Planting shade-tolerant plants in a home landscape requires the gardener to have a complete understanding of how light affects plants. Gardeners refer to "part shade" by a number of different terms, such as dappled shade, half shade or medium shade. Regardless of the terminology, part shade refers to an area in the yard or garden that experiences four to five daylight hours without direct sunlight.
Choosing the type of plant for a part shade garden begins with examining the growing guide provided with each plant purchased from the nursery. This label or tab placed in the pot indicates the light tolerances for the plant. Part shade plants perform poorly in full sun that targets the plant for more than six hours each day. Full sun will fry a partial shade plant and warm the soil temperatures above tolerable levels.
The best starting point for understanding part shade begins with defining full shade. Full-shade plants thrive when they get no direct sunlight during the day, such as ferns and other plants found on the floors of thick forests. This type of plant can tolerate the lack of light and reaps the benefits of increased moisture in the soil due to less evaporation. Full-shade plants typically thrive on the north sides of buildings, under trees and near outdoor structures such as gazebos, decks or arbors.
Partial shade offers plants the best of both worlds with preferably morning sun and a cooler environment during the hot afternoon. Gardeners define partial shade as equal amounts of shade and sun during the course of a day. Shade allows the plant to conserve water and helps limit heating of garden soil. The partial light provided in that mixed growing environment is best for some of the most dramatic flowering annuals and perennials available for home gardening.
Each planting area provides a unique growing environment for flowers, trees and shrubs. Analyzing the space before planting increases the chance for successful cultivation. Monitor the sunlight activity in the garden space before purchasing any plants, and take into account the amount of shade produced by deciduous trees in summer and early fall when they are full of leaves. Look for the patterns of light in each area of your landscape. Sunlight can angle sharply to touch the edges of gardens or touch soil areas through the canopy of tree branches, and the angle of the sunlight can vary throughout the year the farther from the equator you live.
Part shade garden areas require increased nutrient content in the soil. Mix soil additives into the top 6 to 8 inches of soil to encourage increased water retention to benefit the part shade garden area. Loosening the soil and adding soil amendments will encourage each new plant in the part-shade garden to spread roots outward to absorb water and nutrients.