Starting a garden in a densely shady backyard

cardwellaveJune 8, 2011

Hey all. Purchased my house one year ago and I would like to start tackling my back yard. The neighbors are all rude and commenting on it "do you want me to cut your weeds?" etc. I have really gotten into gardening out front but the back is so much shade, I don't even have grass. I really do avoid cutting much back there due to the fact that there was at one point and I believe there still is poison ivy back there. I really have no idea how to go about starting to tear into this mess!

I have eight trees. The one by the driveway is a golden raintree, the one in the middle of the yard is a horsechestnut, the one off by the fence by the house is a maple, and the other 5 are all evergreens (the ones in back are the long needle pines). Lots of shade, lots of needles, lote of leaves, lots of nitrogen. Some areas seem to get filtered sun. I would love to have less but I don't have the money to have them removed and ultimately I do like the trees and would hate to kill such a large living thing.

I would love to do stuff all around the borders and by the garage I would like to have a place to put another car. I had a thought of growing morning glories on the fence to the dumb neighbors couldnt comment on the yard as much but I figured they'd probably pull them down or Roundup them...and with the shade I'm not sure how they'd grow anyway.

Obviously theres some interesting shade plants out there but if anyone has any good ideas or has some great shade gardens feel free to share! My house was the only one on the block when the previous owners moved in and they sold off the land to all the houses around them. The size is good and I would love to start enjoying my yard!

Golden raintree

Poison ivy?

What used to be a garden? Looks like daylilies and there were muscari here in the spring.

Almost looks pretty.

I think these floppy shrubs are spirea. They don't flower densely...maybe because of the shade.

I want to do some sort of patio alongside near the fence. Evetually would like to replace that fence with white picket.

Same with this fence and gate. Oh and doesn't the beautybush look great? It's so messy though.

Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Shade is definitely not difficult to work with - you might have the real beginnings of a beautiful woodland garden back there!!!!

First thing I'd do is define some beds and paths. With that much shade, you might not be able to do much grass. Mulch your "beds" and paths (I'd use different mulches so they are clearly defined) to get rid of the weedy look immediately. Don't forget to put down paper or something first to lose those weeds. It reminds me a little of the camp I went to as a kid.

Ferns are going to really be your friend. Blue hostas really do better in shade than sun. Go for walks in your local woods and try and ID the plants there. You should be able to find well behaved versions (or somewhat well behaved) of those plants in garden centres and nurseries. I've also included a list from the Native Plant association of Michigan. If you go with native plants, chances are that you'll get them at a more reasonable price and can then splurge on the more exotic shady plants. Shade gardening is about textures over flowers. Make the shadows dancing over the plants your friends and you'll be very pleased with the results.

Here is a link that might be useful: Michigan Native Plant List

    Bookmark   June 8, 2011 at 6:43AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Weeding in the shade sure beats weeding in the sun. I love working in my shade beds. You might want to try some raised beds built up around trees. It allows you to plant close to the trees with less of a battle with the roots. Where you have deciduous trees, there are many colorful early spring bloomers you will be able to use, especially spring bulbs, but virginia bluebells would love it there and helebores and columbine would do well so color is a possibility for spring. If there are areas that get at least 3-4 hours of sun then iris and daylillies will work. I'll second greenthumb on the ferns and hostas. Stick with the blue, yellow and white/variegated hostas to lighten it up. There are beautiful burgundy leaved ligularia that love shade. Sweet woodruff is a great ground cover for shady areas. By the way - that doesnt look like poison ivy to me.

    Bookmark   June 8, 2011 at 7:17AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
Merilia(8 PNW)

I would be careful about putting in raised beds around trees.

