​Tips for Shade Gardening

Posted by Tammy Sons on 18th Aug 2015

If you think your shady spots are only good for mud and breakthrough weeds, think again. Shade, while not ideal for all fruits, vegetables, and flowers, doesn’t rule out an exceptional landscape if you pay a little extra attention to what you’re doing. Here, we cover the basics of shade gardening and include information on which plants can turn your yawn-inducing yard in to a luscious lawn.

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Know your shade type

Not all shade is created equal. You need to understand what type of shade you are dealing with before you buy your online nursery stock.

Light (dappled)

Dappled shade is produced when a thin canopy of leaves from nearby trees partially covers an area of land. The sun isn’t blocked completely and it falls in varying patterns throughout the day. Dappled shade isn’t a deal breaker, regardless of the type of garden you want. Even some sun-loving plants thrive in light shade. The ground here may receive two periods of full sunlight every day, in the morning and evening when the sun rises and sets.

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Large, established trees make for moderate shade in most residential settings. Moderate, or high, shade doesn’t encourage intense sunlight and is considered the best type of shade to grow shade-variety plants.


This is the type of shade that can make it tricky to produce high - if any - yields from fruits and vegetables, which rely primarily on photosynthesis for growth. Dense shade is the deep, dark shade found to the north side of tall buildings and under thickly populated areas of spruce, pine, and maple trees. These areas receive almost no direct sunlight. Plants that survive in this environment depend on on the reflected light from their surroundings.


Consider a raised bed - Plants growing in shade must compete with existing vegetation for soil nutrients, as well as sunlight. Large, established trees and shrubs will often wick water away from small, less proven plants. To give your new garden a fighting chance, you may want to consider building a raised bed, lined in plastic.

Keep your eyes to the sky - Watch the area you intend to plant for at least one growing season before you sow your seeds or introduce nursery stock. The sun exposure will likely change from season to season as the earth changes axis points and tilts toward the Southern or Northern hemisphere.

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Look for reflective surfaces - Be aware of man made objects near your intended garden spot. Buildings, fences, lawn décor, signs, and glass from nearby office buildings can actually increase the amount of sun in the area. This can affect the growing rate of plants.

Mull over mulch - Buy reflective mulches if you plan to plant in moderately shaded areas to increase the impact of the sun’s rays.

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Appreciate seasonality - Take some time to understand which flowers and plants do best in cooler weather. Some crops tend to bolt, or grow long flower-like stems that render them inedible, in warmer conditions. These plants may do best in the less-intense morning sun.

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Account for moisture and air flow - Pay attention to the moisture content of the soil. Walls, branches, and tree trunks can greatly reduce air circulation around shaded areas. Overly moist soil encourages disease in some plants so you may need to take preemptive measure to aid in soil drainage. Shaded garden plants should be spaced slightly farther apart than their sun-loving cousins to improve airflow.

Un-welcome weeds - De-weed the area at least once a week. Weeds are one of the greatest threats to a shade garden as, like established trees and plants, they can rob your new growth of vital water and nutrients.

Know your address - Southern states tend to get more sunshine than those to the north so take that in to account before you begin.

How plants adapt to shade

Some plants grow better in shade since they don’t have to expend energy on UV-blocking pigments. Those that don’t, however, have built in mechanisms that allow them to adapt to a less-than-ideal environment. Shade tolerant plants, flowers, and shrubs efficiently absorb far-red light. They do this via active photoreceptors called phytochomes. Phytochomes are typically used by flowering plants to regulate their bloom timing. Whenever you see a morning glory open at dawn but shut by mid-day, they are using the photoreceptor capabilities to detect when their delicate leaves are safest from harmful UV rays. Plants living in the shade adapt by detecting these rays in a different region of the visible spectrum.

Leafy plants will grow toward the area where the most sun reaches through the upper canopy. This allows their broad leaves to gather as much energy from the sun as possible. This energy is then stored and distributed throughout, down to the root system where the roots intake nutrients from the soil.

Shade-loving plants

  • Bleeding Heart
  • “Buckshaw Blue” Hosta
  • English Ivy
  • Jerusalem Sage
  • Wild Trillium
  • Hydrangea
  • Foam Flower
  • Lily of the Valley
  • Lenten Rose

This is not a comprehensive list. If you need assistance choosing the right shade-tolerant online nursery stock, feel free to contact us. Our expert nursery staff is available to help you select the perfect plants for your new shady retreat.