outdoor garden walkway path with bench at Longwood Gardens

Made in the Shade Garden

By Michael Strengari, on

Do you have a shaded area in your home garden, but not quite sure what to do with it? Then you’re in luck! While many may believe that shaded areas in a home landscape prove challenging places for plants to thrive, they’re really fantastic opportunities for creating a serene, textural shade garden perfect for respite. While sun gardens are places in which every flower color under the sun can be showcased, shade gardens are more subtle and elegant … and definitely a way to enjoy your outdoor space while taking refuge from the midsummer heat. Follow along as I share with you how to make the most of shade by with a low-maintenance shade garden or shade-tolerant container, and then learn where you can see shade-loving plants here at Longwood.

Generally speaking, a shade garden is an area that gets more shade than it does sun. There are varying levels of shade to consider when deciding which plants will work best in your home’s shaded area. Keep in mind that shade moves throughout the day as the sun moves across the sky, so you must consider the entire day when determining what kind of shaded area you’re dealing with. Also keep in mind that a shaded area should be considered a microclimate of your yard, so you must pay special attention to that microclimate’s conditions when planning which plants will not just survive, but thrive, in a shaded area.

Near our Love Temple along the Large Lake, Aesculus parviflora (bottlebrush buckeye) is a favorite woodland shrub that thrives in shaded areas and features fluffy white flower clusters in July. Photo by Janet Erikson.

The shadiest level is referred to as deep shade; these areas do not receive any direct sun. Dappled shade areas are those that receive filtered light through overhead foliage. The term full shade does not translate to no sun, but rather an area that receives less than three hours of direct sun daily; that area can receive filtered sun the rest of the day and still be considered a full shade area. These hours of direct sunlight usually occur in the morning or evening, with midday shaded conditions. Part sun or part shade refers to anything between three and six hours of direct sun per day, while full sun is an area that receives more than six hours of direct sun per day.

Part shade to full shade areas allow for a wide variety of plants to thrive, from perennials and edibles to tropical and woodland plants, while dappled shade areas are usually best for woodland plants like Heuchera and Hosta. When considering what plants to incorporate in your shade garden, go for a mix of leaf shapes and textures for optimal visual impact. Here at Longwood, most of our seven-acre Peirce’s Woods area is considered full shade, and it’s the perfect place to see native shrubs and woodland plants nestled under overhead trees. A midsummer treat in this space is the beautiful Rhododendron prunifolium (plum-leaved azalea), a native shrub with vibrant rose-pink to red blooms that thrives in part shade.

The shade-loving Rhododendron prunifolium (plum-leaved azalea) blooms in Peirce’s Woods from June through September. Photo by Candie Ward.

Our Hillside Garden features both part shade and full shade areas, with full-shade pockets around our Chimes Tower thanks to the area’s canopy of mature trees. While enjoying this multi-layered, highly textural garden this summer, be on the lookout for the shade-loving herbaceous perennial Actaea heracleifolia (Komarov’s bugbane), which flowers in July and boasts tall leafy stems.

Actaea heracleifolia (Komarov’s bugbane), as found in our Hillside Garden. Photo by Duane Erdmann.
One of my very favorite shade-tolerant plants is Spigelia marilandica (pink-root), a native woodland showy perennial that attracts hummingbirds. You can see them in both the Idea Garden and Peirce’s Woods. Photo by Candie Ward.

When it comes to containers, I like to add a balanced slow release fertilizer when planting. This ensures the plants are getting steady nutrition throughout the season without too much effort on my part. Make sure your potting mix is free draining and that the holes in the container are not clogged. When planning your containers, don’t rely on flowers alone; choose contrasting textures to create interest. Combine large leaves with fine foliage or grass like plants to create a pleasing design that lasts beyond when the flowers fade.

This summer at Longwood we’ve created a variety shade-tolerant containers in Dogwood Plaza near the Open Air Theatre, in front of our Terrace Restaurant entrance, and in the Idea Garden near our outdoor Children’s Garden. Our Terrace Restaurant containers boast a collection of tropicals, bromeliads, and Impatiens, while our Dogwood Plaza containers, which sit in part shade, feature eye-catching Alocasia 'Portodora' (Elephant’s-ear plant), New Guinea impatiens, and Mandevilla, which is a favorite vine for part shade to full sun. I love how the bromeliad and coleus pick up the colors of the Mandevilla and New Guinea impatiens in the Dogwood Plaza containers, complementing the floral interest to create a cohesive design.

These tropicals outside of the Terrace Restaurant include a large Asplenium nidus (bird’s-nest fern) in the back container, complemented by Musa acuminata ‘Dwarf Cavendish’, white New Guinea impatiens, Alpinia zerumbet ‘Variegata’, and the bromeliad Aechmea ‘Patricia’s Secret’. Most of these plants like bright light, but don’t need tons of sunlight.  Photo by Michael Strengari.
Our Dogwood Plaza containers are a fun example of how to highlight the color pink. Here you’ll find Brugmansia ‘Frosty Pink’, Impatiens ‘SAKIMP061’ SunPatiens® Compact Hot Pink (which does well in sun or part shade), Mandevilla 'Sunparaprero' Sun Parasol® Pretty Pink, Neoregelia 'Cotton Candy', and Solenostemon scuttellarioides ‘UF16-64-1’ Mainstreet™ Ruby Road. Photo by Michael Strengari.
You can’t go wrong with a simple, elegant container of a shade-loving plant like ferns or Hosta, much like this Hosta ‘Luna Moth’ near our Chimes Tower. This simple container breaks up and softens the hardscaping, while bringing the plants within reach of someone relaxing on the adjacent bench. Photo by Michael Strengari.

Home gardeners can grow a variety of shade-tolerant plants in containers, including edibles like elderberry, currants, ginger, parsley, and cilantro. Heuchera, Hosta, and Helleborus love shade and can be planted in the ground or in containers, and if you want to get exotic, consider planting hardy shade-loving orchids in your shaded containers. No matter what you plant, be sure not to overwater a shade-tolerant container (or any shade garden area, for that matter), as the plants don’t dry out quite as quickly as they would in the sun. By nature, plants in these areas will hold water longer … which helps keep shaded gardens and containers low-maintenance. What’s more, most houseplants prefer to be moved outside into the shade for the summer. I take all of my philodendrons, orchids, pothos, and ivy outside in my shade garden for the summer, hanging them from trees or placing the pots around other plants.

Altogether, shade gardens provide a welcome summertime respite and can be a place to showcase the beautiful subtleties of differing texture, form, and shape among the wide variety of shade-loving plants from which you can choose. Perhaps one of the best (and perhaps overlooked) parts of shade gardens is that their inherent cooler conditions make it easier to work in these spaces, as you’ll be out of the hot midsummer sun while caring for the plants … making a shade garden the perfect space to slow down, relax, and truly enjoy the fruits of your labor.

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