Below is a brief bullet pointing of pros and cons when developing landscape designs for shade gardens.
- Many people find landscape design for shade gardens a daunting task. However, given the choice between full sun and full shade I prefer full shade. The plant palette may be reduced but it is rich with opportunity for incorporating Rhododendron, Ilex, Hosta, Astilbe, and Ligularia to name a few.
- Color is richer in a shade garden. Softer colors and whites jump out of the shade where they may be less impactful in a full sun situation.
- Native plants such as Trillium and Mertensia can be introduced into areas where they once thrived on their own.
- Shade gardening usually means big trees are present. Working among a drift of big bur oak or shagbark hickory in an old neighborhood creates possibilities that don’t exist in new construction environments. Ground cover always looks wonderful in a shade garden, whether it’s Pachysandra, Vinca, Lamium or Bergenia. There is usually limited opportunity to use ferns but shade provides that possibility as well. For me, shade is where it’s at!
- Tree roots from mature trees may not allow you to plant in the exact spot you would like.
- Mature trees will win the battle for water over other plants. Planting perennials or shrubs that have a high need for water such as Ligularia or Hydrangea may lead to disappointing performance. Hydrangea arborescens is an exception. I have had great luck with this plant in close proximity to massive oaks. Hosta ‘Royal Standard’ also performs like gangbusters where other Hosta may not do as well. Heuchera species will also perform fairly well while I am cautious with any Astilbe if close to the root systems of trees.
- If older trees are randomly placed (and they usually are) it may not be possible to establish formal lines. Most shade gardens I work on in established neighborhoods tend to be casual in appearance.
- Traditional lawn grasses like Kentucky bluegrass do not perform very well in heavy shade. It is better to seed instead of sod and use a fairly high percentage of fine fescue in any seed mix if you are looking for a traditional lawn space as part of the landscape.