Made in the Shade

Posted on April 15, 2016 by Becky Staneruck

By Rob Sculley/Shorty’s Help & Advice

When I moved into my place, I had a vision to create a garden filled with flowers and roses. What I had to work with, however, was something quite different.

I was immediately faced with several challenges that threatened to undermine all my grand garden plans. I was surrounded on all side by huge fir trees. That meant SHADE, worse yet, DRY SHADE. The lawn that was there (and I use the term generously) was a sad affair. It was more like an anemic carpet of threadbare green tufts of grass and fir needles mixed with moss…pitiful. Now at this point I could have just given up, but I didn’t. What I DID do, however, was” modify” my plans. I had to learn to accept my specific situation and work with what I HAD, rather than fight against it……when life gives you lemons….

I can’t tell you how many folks I have talked to over the years that were beating their heads against the wall, determined to grow the perfect lawn in a situation like I have. My advice is the same. Be realistic and work with the conditions you have, not what you wish it were. Trust me; you will save yourself a load of grief, time, energy and money.

Now, of course , there are certain types of lawn grasses that can better “ tolerate” deep, dry shade, or clay compacted and acidic conditions. But even these will need constant attention, irrigation, aeration, over seeding and regular applications of lime. So if someone still insists on growing a lush lawn under these conditions…I will do my best to help them. But ultimately, I still have to ask, “Why bother?”

The following is the solution I came up with:

First, I thinned out the canopy and removed the lower limbs of my trees to allow as much light, as I could, get in. I know that this isn’t always feasible, but it helps.

Next, I ENLARGED the footprint of my planting beds and DECREASED the footprint of my lawn area—ultimately, I eliminated my “lawn” all together, and replaced it with crushed gravel paths and open spaces. * A word about gravel options: Although pea gravel is pretty, I would not recommend it for walk ways, as it never seems to settle, but tends to rolls under your feet and scatter. Crushed gravel or rock packs down firm and makes an excellent path. I recommend putting down a heavy duty weed fabric first, that allows water thru it, but prevents the gravel from merging with the soil beneath. A leaf blower set low does a great job of removing any leaf and needle debris. Any herbicide or pre-emergent will keep the gravel weed free, but in the shade, I have found that this is less of an issue.

I then defined my planting beds with natural rock edging. Some of that rock actually had (gasp) MOSS on it! Put down the moss killer folks, it ads to the character of a shade garden. I.e. Kyoto moss garden… lovely.


I chose small trees that do well growing under the shade of larger trees.( Upright Japanese maples, being my favorite.) They come in so many colors and shapes!

I pick shrubs that thrive in dry shade: The tropical looking Fatsia japonica, the golden speckled Aucuba japonica and the deeply fragrant winter Daphnea or Sarcoccoca.

For wet shade, I suggest Leucothe or a Hydrangea. Sasanqua camellias are a favorite of mine. They have smaller, less messy blossoms, and bloom in the dead of winter…and hummingbirds  LOVE them.

I fill the spaces with evergreen sword ferns, and some lesser used ferns like Alaska, Tassel and Japanese painted Ferns with their purple and silver pewter foliage!


Hostas of all sizes and color fill the shade garden bed nicely, and mix well with ferns, gingers and shade grasses.

I use rhythmic punctuation of the same elements, repeating themselves along the garden path and beds, creating harmony and continuity. Evergreen golden sedge, or the soft golden Japanese forest grass flowing over the rock edges to soften the borders, will do nicely.


I abandoned any unrealistic ideas of a gushing, rose filled garden, packed with sun plants and replaced my pallet with the interplay of contrasting foliage and texture. The look is clean and sophisticated, the result, a calm cool space. Rather than the flashy, sun loving flowers that jump out at you demanding your attention. The denizens of the shade are more polite. Quietly inviting you to come closer and linger in their presence. Maybe even, heaven forbid, sit for a while.

Placing larger , moss covered boulders or stones , right in the path, causing you to pause, or nestling small treasures along the way, like a hollowed out rock basin filled with water, a large empty Asian urn nestled in the bed…all to make you stop. No rushing here.

At the end of the path, there’s bench…a sitting area to stop and reflect.

These are the elements of a shade garden…a far cry from fighting with a space that wants to be what it is…a place of peace, rest…..and shade.

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