How Shady is Your Shade?

When deciding what to plant in a shady garden, it is important to determine how much shade and what kind of shade is present.  This will help you choose plants that perform well in your particular situation.

Partial shade is an area receiving direct sun for 3-6 hours per day. The most typical example of this type of shade is the east or west side of a building, which is sunny for about half a day. Another example is a location which is shaded by a large tree for part of the day.  Since the area receives some full sun each day, many plants will perform well there, particularly if the area is sunny in the afternoon.  Sometimes partial shade can be a real benefit, especially if shaded from the midday sun; many flowers last longer when shielded from the hottest rays of the sun.

Light Shade can be classified as a shaded but bright area.  Shade cast by young trees, or a single lightly branched tree would fall under this category. The dappled shade under a mature tree with a high, lacy canopy can also be considered light shade. On the ground, patterns of sun and shade can be seen to shift as the day goes by, with no area receiving direct sun for an extended period.  Many plants do well in this type of shade, although typical “full-sun” plants will not thrive.

Mostly Shady Here the direct rays of the sun are blocked most of the day, although the area may receive some direct light during the early morning or late afternoon hours. Remember that daylength plays a significant role in this situation.  During the long days of summer, the area will receive more hours of light than during the shorter days of spring and fall.  The key factor here is that the area receives sun for less than 4 hours per day. A north-facing exposure that is not blocked by trees could also be considered mostly shade.  In this situation, there is no direct sun, but the area receives some indirect light all day long.

Dense shade is shade that lasts all day, with no direct sunlight reaching the ground at any time. Typical examples include the dense shade under a thick canopy of trees, or areas under stairways, decks, patios, or large overhangs.  This is the most difficult type of shade to work with, because fewer plants do well with such limited light.  In particular, it is difficult to grow flowering plants under full shade conditions.

Many people lament the lack of colorful flowers in shady gardens.  While it is true that flowers are produced less abundantly, the shade garden offers other benefits:  cooler temperatures during the summer, and a more restful appearance. In shady gardens, a plant’s form and texture, along with foliage color and shape, become paramount.  These elements should be incorporated into the design of the garden.