rookie gardener dealing with all shade

AshtashMay 31, 2013

Hi. This is my new yard, please excuse the clutter. I get a few minutes of dappled sun in the evenings. My front yard is the same way except it also gets an hour or so of morning dapple. I have one square facing the east that gets 4-5 hours of full sun. Other than that I'm lotsa shade. I have cleared about three years worth of dead leaves and have finally began to grow spotchy grass where the sun dapples in. I want to add color and pretty to this brown/ grey back yard. When I dig in the dirt, it is good black soil full of worms but also full of under -ground root both large and small.
I am a rookie. In the truest since of the word. I have been looking for shade plants and Hostas seem to be the answer i get most. But what about color? Besides impatiens? ANd should I raise beds around the trees before planting Hostas or anything else? Any advice or thoughts greatly appreciated.

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another shot of the back yard. Trees and shade. Shade and trees.

    Bookmark   May 31, 2013 at 5:17PM
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Even my front yard is shade. The people who lived here before killed the grass by parking on it. I have monkey grass planted in the front but need to seperate them and space them better this fall I guess?

    Bookmark   May 31, 2013 at 5:20PM
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PKponder TX(7b)

Don't take this the wrong way, but you will not be able to grow grass in that much shade. I had a similar front yard as far as the shade and dirt situation. I've come to the conclusion that I may as well quit putting down sod every spring, it just dwindles away from lack of sun. I've been covering mine up with a variety of shade loving ground covers and some native and shade loving plants.
Ground covers:
Mondo Grass sedums
creeping jenny
hardy blue plumbago
These all multiply well so will eventually fill the area if given enough water to thrive.
We also created a flagstone patio to 'use up' some of the space.

Plants that do well for me are turk's cap(I have red and pink varieties), hydrangea, ferns and hosta. Inland sea oat add height and interest with their seed heads that hang on all season. I have strategically placed gerbera daisies, dianthus, geraniums, ect as pops of color in the areas that get a bit of sun.

Here's what we moved into in 2009. The ivy and asian jasmine were green but the lawn was awful.

Here is what it looked like a couple weeks ago when we finished the limestone patio. Very untidy with my pots and tools everywhere.

    Bookmark   June 1, 2013 at 11:53AM
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I agree with the comments about trying to grow lawn grasses in that much shade - it is just an exercise in frustration. Grass doesn't grow well in shade.

And avoid raised beds aound the trees. Raising the soil level over the root zone of trees is a pretty sure way of killing them. You effectively smother the roots. I'd go with just a groundcover under the trees and confine more decorative plantings to the periphery or closer to the house. Like where the sidewalk and driveway meet. The excessive rootiness and dryness of the soil (as a result of that rootiness) will limit a lot of what you can do, but these issues should be relatively lmited in these areas

EIther order online or find at the library a book titled The Complete Shade Gardener by George Schenk. It will be the best investment in your garden you make. It will help you plan out the space for best effect and help you choose what to plant and how to care for it. Almost your own personal shade garden landscape designer :-) And don't forget about container plantings and garden ornaments - these can bring a lot of color into a shady garden that is sometimes difficult to get just with plants.

    Bookmark   June 1, 2013 at 6:10PM
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Ashtash, what a pretty property you have there. I completely agree with the others here about grass...forget it except for the space where you might get enough sun. Being out of your zone, I would not be able to recommend any plants, but you have gotten some good advice from others here.

PK, what a wonderful transformation of your property, a true woodland garden. Interesting, peaceful, nice to look at. As for the ivy, it's so bad crawling up the trees, glad you got it down. I don't mind ivy when it's the small leaf and watered and kept under control.

    Bookmark   June 2, 2013 at 12:39PM
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Thank you all. I was afraid of not being able to grow grass in the front there. It just gets light dappled sun throughout the morning and afternoon. I know that the people who lived here first, parked and drove on it. I was hoping aierating it would help, tho I havent tried it yet. Grass is now growing here and there in the back yard since Ive removed all of those leaves. They were piles upon piles of wet dead rotting leaves. The good news is, the back yard has great soil because of all that mulch and compost. There are a few trees I can plant around for sure, but has moss all around the bottom and someone said not to raise a bed around a tree for smothering it. So can anything be planted there? the backyard has great potential for a shaded woodland garden but I have so many questions.
I appreciate your tips. Maybe next summer I will have a nice "after" picture to share.

    Bookmark   June 2, 2013 at 3:41PM
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You have a lovely site and the suggestions you've received so far are right on the mark. I would worry more about the compacted soil where they parked those cars - it could eventually cause decline and death of the affected tree(s). Aeration in that area might be a good idea as long as it does not inflict grevious harm to the tree roots.

Aside from casting shade, the trees will be heavy competition with any grass for water and nutrients, and since the trees usually win out you might as well stick with things that grow well in such conditions.

There are so many to choose from, although we are in similar zones, I hesitate to recommend, but following is a partial list of what I have in the areas of my garden that receive part to full shade from tall oak trees: We are near the shore, but not where we get salt-spray, with a very poor, sandy soil which I have amended in the beds with home-made compost and purchased mushroom compost. In fall, I use shredded oak leaves for winter mulch (the shredder was one of the best investments I ever made).

