Let me start this off by saying I love shade gardens, and I love my ornamental plants. I believe that it is important for me to note that although permaculture is primarily focused on food production, a true permaculturist understands the importance of promoting all forms of gardening regardless of yield. As far as permaculture promotion is concerned, the last thing on earth we want to do is exclude all of the flower gardeners from the mix… They play an important role in pollinator promotion and I think as permaculturists we should promote ornamental gardeners as well…
All too often shady spaces are cursed by gardeners, it can seem like anything you try to grow fails. Grass fails to grow properly, and the common plants found at the big box stores grow poorly and discourage interest. This unfortunate, but common situation could have been avoided had proper shade loving plants been chosen. Many plants have evolved over time to prosper in low light by developing delicate, thin leaves that efficiently absorb whatever sun falls on them.
When filled with cool flowers and foliage spread out below an interesting tree canopy, a shade garden can be the most beautiful spot in your yard. It is important to remember when learning to garden in the shade, not all shade is created equal. Figure out exactly which type of shade you’re dealing with, because the type of shade will ultimately affect the variety of plants you can grow.
Deep shade is all day shade where no direct sunlight hits the ground; this often occurs under heavily foliated trees. Deep shade may be dry or moist depending on whether the trees are surface-rooted or deep-rooted. Fewer plants thrive in this type of shade, especially if dry, than in brighter conditions.
Part shade means shade for part of the day with direct sunlight during the other part. Many sun-loving plants bloom well in part shade because they receive from four to six hours of direct sun each day, though they may not perform as well as in all day sun. Morning shade followed by afternoon sun may be too hot for many shade plants, causing them to wilt in the heat. But the cooler morning sun with afternoon shade is good for many shade loving plants.
Light shade occurs under an open branched tree canopy where spots of sunshine filter to the ground in a constantly shifting play of shadows, a wide selection of plants prosper in filtered shade.
Open shade occurs on the north side of a building where no direct sunlight falls, but where light may be reflected to the ground from surrounding walls. Open shade often remains damp, unless the building creates a rain shadow and blocks rainfall from reaching the ground. This is a very common urban garden problem, usually requires one to get creative.
Many shaded locations are cool and damp, but some are actually dry. Upon close examination you may discover that certain shady spots in your yard have poor, dry soil because your trees have surface roots that suck up all the available surface moisture and nutrients. A thick canopy of tree leaves may worsen the problem, acting like an umbrella and deflecting rain from the ground beneath. Lack of moisture, not lack of light, often proves to be the culprit when shade loving plants fail to grow in their prefered habitat.
Dry, root-clogged soil feels and looks hard and compacted; when you try to dig a hole with a shovel, it can’t easily penetrate the ground. If you discover that the soil in your potential shade garden is hard and compacted, try digging in lots of organic matter, like rotted manure or compost, as long as you don’t mess with the major tree roots the tree will not suffer.
Where digging will tamper with tree roots, spread a layer of topsoil no more than 4 inches deep over the ground. Cover this layer with a 2 inch mulch of chopped-up leaves, which will decompose into a rich humus. Anything deeper than this could smother the roots. Earthworms will eventually move into the decomposing leaves, further speeding the decomposition, and also burrow into the harder subsoil beneath the topsoil, making it easier to garden. Where shallow-rooted trees pose a problem, you will be waging a continuous battle and will need to replenish your mulch every once in a while.
When gardening in dry shade under a tree, water regularly and deeply during the summer months. Where you might normally apply an inch of water a week to satisfy your garden needs, you may need to apply 2 or even 3 inches of water to compensate for the water absorbed by the tree. Many plants will adapt to the dry shade after a year of stabilization, if you can water regularly for a year you can usually garden under a tree.
Shade loving plants do not usually bloom as abundantly as sun lovers, perhaps as an energy-conserving measure, but you can enjoy a variety of flowers in the shade by choosing the right kinds. however, your shade garden will rely upon an assortment of beautiful foliage plants for much of its allure. You can brighten up the shadows of your garden using a few simple tricks.
– Grow lots of plants with white-variegated leaves or white or pastel flowers, brighter colors tend to glow in the shade.
– Dark red and purple flowers tend to recede into the dimness, they should be used sparingly.
– Brighten open shade along buildings by painting walls in bright reflective colors.
– Use golden-leaved plants and those with yellow flowers to create the impression of a beam of sunshine scattered across the garden floor.
– Contrast plants with finely divided, fern-like leaves with those featuring big, tropical-looking leaves to add excitement and drama.
I am a man who really enjoys ornamental flowers and understands the importance of a diverse eco-system. As a master gardener, I know many people who have beautiful and beneficial ornamental only gardens, but have no interest whatsoever in growing food; to exclude them from the mix would be a kick in the nuts to the principles of permaculture. To expect the world to conform to us will ultimately lead to the failure of the movement… Ornamental plants need loving too!..
peace – chriscondello
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.