Garden Designer’s Roundtable – Shining In The Shade

Customers at the nursery where I work, as well as my own private clients, frequently lament to me about the challenges of frustrating boredom or lack of success they have with their shade conditions. This “woe is me” line of thinking does not linger long around me. I enthusiastically explain how they have bountiful, dazzling design options and plant choices to play with that others with no shade don’t have. Dry shade? No problem! Damp shade, even better! Bring it on, let’s get your garden where you want it to be together.

Fatsia Japonica

Why not take full advantage of this location and all it has to offer? Try new things, break out of your shell. You are not limited to Impatiens or dry barren areas. Now more than ever in the history of gardening, you have the ability to make a wide range of plant choices beyond the every day standard OR the defeatist attitude of  “Nothing will ever grow well there.” I will simply have none of it.

Hosta and Paris in the garden of David Fishman

In my own garden, just like most people, I have several little micro-pocket zones of varying shade conditions. I have had a ball experimenting with different perennials, shrubs, grasses and groundcover. I like to think of myself as a test driver for plants. Then I know what to expect from them and I can speak with authority about the dodgy ones versus the top performers.

Dwarf Hydrangea and Japanese Forest Grass

My fascination with the unending variants that create shade conditions is a deep and wide river of exploration. For me, trial and error is truly the only way to learn what does and does not work. I’ve had my greatest success with some of the craziest combinations. If I had played by “the rules” on the tags or in the books, then I would have not been able to achieve some of my most creative pairings. If we all knew exactly what plants have a tolerance for what circumstance in every spot in the garden, designing and gardening would get very dull, very quickly!

Thalictrum and Actea

Sometimes I want certain sections of the garden to tell a story about how I would like them to be perceived by the person experiencing it. Maybe a bright and playful area of color in bright shade are followed up by a moody, quiet and contemplative space in full, deep shade. I want it all!

Double Flowering Hellebore

Cypress, Heucherella and Begonia

In my line of work as The Personal Garden Coach I’m usually in the clients garden with them to see each condition that they face. At my nursery job I have to learn to ask exactly the right questions to deduce what the customer actually means by “I have this shady spot, where nothing will grow.” I have to be like a detective to discern what they mean by “nothing”, how they define “shady” and what plants they have tried that don’t seem to be working.

“What’s shading the area?”

“Is it damp there, or dry there?”

“How do you water?”

“What plants have you tried so far?”

“Is it AM shade, PM shade, or shaded all day?”

Ultimately, I surmise a draft in my imagination of what the area is that they’re describing and advise some great plant suggestions. I can draw from my own experiences with shade conditions in many gardens that I’ve worked and create an action plan for design success, while tweaking it for their personal tastes or style.

Hosta, Heuchera, Heucherella, Coleus, Yarrow

Without the experience of failures and success in my own shade garden, I don’t think I would be as quick to assess difficult garden situations and turn the challenge around into opportunity for a gardener to create their vision.

Winterhazel, Sambucus, Fern, Molinia, Hosta

I also adore stretching the plants limits with the various fickle conditions that shade can deliver. From the most dark and cool shadowy corner under trees to bright shade where the garden gets glowing light but no direct sun. Both can offer a sense of experience that you can’t get with a full-on sunny location especially if you are an adventurous gardener!

Hydrangea Paniculata, Coleus, Pennisetum, Sage, Euphorbia

I could go on and on about the technical definitions of shade, design ideas and lists of plant selections that would be great for you to try. But, the ultimate bottom line is that you have to honor your vast set of options and try new things. Some may work and others may not. You have a boundless set of resources from plants to books and websites that few before our generation had access to, use them! A great nursery person, experienced friend or blogger can be just the inspiration you need to dive into the shade and conquer it.

Nandina 'Firepower'

Explore more Shade plant blogs of The Garden Designer’s Roundtable by reading more from this month’s guest writer Margaret Roach on her blog “A Way to Garden” and all of the other fabulous writers below.

Margaret Roach : A Way To Garden : Hudson Valley, NY

Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX

Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ

22 thoughts on “Garden Designer’s Roundtable – Shining In The Shade

  1. Experimenting is a great way to learn what will thrive and what will merely survive (or not) in one’s own shady patches. Your images from shade gardens are inspiring, and I agree that there’s a whole world of shade-tolerant plants out there that don’t include impatiens.

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  5. Shade gardening can be challenging, but that’s what makes it so interesting. What I really enjoy is how I can play with color and texture with all the fascinating foliage possibilities available these days. Who needs flowers when there are so many beautiful leafy plants just waiting to find a home in my gardens and containers?

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  8. Christina, What lovely plant combos. I am totally taken with the ‘hosta and paris’ photo. After reading your post, I can’t imagine anyone not seeing a shady spot as a windfall.

  9. Christina, Love the inspiring combos, as always. You are the foliage queen! Seriously, when is your book coming out – I imagine the title will be – Hot Combos for Mild Climes! I’m waving my credit card in the air.

    • From your lips Gen!!! I am gathering images and looking for a Publisher who wants to work with lots of drooly pics- not so easy these days. 🙂 Thank you!

    • I’m in the outer burbs of Seattle, but yes, pretty consistent Zone 7a & b, though we have a wide reach into our warm little banana belt through the middle of Puget Sound.

  10. STUNNING plant combinations! I agree with you wholeheartedly – it’s always a bit of experimentation, but the more one understands all of the growing conditions, the more successful the plantings will be. Thanks for the inspiration!

  11. I love how many of our plants overlap, even though I am Zone 5 and East Coast! They are such tough creatures, really, trying their best to put up with what we put them through. Thanks for having me in the group this month; so nice of everyone to include me.

  12. Like you, I view shade as an opportunity instead of a liability. My favorite area in my garden right now is on my back porch in fairly deep shade. Hostas, Rex begonias, Heuchera, Coleus and a standard Eugenia are thriving there.

  13. So many great points here.
    But the greatest is your boundless enthusiasm!
    Your not the garden Coach for nothing are you?
    Thanks so much!
    Inspirational colour combos by the way.

  14. Boy I wish we had such thoughtful, caring nursery folk at our local garden center. Your customers are so lucky to find you! You obviously take great care to find out exactly what type of help they need, asking all the right questions and offering such fantastic suggestions. I hope your nursery knows how lucky they are to have you!!! I know your customers sure do…..

  15. I agree with you about the trial and error when it comes to discovering what works. It’s exciting and stimulating and well yeah may become a tad expensive but still definitely worth the result just to get your garden or landscape thriving and blooming.

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