How to Build a Shade Garden

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various plants in a shade garden

Growing grass in shady spots of your lawn is about as easy as convincing a toddler to eat vegetables. The chances are slim to none. But, you can create something more beautiful and low-maintenance than standard turfgrass — a shade garden.

If you’re tired of begging your grass to grow, you’ve come to the right place. We’ll walk you through how to build a lush, soothing shade garden.

What is a shade garden?

A shade garden is typically grown underneath a tree canopy or in the shadows of a building. Shade gardens are filled with shade-tolerant plants, stones, and decorative features. With a shade garden, you can work with your shade rather than trying to fight it.

Shade gardens come in a variety of shapes and sizes. A shade garden may be as simple as a few flowering plants and ground covers near the base of a tree, or it could be more elaborate and include footpaths, shrubs, and sculptures winding through an entire wooded backyard. 

Tools you’ll need

  • Measuring tape
  • Newspaper and topsoil (for sheet mulching)
  • Shade-tolerant plants
  • Compost
  • Wheelbarrow (to transport compost and larger plants)
  • Shovel
  • Manual tiller or cultivator
  • Garden rake
  • Trowel
  • Lawn accents and decor of your choice

9 steps to build a shade garden

1. Decide where to plant

If grass in a shady part of your lawn isn’t growing the way you want it to, it may be time to embrace a shade-friendly garden design. Shade gardens are normally planted on the edges of your lawn, underneath a tree canopy, or in the shadows of a building. 

Measure the area of your garden to get an idea of how many plants, rocks, and decorative elements you’ll want.

2. Assess your shade level

Before you go on a plant shopping spree, take some time to observe the area to see how much shade it is getting during the day. Your garden’s shade level will determine which plants will thrive and which ones you should avoid.

  • Deep shade 

Also known as dense shade, deep shade lets in the least amount of sunlight. Densely shaded areas get little to no direct sunlight. They’re often found underneath low-branched evergreens like pines or hemlocks. 

If you’re dealing with a deeply shaded area, you’re pretty restricted when it comes to plants. Opt for a bench or footpath, plant some highly shade-resistant ground cover, and add lawn accents like edging, a gazing ball, a fountain, or even some original artwork from a local artist.

  • Full shade

Deep and full shade sound similar, but fully shaded areas get a bit more light. An area with full shade gets less than three hours of sunlight per day. 

Consider decorating your shady area with pots of cheerful, shade-loving houseplants. Containers of houseplants can brighten up the space beneath trees, and plant roots won’t have to compete with thirsty tree and shrub roots.

  • Partial shade

Partial shade, partial sun, and light shade all mean the same thing (though some gardeners consider partial shade plants less tolerant of direct sun than partial sun plants). A partially shaded area gets three to six hours of direct sunlight daily, generally in the morning or early afternoon. During those three to six hours, partially shaded areas can experience intense, bright sunlight.

Partial shade may not be ideal for some plants, but there are a host of wildflowers, herbs, shrubs, and ground covers that prefer partial shade to full sun. 

  • Dappled or filtered shade

Dappled shade means that sun rays filter through a tree canopy to reach plants below, so light is less intense. In areas with dappled shade, there is a constant motion of sun and shade throughout the day. Most plants that can grow in partial shade can also grow in dappled shade. Shade-tolerant potted houseplants will thrive in dappled light. 

3. Consider your garden’s planting needs

When choosing plants for your shade garden, you’ll also want to consider:

  • Size of your planting space

To prevent crowding, check the spread of plants at maturity to estimate how many will fit in your garden. You don’t want your plants to start pushing up against each other after a year in the ground. 

  • Cold hardiness zone

Make sure you choose plants that can withstand your yard’s seasonal temperatures. Picking out native plants is a great way to ensure your garden doesn’t wither in summer heat or wilt at the first hint of autumn.

  • Your microclimate

A microclimate? Is that like a microbrewery? Well, not quite. A microclimate is a specific area with climate conditions that differ from the climate of the general region (including other parts of your yard). Because your area is shaded, it will probably be cooler and less windy than the rest of your lawn. 

