Shade gardening is rewarding, often adding to the lush tropical feeling in a garden and as a refuge from summer heat. Plants need three main things to survive namely light, water and food. Problems in shade gardens are normally due to the lack of one of these.
Gardens change their degree of shade over time as trees and shrubs mature. What was once a sunny garden may evolve into a shady one and you have to adapt your planting to suit the degree of shade. Several characteristics typify shade gardening. In addition to low light levels, plants growing in the shade must compete with shading trees for nutrients and water and tolerate poor air circulation.
Shade cast by buildings is characterised by moist conditions and plant selection here also plays an important role. Shade from overhanging trees is called dry shade due to the trees competing for water. There are some tricks for growing great shade gardens that are important if you are determined to succeed.
The first active step is to ensure your plants have adequate water and this means that you do have to provide them with enough water to grow and flower. Often most water is absorbed by the trees providing the shade and less is available to the smaller plants. Remember that those trees have very greedy roots and will outcompete perennials in your garden just as they do in nature. You have to water if you want real success in the shade garden. Regular mulching and liberal composting will help to loosen the soil and help retain moisture.
Secondly large trees also take most of the available nutrients in the soil, creating tough competition for shade shrubs and ground covers. Feeding regularly is a must at least three of four times through summer. Lastly lighten up on decor. Choose light-colour rocks or pavers for paths and use pale statuary. Darker objects disappear in the low light of a shade garden.
Our favourite plants for shade
One of our most loved indigenous perennials Clivia are commonly found in flower through spring in a mostly shady spot. Flowering in Orange or yellow and in all the shades it is one of the fun ones to collect. The dark green strappy leaves really fill a bed up so they make a great addition to cover the open areas under trees or large shrubs. They are quite water wise but will do equally well in a shady tree fern garden that gets more water.
The Fringe Flower is a surprising addition to the shade garden and does extremely well in a light shade or half day sun spot. If left it creates an open vase shaped shrub with arching branches. The dark pink flowers cover the stems in spring and autumn and summer interest is from the leaves that can have a plum to burgundy colouring. Also does well if clipped to shape.
Orange or Coffee Jasmine
The fragrant Orange Jasmine flowers mid to late spring on masse and then on and off all summer long. The small white flowers are very dainty but provide the garden with a strong citrus fragrance especially in the early evening. Well suited to be clipped into a hedge or topiary shape they also add substance to the bed if left alone, growing over two meters high. Best in dappled shade they have a dark glossy leaf which lends towards a tropical feel.
The most popular flowering shade plants are the acid loving Rhododendrons also known as evergreen azaleas. Rhododendrons also make excellent container plants or in the garden as part of a border. Rhododendrons create a picture in the early spring when they are smothered in blooms. They are available in a wide range of colours. The best position for your Rhododendron is towards the edge of a bed where the shade is not as deep. Plant them with Acid Compost and feed with Colourburst Azalea food to keep them looking great.
Forest Bell bush
The indigenous Mackaya bella also known as the forest bell bush will grow in total shade and are perfect for right up against the boundary where they will form a sold screen blocking out walls or neighbours. Growing just over two meters round they flower each spring to early summer with white tinged lilac flowers and flower in bunches making quite a spectacular show each year. Water wise and hardy make them the must have shade plant in any garden.
Last word on design
Shade gardens are often more subtle and restful than sunny ones. Plant textures and colour differences become more important elements of the design. Strong contrasts in texture accentuate their differences. Use strong textural contrasts only where emphasis is needed. Upright, columnar plant shapes are used as accent points in the shade. Rounded or spreading forms create a more spacious and opulent effect. To emphasise plantings in the shade, concentrate on plants with light flowers or foliage which will stand out more.