Here is a link that might be useful: Someone who explains it better than I could

    Bookmark   June 8, 2011 at 10:59AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
newbiehavinfun(7a - Southern NJ)

I second the sweet woodruff, ferns, hosta, and spring bulbs. I would also add heuchera and lamium. With all of those trees, you are going to have some dry shade--your most limiting factor may be the tree roots rather than the shade. I agree with the idea of raised beds to combat that--at least a foot tall. You can also put in some shade-loving annuals, like impatiens, coleus and begonias for some summer color. Mulch would be a great help, and it will be much easier to keep weeds down in a shady yard. You can often get free or cheap wood chips from arborists; otherwise they have to pay to dump the chips somewhere. Call tree service companies and ask if they will be in your area, and tell them where you would like them to dump the wood chips (you can leave out a tarp so they know). Also: with all of those deciduous trees out back, you have an excellent source for compost! All you need is a means of shredding the fall leaves (say, one of those blowers that has a vacuum setting, with an attached bag), wetting them, maybe adding a little used coffee grounds to get it started, turn and water and voila! A lot of shade-loving plants also love rich soil, so adding compost at least yearly would be a great help to them.

    Bookmark   June 8, 2011 at 11:00AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
newbiehavinfun(7a - Southern NJ)


That IS a good point! I hadn't thought of that. I do, in fact, have raised vegetable beds near a mature maple tree, but not directly on or next to the tree, so hopefully it will be okay. Well, I think you might be limited to dry shade plants, then. Hosta, heuchera, some ferns, lamium, and sweet woodruff all do well in dry shade. Sweet woodruff is recommended for use on top of shallow-rooted trees (I don't know much about the two deciduous trees you have) and people often use pachysandra under conifers. You could always just mulch under trees and try to place the garden areas farther away from the trees. Containers are another option.

p.s. I reread your original post and you have just the two deciduous trees. You can compost pine needles but they take a lot longer to decompose.

    Bookmark   June 8, 2011 at 11:58AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
mbravebird(VA zone 7)

I'd define pathways first, like a previous poster said. Then look for some places to put large shade-loving bushes, like native rhododendrons and mountain laurel and viburnum and native hydrangea (oakleaf hydrangea, for example). Then outline your first mulched beds around those future bushes and the trees. Mow the weeds, lay down several layers of wet newspaper over the bed spaces, and cover the wet newspaper with mulch. Keep the rest mowed, and then take a breath. Your neighbors should stop complaining at that point.

Then you can think about planting those bushes and choosing some understory greenery that will form the main "look" of the beds and the woodland. I vote for ferns for sure, but you really have lots of options. As that greenery spreads over the years, you can also add shade-loving flowers, but they will really be just accents -- bleeding hearts, wild columbine (which reseeds and looks beautiful in a woodland setting), trillium (amazing in a woodland setting), celandine poppy, native phlox, hellebores.

You can also think about choosing a focal point or two as you design -- a place your eyes and your feet want to travel to as you look at the yard. A bench, an archway, something like that.

For inspiration, take a look at the woodland gardens in Gardening With Native Plants of the South, by Sally Wasowski. Everyone with shade should have that book. It's very inspiring, and often available at libraries.

Here is a link that might be useful: Here are some good woodland garden pictures

    Bookmark   June 8, 2011 at 12:31PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Not sure that is poison ivy (although I would err on the side of caution). It kind of looks like the box elder saplings I have around my yard...which I keep thinking are poison ivy. Poison ivy tends to have reddish leaves in spring and fall and here at least, it has pointed edges along the leaves when young.

I do have poison ivy also and found that if I wear gloves and then double up plastic grocery bags over my hands and arms, loosen the plants with a digging fork, pull them up and put the trash bags and plants directly into the trash, then wash up immediately afterwards with Tecnu, I hardly ever get poison ivy rash. And, I am slowly eliminating the poison ivy in the yard.

I also have a small wooded area and am working on getting a garden going in it. I did establish paths first and am working on getting them mulched. Then I laid down paper, coardboard, and put some topsoil and mulch on top. I am experimenting with a lot of different plants right now to see waht grows well where. I also have purchased a few small shrubs and planted them along the edges of the wooded area so that eventually I will have a nice layered effect (keeping fingers crossed).

