Many gardeners struggle with shady areas of the landscape, viewing such spaces as a challenge to overcome. But, by thinking of shade as an opportunity rather than an obstacle, we begin to appreciate the subtle magic of these landscape spaces.

The sturdy focal point offered by a shade tree and the chorus of life chirping in its branches can be the foundations of a beautiful and restful garden. The shade garden offers a welcome retreat during the heat of summer and can be a source of enjoyment any time of year. Here are some tips to create a shady retreat of your own.

Hardscapes add year-round appeal

As in any garden design, plan for yearlong interest and structure to carry the garden from season to season. The first source of structure in a garden comes in the form of hardscape.

Some shade gardens have built-in backdrops like walls or fences that can be used as a starting point in design. For shade beneath trees, consider adding a winding path and seating area. Paths, walls and other structures divide the landscape into more manageable garden spaces.

Plants provide structure

Plants are another important source of structure in the garden. Trees and shrubs provide interest throughout the year with lasting form, color and texture. Include a number of evergreen plants such as Yewtopia® Plum Yew in the shade garden to invigorate the winter landscape.    

Green foliage creates a foundation and should make up a large percentage of structural plantings, but don’t limit yourself to green. Colorful evergreens such as the delightful Purple Pixie® Loropetalum add excitement to the garden any time of year. Mix in flowering evergreen shrubs for even more variety. ScentAmazing™ Gardenia provides excellent structure, while the white flowers brighten dark corners and excite the senses.

Texture commands attention

Consider the visual texture of plant foliage when selecting plants for the garden. Texture describes the relative size of leaves, from fine to medium to coarse or bold. Most plants are medium textured. Using fine- and course-textured foliage adds interest, depth and contrast to a planting. Course-textured plants grab the viewer’s attention, making them excellent focal points. 

As such, the majority of plants in a design should be fine or medium textured to accentuate the focal point. But, that doesn’t mean they must be boring. ‘Soft Caress’ Mahonia provides magnificent fine-textured foliage, but also offers colorful blossoms and fruit to enrich the winter landscape. 

Understory trees and flowering shrubs offer focus

Understory trees and flowering shrubs make ideal focal points in the shade garden. Empress of China® Dogwood explodes with hundreds of blooms each spring. Its graceful structure and evergreen foliage create year-round interest in the shade garden. The showy ‘Big Daddy’ Hydrangea provides a riot of color over a long bloom season. In winter, the dried flower heads continue to catch the eye. Though an excellent specimen, mass plantings of ‘Big Daddy’ also work well as a backdrop. 

With the diversity of plant material available for shade, there has never been a better time to dig in and add new excitement to what was once thought of as difficult garden spaces.