  • The soil moisture level of your microclimate depends on the source of your shade. 
  • If shade is caused by trees and shrubs, soil will dry out more quickly than in surrounding areas as large tree roots absorb moisture and leave little for plants. Tree canopies also act as umbrellas, preventing rain from reaching plants.
  • If shade is caused by a building or wall, your soil will be moister than surrounding areas because shade decreases the evaporation rate.
  • Soil conditions: Consider soil pH (acidic, basic, or alkaline), texture (sandy, silty, clay-heavy, or loamy), and nutrient levels when choosing the best plants for your garden. 
    • For example, if your soil is highly acidic, choose shade-loving plants like azaleas and rhododendrons.
    • If your soil has a high clay content, hostas and astilbes are excellent choices. 
    • Test your soil every three to five years to ensure you’re making the right soil amendments.

4. Remove grass (if you’ve got it)

To prevent grass and weeds from popping up in your garden, you’ll want to remove any existing grass.

  • You can dig up your sod with a shovel, but dig shallowly (no more than 6 inches), taking care not to damage tree roots. 
  • Alternatively, you can choose to sheet mulch by placing newspaper over your area and covering the newspaper with a thin layer of topsoil. Grass will decompose naturally, adding nutrient-filled organic matter to your garden. Just make sure you layer the newspaper so that there are no gaps for light to penetrate.
  • You can use a dutch hoe to remove moss and surface-level weeds. Dutch hoes are especially useful for corner areas that are tough to reach with a shovel. 

5. Gently till and rake the soil

Using a shovel, dig 4-6 inches deep and turn over your soil. Then use a manual tiller or cultivator to break up the larger chunks of soil. Tilling loosens and aerates your soil so plants can access nutrients and spread their roots. 

As you till your soil, make sure you’re removing rocks and twigs. It’ll make planting a whole lot easier. As a finishing touch, rake your soil and pluck out any remaining roots and stones. 

6. Add compost

Once your soil is tilled, it’s time to spread a healthy 3-inch layer of compost over your garden area. Rake your compost into the soil, spreading evenly. This nutrient-rich soil will serve as the garden bed, giving your new plants a healthy start in their new home.

For an extra nutrient boost, you can spread a layer of fertilizer over your garden bed before adding compost.

7. Add plants

It’s time for the stars of your garden to make an appearance! This is the fun part. Group your plants based on their shade tolerance and then experiment with different designs. Play with color, texture, and height contrasts.

If certain plants look gorgeous next to one another, pair them up! Just be mindful of their width at maturity. Once you’ve placed your plants, grab your trowel and start digging. 

Your garden soil will settle, so dig plants into the soil at a slightly lower depth than they were in their containers. Gently step on the soil around each plant to establish contact between the root ball and the garden soil.

Pro Tip: If roots have become messy and congested in the plastic container, use a garden fork to gently tease out the roots. This will help establish the plant in its new environment.

8. Water

Directly after planting, water your shade garden thoroughly. This will settle the soil and give your plants a healthy start. You’ll want to water daily or every other day for the first week and then transition to two to three times per week. 

Once your garden is thriving, water it based on moisture levels: Some shade gardens stay cool and damp, while others dry out quickly.

9. Add edging and decorate

It’s time to get inspired! With your plants all in place, add your different decorations. From patios and paintings to fountains and fire pits, you can let your imagination loose. Read on for shade garden design ideas.

Best plants for a shade garden

Homeowners rave about these shade garden plants, and you can find them at your local gardening center or nursery. Just make sure to pick out shade-loving plants that will thrive in your particular region and soil type.

Perennials:

  • Hostas
  • Astilbe
  • Cyclamen
  • Heuchera (also known as coral bells)
  • Lobelia
  • Ferns
  • Iris

Ground covers: 

  • Periwinkle
  • Lamium
  • Ajuga (also known as bugleweed)
  • Creeping fig
  • Creeping dogwood
  • Sweet woodruff
  • Moss

Shrubs and trees:

  • Azaleas
  • Hydrangeas
  • Boxwood
  • Japanese maple
  • Spotted laurel
  • Rhododendrons
  • Kerria (also known as Easter rose)
  • Yews

When you choose native plants, you’ll get the bonus of pollinators. Beautiful butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds will enjoy your shade garden, too. Astilbe, scarlet lobelia, and coral bells are especially hummingbird-friendly. 

Looking for some extra color? Annuals like begonias, impatiens, and wishbone flowers can make your shade garden pop.