As far as neighbors comments, I would try to take them in stride and assume the best of the neighbors. They may just want to help, after all, and not necessarily be annoyed by your yard or mean to be rude.

    Bookmark   June 8, 2011 at 1:32PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
christinmk z5b eastern WA

Wow, I think you have a wonderful space to start shade gardening in. I agree with above posters that shade gardens are easier to maintain than sun gardens.

What kind of look are you going for? Using mostly native plants (which I love) will give you a more subtle and calming space. Then you have the bold shade plants with bright colored foliage etc. that will give you more of a vibrant look.

A couple other plants that do well in dry shade are Polygonatum (Solomon's Seal) and Epimedium (fairy wings), which also do very well around the bases of trees. Geranium macrorrhizum, Geranium 'Samobor', Asarum (wild ginger), Persicaria like 'Red Dragon', and Corydalis lutea too. For groundcovers the above mentioned (sweet woodruff, lamium, and ajuga) would work very well.

Brunneras (false forget me nots) are wonderful too. The plain green leafed species (Brunnera macrophylla) would fit nicely with the subtle look of native/semi-native shade garden while some of the Brunnera cultivars with bright foliage would look fantastic in the vibrant shade garden.
Lots of others too! ;-)

    Bookmark   June 8, 2011 at 1:43PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

The best thing you can do is clean up the space before doing any plant buying. Good to have a plan worked out; just anything rough with the house, trees, fences and any features noted. There is a lot of information available on gardening in shade - lots of nice plants, too, when that time comes.

You can't do everything at once. Pick the spot that bothers you the most by moving a lawn chair around and looking at the yard from different vantage points.

Spirea hasn't bloomed yet here in a zone one lower than yours. Yours just needs a good pruning to rejuvenate it. Best time is right after blooming - cut out any dead branches, trim down the top. In fact, you can cut the whole thing down to within six inches of the ground if you're feeling brave. They would prefer as much sun as they can get, but sometimes you have to work with what you've got.

    Bookmark   June 8, 2011 at 1:57PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Oh and the people behind the neighbor next to me have box elders, so that could be what that is!

    Bookmark   June 8, 2011 at 2:10PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
sprout_wi(z4 WI)

Hi- I have a very large shade garden and agree with many of the great suggestions you have already received. I also have Asiatic lilies, hydrangeas, climbing hydrangeas, Turtlehead shrubs, Clematis, Tiger eye sumac,and most of the plants mentioned above. You may want to add a birdbath and a feeder or two. As suggested, I would put in the pathways first. Divide your yard into sections and then the task will not seem so overwhelming. You will do great, and please post photos as you go along. Good luck.

    Bookmark   June 8, 2011 at 2:28PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
girlgroupgirl(8 ATL)

Pointing out a few things. The "Don't Do That" website is OK (the tree advice is good), but MULCH and yes, you can use wood chips (that's crazy advice not to, if you read anything about organic gardening & creating woodland type soils, and especially permiculture you'll understand the need for woody materials and decomposition). So if you want to use wood chips and have mulch, it's fine.
I noticed that the photos listed above show much higher, brighter shade. Your shade is very low, and it is dense. This can make it more difficult to garden under. If you can swing it, perhaps you can have some canopy removed from some of the trees (not the conifers, of course). Opening them up might help their own growth, and it will give you more light space.
You have some gorgeous areas that you can really go crazy in, especially the edges of your yard where light is coming in via the neighbors yards. Other areas can be "scaped" and made to look more integrated into the garden, even if they are hard to garden in (such as directly under the trees or around their roots). Since you have conifers you may have birds, so starting a birding could be pretty and useful - bird houses and feeders, a nice seating area for you (not directly under either... oops, poops!!!).

Containers here and there (not over the whole root system) with interesting plants that could survive the shade like low growing native plants, or sedums/hens and chicks. Interesting larger rocks and stones can add interest.

