Shade Gardening

By Kristen Castillo

March 6, 2015 5 min read

A shade garden can be the best of both worlds for gardeners. The area doesn't require much maintenance, and the yield can be pretty and hearty.

"Shade gardens are great because a lot of people don't have sun in their yards," says expert gardener, Celeste Longacre, author of "Celeste's Garden Delights."

Still the idea of a shade garden can be a bit overwhelming for those who feel their options for color, variety and interest are sparse.

"Initially, it's incredibly daunting because you come to the false assumption that nothing grows in shade," says Kerry Ann Mendez, award-winning speaker, garden designer, owner of landscaping company Perennially Yours, and author of "The Right Size Flower Garden: Simplify Your Outdoor Space With Smart Design Solutions and Plant Choices."

Mendez, who celebrates shade gardens for their "ease and beauty," urges fellow gardeners to stop focusing on short-blooming flowers, and instead recognize the beauty in leaves, which are around much longer.

"Foliage plays a much more important role in a shade garden than in a full sun garden," she says, noting colorful leaves can be as "eye-popping as flowers."

*Super Soil

Shade-loving plants need the right type of soil to help them grow and thrive.

While soil type and soil pH requirements can vary, typically shade plants do well in "nutrient rich, well-draining soils full of organic matter, with a soil pH range between 5.5-7," says Aaron von Frank, organic gardener and co-founder Grow Journey, a seeds of the month club in the U.S. and Canada.

He recommends building your own soil using wood chips or mulch, especially those with green leaves chopped in, which has the best carbon-nitrogen ratio for decomposition.

"It might require a bit of patience, but simply pile on 6 to 8 inches of mulch in the areas you intend to garden in and let it sit for six to eight months," says von Frank, explaining the process quickly mimics how soil naturally forms over time but it takes a while. "Soil microorganisms will break down the mulch, turning it into rich, balanced soil teeming with beneficial microbes that will help your plants grow. "

Light fluffy soil is the goal for shade-loving plants. Longacre suggests using humus, an organic material made of decayed plant and animal matter, as well as organic alfalfa meal and kelp meal.

Use a broad fork or a pitchfork to put down these materials. "Again, think fluffy," she says. "You want the plants to have an effortless time sending their roots down into the earth."

You'll know if you have enough humus in place if the water seeps in the soil during watering. "If the water ponds on top, you need more humus," she says.

*Shade-Loving Plants

Once your soil is primed, you need to decide what to plant in your shade garden.

Check to see which ones work in your climate and agricultural zone. Mendez likes perennials like foamflower, which has white or pink flowers in spring that turn to variegated leaves in the fall, and barrenwort, which are drought-tolerant and have "gorgeous leaves and flowers." She's also a fan of shrubs like bottlebrush and hydrangea, as well as annuals including wishbone and begonia.

Aaron von Frank's picks include ferns that produce fiddleheads, lettuce, asparagus, wasabi and serviceberry. Longacre recommends plantain lilies, bellflower, foxgloves and false spirea.

Mint does well, too, with one caveat. "Mint tends to take over and can be hard to get rid of once established," says Longacre. "My mint garden is quite far away from the rest of my gardens."


Maintaining a shade garden is fairly easy, but some upkeep is required.

Water plants in the morning when it's not too hot. Mendez says most shade gardens need only an inch of water weekly. "Others are drought tolerant, " she says, "and can go a week or more without water."

Make sure you're diligent about weeding; pesky weeds can grow quickly and often crowd the plants in your shade garden.

"Be sure to get all of the root when weeding," says Longacre, who recommends putting a garden fork an inch or two under the weed to loosen it.

Don't forget to protect the garden's soil for longterm results. Von Frank recommends adding 3 to 6 inches of mulch to garden beds once or twice per year, "to continue building your soil's health and fertility."

With the right attention to detail, your shade garden will be a colorful and comfortable place to enjoy.

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