the garden, we do not mean black shade where very few plants of any consequence will grow.

There are some notable exceptions to this rule, such as the spectacular flowered Clivia which is very tough and easy to grow. But this plant, too, will do better if it receives reflected light around it.

Areas which receive no direct sunshine at all, but where there is light available, are described as having full shade.

Plants like ferns and many others from woodlands, thrive in such areas with full shade.
Semi-shade is the term used to describe places which receive direct sunlight for about two or three hours during the day.

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Plants on the south side of a house will receive sun for a short period in the morning and be shaded for the remainder of the day, so that they are growing in semi-shade.

Plants on a west wall will also receive some afternoon sunlight, but this will not be as beneficial, for it falls when the plant has already built up its daily supply of energy.

Semi-shade also describes the area under trees like Melia azedarach, which filters the sunshine through its light foliage on to the soil below. The sun may also strike the ground under tall dense trees like Pines for several hours, so that the plants growing there may also be described as growing in semi-shade.

The lower branches of tall evergreen trees may be removed to allow more light to fall on the plants beneath them.

Most plants need sunlight in order to thrive and will become spindly in the shade.

There are some, such as Daisy fleabane, Nicotiana and Campanula, which will grow equally well in the sun or in subdued light and these are therefore valuable to the gardener as shade-tolerant plants.

Many of the plants listed below will grow perfectly well in the open sun, particularly if they are well watered, but it is found they can adapt themselves to grow in the shade and are therefore classed as shade-lovers.

They should receive as much light and air as possible around them, even if they receive no direct sunlight. Some of these plants do better if they receive some sunshine and these have been classed as those requiring semi-shade.

It is an interesting fact that plants with gold and green variegated leaves generally lose their golden mottling in shady places.

This is attributed to the fact that plants produce more chlorophyll or green matter in the shade in the effort to grow well.

Chlorophyll converts sunlight into sugar and energy for the plant, and, the more chlorophyll the plant can produce, the more it can trap the meager light it receives under trees and in other shady places.

Oddly enough, there are certain variegated shrubs like the Snow-bush (Breyia nivosa) which must be grown in the shade and are popular as indoor pot-plants where they do not lose their white-tipped coloring. Thus, you need to know your plants before subjecting them to strict rules and regulations.

Cultivation of Shade-Loving Plants

Plants which grow in the shade generally grow under trees, so that they have not only to struggle for light, but have to compete with the tree roots for moisture and soil nutriments.

It follows, therefore, that the gardener must take care to provide a good soil and plenty of moisture if he wants to grow his plants successfully.

When first preparing a shady spot, you must cultivate or till the soil to a depth of anything from 10 inches (25.4 cm) down to 24 inches (0.61 m), depending on the size of the plants to be used.

Remove some soil if it is poor and then add as many barrow-loads of humus as you can. Well-rotted leaf-mold or compost made with manure is ideal.

Fertilizers or manure on their own will not improve the quality of the soil and it is important that the ground should be softened so that the small plant roots can penetrate it easily.

The fibrous loam will also be able to absorb moisture better and retain it longer. An examination of the soil in natural woodland, where shade-loving plants are found, will indicate how rich and loamy it is, as a result of the decay of continuously falling leaves.

Woodland plants, therefore, need exceptionally good soil if they are to do as well in the garden as they do in the wild.

Annual dressings of compost laid on the surface of the soil or lightly forked in, will continue to keep the soil in good condition.

Once your plants are in position they must be watered regularly and deeply.

It is best to place a garden sprayer on the bed and let it soak down into the surface for a period of at least half an hour or more.

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This will provide adequate moisture for the trees as well as for the shade-loving plants.

As a rule it is best to water again as soon as the soil begins to dry out near the surface, but you should not allow the area to dry out completely.

As shade helps to conserve moisture, it should not be necessary to water more than twice a week, unless the weather is very hot and dry.

Some plants are more drought-resistant than others, apply a good layer of mulch to flower beds, this will help retain moisture in the soil.

Succulents, perennials or bulbs with large fleshy roots like Haemanthus or Agapanthus can do without water much more readily than fibrous rooted plants like Azaleas or delicate annuals like Primulas.

Small plants must be watered more frequently than deep-rooting shrubs, but certain shrubs like Hydrangeas need constant moisture during summer in order to do really well.

Your own knowledge of your plants will indicate how often to water, but as a rule, none should be allowed to dry out completely in the shade or the tree roots will rob the smaller plants of all the available moisture.

Try to group the types of plants which require plenty of moisture near one another and place those which are better able to resist drought in the further corners of the garden, where, if they are sometimes overlooked, they will not suffer unduly.

If the soil is reasonably good, under plant trees with groundcovers like Wild Strawberry, Japanese Spurge or evergreen grasses like Kentucky Blue-grass.

These will have to be watered regularly throughout the year and fertilized occasionally.

If the soil is dry, poor or shallow, however, grow shade-tolerant succulents instead.

Group the easy-to-grow plants in dense shade near the trunk of the tree and those which require more sunlight and, possibly, better soil, on the outskirts of the tree’s shade.