The link below shows several very shady mature gardens: one with a small water feature, one with a stone bench - part of what those gardens seem to focus on is the open spaces in interesting shapes - breaks in the trees, low vistas. Look at the photos carefully. It's the order of the garden that makes them interesting, and what is seen at bench level or water level. There are so many elements to a garden that make good design, and comfortable places. It's not just oodles of plants, it can be space to enjoy the oodles of plants from a bit of a distance.

Here is a link that might be useful: Belfast Garden Tours

    Bookmark   June 8, 2011 at 4:31PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
plantmaven(8b/9a TX)

Do some research on lasagna gardening. You won't kill yourself with digging.

I did have one tree removed. It was where the dark compost is on the left in picture # 1.
In the front circle there are 2 live oaks and 1 juniper.
I had a man come cut a lot of lower branches on the trees. Now the shade is not so dense.

Feb. 2007

Sept. 2007

June 2009

Easter 2010

Things had to be planted higgledy-piggledy to avoid tree roots. By using compost and mulch, I did not add any soil to smother any roots.
This type is very easy to do. I was 64 when my sister and I did the first picture.

    Bookmark   June 8, 2011 at 6:49PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

You've heard all the right advice. I think your spirits would be much better if you do as several people suggest: lay out some paths and mulch the rest. Put newspapers down and mulch. If you open the newspaper the sections fall into a number of sheets that are the perfect number to lay down. I think it is usually four. (I'm saying this to make it seem like even less work)
You can get to know your neighbors better :" Hi my name is....and I'm wondering if you could save your newspapers...." When we ran out in the middle of a project I confess I went to those free newspaper boxes and took a bunch from several in different locations!

Even if you plant nothing for months, just having it weed free will make you feel better. And you are building the soil.

Oh, and don't get stymied by not knowing where to put paths. Just mulch everything and the path and gardens will just develop in your imagination over time.

    Bookmark   June 8, 2011 at 10:45PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

So would you basically recommend laying newspaper over basically the whole yard? I'm sure it's a big project but would probably be the easiest thing to do.

    Bookmark   June 8, 2011 at 11:06PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
girlgroupgirl(8 ATL)

Yes to your last question. It is time consuming, can be physical but it is the easiest thing to do at least finanically, to begin. It's cheap, effective and man, your soil is gonna love you.
I am basically doing this with 3/4 of an acre. Slowly, bit by bit. Since I have more access to cardboard, that's what I am using. The one big project will save you time and energy in the long run: no more weed wacking down the weeds. You can concentrate on soil building and laying out beds and things. Plus you will have saved a ton of money to get your trees pruned up a bit :)

    Bookmark   June 8, 2011 at 11:15PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Can't wait to see pictures as you go along. Just wanted to chime in to encourage you that while it sounds like a big job, it is so neat that you have all those trees to work around! You can always add beds & paths & things, but you can't add trees like that - - at least not without waiting about 15 years!! In fact, I've been trying to find ideas on how to make a tree-less backyard resemble what you've already got! Have fun - it will be beautiful.

I'm sure you know this - but there is a woodland forum that might give you some ideas too - I think there's also a shade one as well.

    Bookmark   June 9, 2011 at 7:57AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
plantmaven(8b/9a TX)

I used cheap roofing paper. aka tar paper. A local county agricultural agent told me to use the roofing paper. Several questioned that, but I have lots of earthworms to prove that it did no damage to them.
Very easy, as you just roll it out where you want it. Hold it down with anything, pots, stones, logs, bricks, etc.
Notice the dates of the first two pics. I went from tar paper to garden of the month in just 7 months.

What ever is under the paper will decompose and feed your soil.
If you want to plant something before it is decomposed, just cut a hole in the paper and dig just enough for that one plant.
The tree I had cut down was an Arizona Ash, which is a trash tree here. usually planted as part of the
builder's landscaping.
You can do as little or as much as you want over time.

Good luck!