Perennials: Tiarella, myosotis (perennial forget-me-not), regular and variegated solomon's seals, coralbells, dicentras - eximia and spectabilis (bleeding hearts - fern leaf and old fashioned, respectively), hostas, a variety of ferns, pulmonaria (lungwort), helleborus, epimedium, astilbe, polemonium (Jacob's ladder), cimicifuga, native wild ginger, goldenseal, mayapple, dodecatheon (shooting star), cultivated daylily varieties, great blue lobelia, jack in the pulpit, trillium, tricyrtis (toad lily), aquilegia (columbine)

Shrubs and woody vines: Clethra (summersweet), azalea, rhododendron, itea, calycanthus (carolina allspice), hydrangeas, climbing hydrangea, hardy jasmine 'Madison', leucothoe, glossy abelia, red twig dogwood, fothergilla, tree peony, pieris, native honeysuckle, yew, mockorange, deutzias (old fashioned "fuzzy deutzia" and a dwarf cultivar 'Nikko'), aucuba japonica (gold dust plant)

Understory trees: amelanchier (serviceberry), redbud, sweet bay magnolia, magnolia grandifolia 'Bracken's Brown Beauty', mountain laurel

Spring bulbs seem to get enough sun before the canopy fills out to enable them to naturalize and bloom year after year: some tulips, species tulips, snowdrops (galanthus), chionodoxa, daffodils, dwarf German iris, hardy cyclamen.

I expect I've left some out, but you can begin so see how much is available ... and there's much more. Among the plants I'm hoping to add are spicebush, Virginia bluebells and woodland peonies. Many plants in my garden are not native, but I've been incorporating more natives in recent years and have seen a concurrent increase in the number and diversity of native wildlife - both birds and insects (including may beneficial insects).

Some of the above prefer more sun than others and a few get a half-day (or almost) of sun. The understory trees are good for giving a nice layered look, transitioning from the high tree canopy to the plants beneath.

Remember that most plants that grow in the shade tend to have less showy flowers than those that grow in full sun - I like to go with that and create a garden that appears cool, relaxing and refreshing (even though our summer heat and humidity don't feel that way). I tuck delicate little flowers like epimedium in where they will be found and appreciated, like little gems, when exploring or sitting in the garden.

This post was edited by agardenstateof_mind on Sun, Jun 2, 13 at 21:34

    Bookmark   June 2, 2013 at 4:56PM
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agardenstateof_mind has lots of great plants listed for you. It looks like you're also going to be dealing with fairly dry soil- a lot like my yard when we moved in. I started with hostas because they were easy to find and could be had for cheap at discount garden centers (they also multiply quickly so you"ll have more to move around in no time). Crested Iris, Toad lily, Foam Flower, Wood Poppy, Astilbe, Solomon Seal, Columbine, Hellebores, and Epimediums (which have become my personal dry shade favorite) all live happily and harmoniously in my shady patch a land.

Ajuga, Sweet Woodruff, Wild Ginger are all workhorses in my garden. They do a great job of covering up the dirt and helping to keep the weeds at bay. Groundcovers, by nature, tend to be aggressive, but these three are all very easy to pull up if they start growing where they shouldn't.

    Bookmark   June 6, 2013 at 7:10AM
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I dunno. My first house had deep shade in the back yard and I planted grass seeds for dense shade. It was really beautiful. I hated to mow it. I did have rich soil on that lot, so that made a difference I guess. You might try a small spot to see what happens.

    Bookmark   June 12, 2013 at 10:07PM
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I wish I had all that shade! There are lots of shade plants to choose from. Hostas, Huechera, Rhodies, Lily of the Valley, Liriope, Ajuga,Pennywort, Mountain Laurel, Bishops weed, Sweet woodruff, Brunnerra, Astilbe,Lungwort, Bamboos (clumpers don't spread much) Ferns, Pachysandra,Vinca, Tradescantia, Perennial Cranesbill, Houtiana, Solomons seal, Yellow waxbells, Companula, Foamy bells, Huecherrella. Likely many that I haven't heard of that you can grow in your warmer zone. I wish all my oaks and other trees would provide all the shade you have. There are many plants that I can't think of to mention now. If you don't like to fuss with yard work the shade perennials are a blessing. Just my opinion.

    Bookmark   June 14, 2013 at 5:04AM
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Before buying, trading, adopting or otherwise accepting plants for your property, please check to see if they are invasive in your area. Years ago, not knowing better, I planted a gift of variegated bishops weed (aegopodium) and chamaleon plant (houttuynia). They spread like wildfire and I'm still trying to get rid of them. Houttuynia is classified as an invasive plant in NJ. Pachysandra will also spread quickly via underground runners. Many gardeners complain that tradescantia seems to reseed all over the place, though I've found that the variety 'Sweet Kate' is not as prolific. Solomon's seal will also spread, but is at least native and quite easy to pull up if it creeps out of bounds, so give it room.

The problem with invasive, non-native plants is that they spread quickly, outcompeting native plants, thereby reducing or eliminating habitat for our native wildlife like namely birds and beneficial insects such as pollinators and those that keep pest insects under control.

With that high tree canopy, you have a wonderful opportunity to develop a layered woodland-type garden that will prove enjoyable for you, your family and visitors, as well as a our native wildlife. Diversity of plants = diversity of wildlife species. If you want to explore this further:

New Jersey Invasive Species Strike Team at
National Wildlife Federation Backyard Habitat at
The importance of conscientous gardening by Doug Tallamy at

Sorry if I sound preachy, but not only is supporting our native wildlife important for our survival, native plants are well-suited to a region and tend to require less input (water, fertilizer, labor, etc.) ... giving you less work and more time to enjoy the garden and its inhabitants.

    Bookmark   June 14, 2013 at 9:47AM
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