Written by Brooke Tolman (last updated March 28, 2022)
Deep shade often occurs beneath trees such as evergreens or narrow spaces in between tall buildings and can be a challenging spot to garden in. Soil beneath evergreens is usually poor due to the lack of an annual leaf fall which in deciduous forests provides layers of organic mulch. Plants selected for deep shade gardens need to be shade demanding not just shade tolerant. When deciding to garden in the shade it's most important to remember that many plants can survive in the shade but not all of them thrive in the shade. When planting in deep shade, beneath the canopy of evergreens, amending the soil by adding compost will increase nutrients and water retention in the soil. Before you begin planting, look up to see if there are any branches which could pruned to allow dappled sunlight into the garden. Though there are many wonderful shade loving plants available, it's often recommended to selectively prune the surrounding trees to allow at least some sun into the space.
Many plants which thrive in the shade have developed large leaves and interesting foliage as a way for the plant to capture as much sunlight as possible. Hosta is a great example of this. In the summer the foliage of shade plants often becomes the focal point of the garden. Try to choose a few plants with multicolored foliage to add splashes of brightness and the illusion of light among the sea of green. Use different shades of green throughout the garden as well. Bright yellow greens illuminate a shady space and deeper blue greens create a feeling of depth, making a space feel larger than it is. Remember, colors appear different in the shade. In full sun colors can seem washed out, in the shade they are vibrant and more intense. Try to unify the garden by repeating patterns of color, textures and form.
While there are few annuals and grasses which will do well in shady conditions, there a number of shrubs, perennials, ferns and bulbs which provide virtually unlimited planting opportunities. Ferns, lily-of-the-valley, western bleeding hearts, and primroses are all examples of plants that flourish in the shade. Give shade plants a fighting chance even in dry areas by ensuring that they're not too small and fragile when you plant them. If necessary, grow the plants in easier areas first and allow them to mature; once they have healthy foliage and a decent root ball, transplant them to the drier area, and water well until they are re-established.
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