    Bookmark   June 9, 2011 at 8:56AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

You've got a lot of good advice to start you off. I'll add my 2 cents worth :-)

My backyard is almost entirely shade except a bit in the center, which is now the only space where there is lawn. (See the link below to a thread on the Woodlands Gardening forum for pictures, plan and description of my shade garden...) The biggest problem with the shade garden here is mosquitoes! I do the vast majority of my gardening work in the spring before they come out of hibernation and again in the fall when they've gone back into hibernation. In mid summer, I relax and enjoy the garden largely from the shelter of the back porch! When I do my regular tree seedling patrols, I wear a bug shirt :-)

By 'long needle pines' do you mean white pines? I have two and there are others on the neighbouring properies that affect us too. They are my favorite evergreens! The annual needlecast provides lots of lovely mulch - it all gets raked into the garden beds where it is left to rot down naturally to the benifit of the plants there. Directly under the skirt of the pines, Sweet Woodruff is the main planting. Closer to the edge of the canopy, other shade plants tolerant of fairly dry conditions e.g. perenial geraniums, brunnera, some ferns will do well. Hostas and Solomon's Seal make a nice combination in there as well. The list of shade plants you'll want in the garden is almost endless :-)

Shade gardening is very rewarding - lots of beautiful plants and interesting combinations. Work out at least a rough idea of what you want to do and then get started. Mowing those weeds so you have a better feel for the space and conditions is a good thing to do while you're in the early stages of thinking about it as a garden rather than a weedy wasteland!

Good luck.

Here is a link that might be useful: shade garden

    Bookmark   June 9, 2011 at 9:36AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Cardwellave, what I would do is focus on one project at a time. This is too large an area to think about mulching the entire area at once. Please do not mulch too heavily close to the trunks of large trees or even over their root systems too much. It can kill trees. Mulch lightly to the drip line. If you use the pine needles under the pines and the leaves (you can leave them whole as in nature) under the deciduous trees that is their natural mulch and will discourage weeds and help feed the trees naturally.

First I would identify the plants I wished to keep. Do a (roughly) to scale plan of this area with your house, trees, plants, patio, and parking spaces on it. Then weedwhack everything else. That won't get rid of the weeds but should slow down seeding and look neater for awhile until you can get to mulching every area. Then I would start at my house and work back. Make an area you can enjoy sitting in near your house, perhaps a patio or even just a mulched area for now where you can have some chairs and side tables. That may be enough to keep you busy until fall. As you work in the area and walk around you will see where paths may best be situated. Using cardboard or newspaper (I've found cardboard works much better) and mulch on the paths will begin to define the areas. You will also see where the shade is more, or less, dense. There are different types of shade and some plants will tolerate more and some less. If you need some pretty flowering plants I recommend making a few containers using shade plants and placing them in your patio area.

Good luck - you have a great space to work with and the neighbors will be amazed at what you will accomplish.

Plantmaven, I always enjoy seeing the miracle you and your sister created in your front yard!

    Bookmark   June 9, 2011 at 11:01AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

whether you take the "mulch it all" approach or "design it now" approach depends in part on your 'makeup'. If I had a new house, a new front garden, neighbors who are a little annoyed by the grass and not much time or money for a lot of plants, I'd mulch it all.

I'd put in a "holding bed" built up now with compost etc about a 8 inches deep...near a water source and back door where you can keep an eye on it. I'd put the woodland plants I love, bought on sale or given by friends .or the tiny starts I want to grow on to full size. I really do believe that the longer you look at this pristine canvas you will know exactly what you want to do.

Can you tell I'm a kind "organic" thinker who thinks of the process even before the product?? But that's my personality, and it drives some people crazy!

Borrow books from library, make color copies of designs you love. Beg plant catalogues, print from the web what you love.

Collect ;newspapers. BTW, I wonder if the previous poster meant "roofing paper"? I don't believe yuo want actual tar paper in garden. That's a great idea!

