Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
June, 2001
Regional Report

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Shade doesn't have to be dark. By selecting brightly colored foliage plants and plants that flower in shade, it can look cheery and bright.

Splendor in the Shade

I find that shade gardening is becoming the rule in many suburban and urban neighborhoods in California because of large trees and houses that shade most yards. This is not a bad thing. There are many types of blooming plants such as fuchsia, rhododendron, and cineraria that actually prefer growing in shady conditions. And as a professional gardener for over 25 years, I can say I like working in shade gardens during the hot summer months.

Shade Gardening Basics

Shade gardening is different than gardening in the sun. You need to have richer soil so that the plants have all the nutrients they need. When creating a shade garden bed, think of a shady forest floor. For thousands of years, leaves have been dropping from overhead creating a deep soil, rich in composted organic matter. That is the type of soil you need to mimic in your garden. To achieve that, add organic compost to your existing soil at planting time.

Plants grown in the shade usually require less water than their sun-loving relatives. Many shade-loving plants are shallow rooted. That is, they send feeder roots into a thick mat of leaf litter near the surface of the soil to catch the available nutrients and moisture before the deeper rooted canopy plants can suck them up. In your shade garden bed, use a fast draining soil rich in organic matter to prevent root rot.

Whiten Your Shade Garden

The use of plants with white-colored blossoms and foliage can brighten an otherwise dark corner of the garden. Pieris forrestii, for example, is a shade-loving shrub that produces clusters of beautiful white, Japanese lantern-like, blossoms. White-flowered rhodenderon, azalea, and pittosporum can also be used.

Perennial for Shade

Foxglove (Digitalis), hellebore, goat's beard (Aruncus), and coral bells (Heucera) are all perennial plants that have varieties available with white flowers. These all bloom well in the shade. If you don't want to limit your pallete to white, Peruvian lily (Alstromeria) has varieties in a range of colors. It's wonderful as a cut flower. Spider wort (Trillium erectum), columbine (Aquilegia) and the 'Golden Nugget' lady slipper (Calceolaria integrifolia 'Golden Nugget') are all perennials that will give years of colorful service in shady areas.

Annual Flowers for Shade

If annual flowers are more your cup of tea, the best shade plant has to be the impatiens. Planted early in the season, they will keep blooming in your garden through the first hard frost of fall. Coleus is another shade-loving plant that has colorful foliage; it makes a striking statement in the shaded garden. Burgundy, pink, yellow, chartreus, and white grace the frilly leaves of this hardy annual.

Other Tricks of the Shade

There are a few more tricks you can use to lighten up a shade garden. Place shiny objects such as mirrors among the plants. Mirrors in a shade garden setting provide additional light and the illusion of space. Plus, it makes for a charming surprise when you encounter them.

Strings of metalic beads hung in the trees and glass glazing globes set low in foliage take the eye away from a small shady space and focus it toward an interesting detail. A small basin filled with water will also reflect light in addition to providing a welcome resting place for birds and beneficial insects.

Make a comfortable resting place in the shade. A bench, picnic table, or even just a comfortable chair away from the heat of the day may soon become a favorite outdoor respite.

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