Pro Tip: Some ground covers can be invasive to certain regions of the U.S. Before planting, check your state’s invasive species list or contact your local cooperative extension office. 

9 decorative additions to make your shade garden shine

Stumped on what to put in your shade garden? We’ve got design ideas and garden ideas to get you inspired and ready to decorate.

  1. A footpath
    • A footpath can be as rustic or as chic as you would like it to be, depending on the materials you choose.
    • You can choose a footpath composed of stone or brick pavers, gravel, wood mulch, or smooth pebbles. 
    • Consider adding a natural border to define your pathway.
  1. An elegant statue or your favorite artwork
    • A statue can make an area with dense shade shine, and a mural can turn a drab wall into the star of your yard. 
  1. A cozy wrought-iron or wood bench
    • A charming seating choice can turn your shade garden into a soothing sanctuary or reading area.
  1. A water feature like a fountain, pond, or stream
    • After a long day at work, you can relax by a babbling fountain or watch beautiful fish and turtles swim in a pond. 
    • Water features attract native wildlife and can increase your property value. 
  1. A fire pit or patio area
    • If grass won’t grow, adding stone, gravel, or brick paving is an easy solution. Plus, fire pits and patios are fantastic spots for social gatherings. 
    • To create a visually appealing focal point, you can encircle your hardscape with edging and plants. 
  1. Unique architectural elements
    • Decorations like millstones, barrels, and terra-cotta creations can give your shade garden a charming personality. 
  1. A birdbath
    • Native birds will visit your shade garden throughout the day. You can sit in your garden and enjoy the show or watch them from your window. 
  1. A trellis
    • You can create a magical, vine-covered passageway by installing an arched wood or metal trellis. It’ll feel like you’re walking into a wonderland. 
    • If you don’t want a full walkway, you can install a trellis on the side of your house. It’ll green up your space and add dimension to your shady garden. 
  1. Edging and border plants
    • You can use metal, bricks, stone, plastic, or wood to edge around your plants. Plant colorful grasses and flowers around borders to really make your garden design pop.

FAQ about shade gardens

1. What pests should I watch out for in my shade garden? 

Slugs, snails, and deer can be problematic in shade gardens. Shade gardens retain moisture due to cooler temperatures and less sunlight, which is wonderful for moisture-loving plants. However, it also means you may need to apply sand around your plants (especially hostas) to stop slugs from munching their way through your hard work. 

If deer are a problem, consider applying scent or taste repellents to keep them far away. Deer don’t like the smell of garlic or eggs. You also can apply a hot sauce wash or pepper spray to stop deer from nibbling. Another option? Motion-activated sprinklers can scare deer away from your shade garden. 

2. Should I fertilize my shade garden? 

In shade gardens beneath trees, tree roots compete with plant roots for nutrients, so it’s a good idea to apply a slow-release fertilizer. Fertilize in spring and then once or twice more during the growing season. 

In shade gardens that are not close to tree roots, you may not need to fertilize at all (if your shade-resistant plants are native).

3. What type of plants can I put in my container gardens?

You can have a blast mixing and matching different varieties of plants, playing with color, texture, and height. Bulbs, annuals, ornamental grasses, flowering perennials, and even small shrubs can look fantastic in decorated pots near your trees. 

When it gets cold or when weather conditions aren’t ideal, you can bring your plants indoors. 

4. Can I still grow grass in the shade?

Growing grass is tougher in shady spots, but if you love that green lawn look and your yard gets at least a few hours of direct sunlight, you can do it! You’ll just have to plant the right grass type and give your shady spot some extra TLC. Check out Lawn Love’s “​​Tips for Growing Grass in Shady Areas.”

5. How long does it take to DIY a shade garden?

Small and medium-sized shade gardens tend to take one or two days to install, and a larger shade garden may take longer. A pair of extra hands always helps. 

Making your shady area shine

If your grass is having a hissy fit in the shade, a shade garden can put a stop to the whining. Shade gardens are gorgeous, require little maintenance and no mowing, and will be a welcome change from yellow grass that refuses to grow. 

Building a shade garden can be a straightforward, fun DIY project. Grab your friends and make a day of it. If you’re ready to take a break and put your feet up, call in a local landscaping pro to get your lawn under control. 

Main Photo Credit: Tanya Impeartrice | Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

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