Begin a plant list. Keep it in your wallet so when you see excellently grown plants cheap you can buy and put in your holding bed.

Get that front bed self sustaining then you'll have time for "the " backyard project.

Good luck! Will you keep us posted with your progress and with photo updates?


    Bookmark   June 9, 2011 at 12:50PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Let me put in my two cents... The kinds of trees you have are the kinds that suck out a lot of water from the ground. It's not just the shade you need to contend with but competition for water. In fact, the trees prevent water from reaching the ground. Notice the lack of vegetation under the spruce especially? Also the needles from the spruce help to acidify the soil. The best way to utilize this area is by mulching them and using container plantings. you can easily mulch with shredded cedars or use river rocks (making a nice japanesque type garden).. or build a low deck beneath the trees, wrapping the platform around the trees.. Makes for an interesting conversation piece. In fact, these area would make a nice patio area. you can hang lanterns, have containered plants.. chairs, tables...


    Bookmark   June 10, 2011 at 4:29PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
lavendrfem(z6 CT)

Hi Cardwellave,
What an exciting project you have going there - nice work. I guess what you do depends on the resources you have. If you can't afford to do the whole yard at once - start with an area closest to the house. When I bought my house in '06 I did as you and tackled the front yard first, the following year I worked on the foundation plants and then started beds in the backyard. (Ignore the neighbors and do as you see fit). You have a wonderful shade garden site back there - and some areas of dappled sun. As mentioned above grow ferns, hostas, but also columbine, lilies of the valley (those these can be invasive), bleeding hearts, forget-me-nots. Good luck! Keep the pictures coming - we'd love to see your progress...

    Bookmark   June 12, 2011 at 10:13AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Yes I have lilies of the valley out front and they are quite invasive. They were there when I bought the house and they popup EVERYWHERE.

    Bookmark   June 12, 2011 at 10:31AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Essentially I think the whole yard is somewhat mulched since I didn't rake up last years leaves. I put a little newspaper down in one of the summer spots but also dug a hole for a spare bee balm I had (one of my top 5 favorite plants) and the soil was very soft and diggable "loamy". I will contine to newspaper areas but to get to dirt there is about a 2 inch layer of leaves and dead things almost everywhere. I think I will try to do a bed or two this year and have a nice sitting area. The rest will follow next season. I will continue to post pictures!

    Bookmark   June 12, 2011 at 2:24PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
sprout_wi(z4 WI)

Cardwellave- I use the newspaper method, but I only add the paper around one plant at a time. I have found that if too much paper goes down under the mulch, it is hard to dig into it when you want to add another plant later. Also, I use Roundup spray weed killer on any weeds that pop up. When mulching, do leave some space close to the plant so the water can get down to the roots.

    Bookmark   June 12, 2011 at 3:22PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
plantmaven(8b/9a TX)

Those "leaves and dead stuff" will be compost. Provided from your own trees. Good stuff.

I see you home in a different light now that I know what you have already done.


    Bookmark   June 12, 2011 at 7:03PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
rock_oak_deer(8b TX)

You are doing such a great job. Your backyard will be so nice soon. The next time the neighbors comment you should say "Why yes, come on over any time and weed or mow, thank you so much for offering!"

    Bookmark   June 12, 2011 at 9:41PM
Sign Up to comment
More Discussions
Just a little test post -
I'm trying to see how the new posting works. First,...
ThinMan Z5 MI
Weekend Trivia: Sunday
Good morning cottagers! Do you remember how I was bemoaning...
cyn427 (zone 7)
HAVE: Weeping Willow & Tortured Willow Cuttings
I am rooting Weeping Willow (Salix babylonica) cuttings. I...
Removing leaf mulch
Anyone in Northeast Ohio remove the leaf mulch (or...
Aftermidnight (and others please) question
Hi Annette, I am finding this Houzz hard to navigate...
© 2015 Houzz Inc. Houzz® The new way to design your home™