Gardeners sometimes dismiss shady areas as poor growing spaces. Confronted with a low-light, typically northern-exposure area, it is easy to grass it over and hope for the best. Simple research--like a walk in the woods--reminds us, however, that many plants do well in shade. Successful shade gardening provides opportunities to experiment with textures and subtle colors. You might learn about new plants, area native plants, and some plants you have taken for granted.
Define the degree and quality of shade in your northern-exposure bed. You may have brief (one- to two-hour) periods of sun, usually early morning and late afternoon. This is partial shade. Trees may shade this area. Deciduous trees offer filtered sunlight when in leaf and brighter light in early spring, fall and winter. Evergreens block more sunlight year-round. Even deep shade, usually produced by building walls or heavy hedging, can still accommodate interesting plantings.
Take steps to improve light before you plant. This can range from pruning back tree limbs to removing heavy-shading plants or can be as simple as finding a new location for the garbage cans. Remember, however, that shade-providers are usually growing things. Measures that might seem drastic, like heavy pruning, might improve light only for a couple of seasons.
Seek out plants known to favor shady locations. Among annuals, coleus, begonias and impatiens are well-known shade-lovers. Tender and more hardy perennials that bloom include astilbe, foxglove and wild geranium. Both azalea and rhododendron were forest plants before they became domesticated, flourishing under the filtered light of tree-canopies. Hostas and ferns both favor shade, while serving as excellent soil holders. Climbing and bush hydrangeas grow well in shade, although blooms can be later and smaller than they would be in sunnier locations. Shade-tolerant varieties of all these plants tend to be available in nurseries and garden centers throughout the country.
Learn about native plants that tolerate shade. Depending upon your region, trout lily, spiderwort, bloodrooot, hellbore and winterberry are some of the examples of the colorful shade-lovers we have discarded for brighter flower displays. Local nature centers, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the USDA plant database are all excellent sources of shade-loving plants, with some interesting history as a bonus. Research has yielded historic shade-tolerant roses and revived blueberry culture, along with shrubs such as spicebush. Native plants persist in part because of their adaptability to available light.
Plan for seasonal change. Your shade garden might be less shady in some seasons than others. If so, the location is ideal for spring bulbs and late-season flowers, when deciduous trees are budding or have lost their leaves. From aconite to daffodils, from lamia to plumbago, bulbs and ground-covers use available seasonal light to their advantage. Hardy mums, often forced, naturally prefer long-season growth before flowering in the fall.
Provide the nutrients shade-lovers might need as they compete with large-established shade-producers, like trees. Leaf mold and other mulch naturally sustain forest plants. Consult your local nursery for nourishing soil additions. Add your new shade bed to your watering schedule; while in nature it's catch-as-catch-can, regular watering will help your new plants establish well.