Trees and Types of Undergrowth

Certain trees are better than others from the point of view of under planting.

On the whole, deep-rooting trees like Pines and Gums are better than surface-rooting trees like Oaks or Elms.

The falling leaves and needles of evergreens can smother small plants, but should not be a problem if large shrubs or vigorous perennials are used.

You should choose plants with strong-rooting systems to place beneath or alongside trees like Virgilia, which has masses of spreading fibrous roots near the surface of the soil.

Do not be afraid of planting under this type of tree, as it actually benefits the tree to have the plants growing around it.

Fibrous-rooted trees are generally lovers of moisture, and they enjoy the extra moisture they receive when the smaller plants are well watered.

It is, therefore, of mutual benefit to trees and the plants around them to keep them well watered.

There are many trees which have root systems that do not interfere very much with the surface soil, particularly if the soil is good and deep. Melia azedarach is a particularly suitable tree to under plant, as it has light shade in summer and its roots do not lie at the surface of the soil.

Small trees like the Weeping Bottlebrush (Callistemon viminalis), the Brush-Cherry (Eugenia myrtifolia) or Spring Tamarisk (Tamarix gallica) will provide light shade during part of the day and are quite useful for those plants requiring semi-shade.

One can avoid the roots of trees by sinking barrels or drums containing good soil into the ground where it is feared that tree root competition will eventually weaken the plants.

Such containers eventually rot and one is then in the same position as before. One successful gardener I know prevents this by fairly unorthodox means, contriving to grow precious Rhododendrons beneath rampant Gum trees.

He makes a “container” of concrete by scooping out a large deep hole, at least 4 feet (1.22 m) across and lining it with a 3-inch wall of rough concrete and stone, and leave some holes in the bottom for drainage.

This is filled with good soil mixed with peat and compost and the plants thrive happily in it.

Such a concrete trough without drainage, can be made to create wet conditions for plants like Japanese Iris, but you must be careful not to over water during the dormant period.

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There should be no need to sink containers into the soil, however, if you have dug it well and are prepared to water and feed regularly.

Most important of all, you should choose the correct plants to withstand the competition with tree roots.

What To Do With the Area Under a Shade Tree.

There are various ways in which you can make use of the shade from trees without necessarily competing with their roots.

This can be done by raising the surface of the soil by as little as 1 foot. You can use rock or gravel as inorganic mulch for this job.

You should not bury the tree trunk in soil, or rot may set in and eventually result in the death of the tree.

Build A Small Rock Garden For Shade Plants

One way to avoid tree roots is to plant the tree at the foot of a rock garden, so that its spreading branches can shade the rockery while the roots spread freely on a lower soil surface.

This surface can be covered with strong plants like Ivy or Periwinkle or even Agapanthus, while the delicate plants needing rich, light soil, like Heuchera or Japanese anemones, can be grown in the rock garden pockets above.

Build A Shade Garden Sitting Area

If you have an established large shade tree on a flat surface in the garden where you cannot construct a rockery, there are still options.

If you just make a large bed around the tree, filling it with strong plants, then you are deprived of a shady place to sit in the garden. An alternative is to construct a small raised portion curving around half the tree and to make a paved area on the other half.

The paved area should be north or south of the tree, depending on whether one wants winter sunshine to fall on the covered side or not.
Begin by arranging a tiny wall of stones half-way around the tree-trunk and about 12 inches (30.48 cm) away from the bark. Then build outwards as far as you feel suitable. If there are tree roots, this is a great method of landscaping them.

The outside edge of this raised bed may be a formal wall of brick or thick strips of landscape rock laid horizontally, or it may have the informal finish of rocks as in a rockery.

The height of this raised bed can be anything from 6 to 18 inches. Low beds can be used for small bushy plants like Begonia semperflorens or Polyanthus Primroses, while higher beds can be used for taller drooping plants like Fuchsias or Abutilon megapotamicum, which will overhang the wall.

Then build a seat into part of the wall.
If you wish to surround the tree completely by a raised bed, then you should continue the internal wall right around the tree, but leave at least a foot of space all around the bark to form a small well.

In this way, it is possible to make use of an established tree right in the center of a new rockery which is being constructed from a higher to a lower level and which encompasses the tree.

The tree will continue to grow and breathe freely without rotting.

Remember to water the tree through this “well” occasionally, as well as soak the rockery.
If you feel that you want to pave the area entirely around a tree, leave a few feet open near the base of the tree and plant it with an evergreen ground cover. Sink a few wide vertical pipes into the soil for extra feeding and watering of the tree.

Choosing Plants for Shady Places

These plants are grouped here together with other plants, according to the type of soil they need and their ability to compete with tree roots. The plants are further divided into three sections, according to their ease of culture and maintenance.

Shade-Tolerant Plants Which Grow Easily Under Trees

These may be planted under trees which have spreading fibrous roots near the surface, such as Elm or Virgilia.

Water them regularly. Some will tolerate dryness more than others.