I need help with a completely shady backyard!

stacymacmanAugust 3, 2006

I have a backyard that is complete shade. This is due to a very large maple tree and also a large oak tree. I have included a couple of pictures for you to get a general idea. We have tried to grow grass to no avail. I would love to be able to sit in my backyard and enjoy it for once. I would love any ideas you have. Thanks so much.



There is already a 25x30 brick patio to the left, which you can't see very well in these pictures!

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Hope these picture codes work!

    Bookmark   August 3, 2006 at 6:56PM
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Stacey, can feel your pain, but not as difficult as you may think. Work with what you have not against it. I live on very old property for more than 40 years. It was wooded with pine trees when I arrive and while raising my family all the other trees grew. This applies to all four sides of my house. Little by little, I made wood chip paths, and rock borders, designed flower beds out of found bricks, put benches/chairs and objects of interest, birdbaths planted with impatience all around, bought all clearance bushes from food stores and the like versus nursurys---usually costing about $5 a piece. Explored hostas--all different shades of green and line paths with them.

I guess I have been saying try to think out of the box. Lawns are pretty, and they also have their own problems, but if you are unable to go that route, think again and look over magazines and then take your grounds, one area at a time and believe me in time you will have a relaxing setting to sit and admire.

    Bookmark   August 4, 2006 at 1:05PM
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ademink(z5a-5b Indianapolis)

I agree, mulching, paths, etc could lead to a beautiful shade garden! If it were me, I would start w/ some foundational items. Those can be either hardscape structures or understory trees like dogwoods, redbuds, serviceberry, etc. It's much easier to build around foundational items than to just stare at a blank pallette. Also, try to break your yard up into rooms or zones and take one part at a time, while keeping in mind the entire outside "house" and how it will fit together.

    Bookmark   August 4, 2006 at 2:41PM
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I agree, ademink. Treating certain areas of your yard space for rooms is exactly what I do. Very well put

    Bookmark   August 4, 2006 at 3:58PM
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sandykk(z6 MD)

I would start by getting a professional tree trimmer in there and have them thin the trees out and limb them up as much as possible. Let some light in there and give whatever you do end up planting some air and more light. We have very tall maples creating our shade in my hosta garden.

    Bookmark   August 14, 2006 at 2:36PM
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Great suggestions so far. Once you get a plan, hardscape goal figured out you start searching for sales. I got my shady yard planted by working at a local green house in February, for plants. Hosta were my answer sprinkled with your bleeding hearts, astilbe, huecheras, Jack-in-the pulpits, ferns, Solomons seal. For color explore the annuals. In pots along paths in interesting containers they add punch and color. Pick a theme. I have a bird house garden, a gnome garden, a prayer garden. All adorned with stuff I made or picked up at tag sales. Jump over to the garden Junk forum. You will get wonderful ideas.

    Bookmark   August 14, 2006 at 7:02PM
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knottyceltic(S/W Ontario 5b)

Keep your proverbial glass "half full". Look at your yard like a beautiful "blank canvas" and think positively... you don't need to even REMOVE sod in order to make your gardens.

I agree with the others. Find inexpensive ways to create paths, garden "rooms" and focal point features and you will have the BEST garden on the whole block. Some cities collect Christmas trees and yard waste and provide free compost and wood chips to residents so long as you pick them up. Some cities will even deliver for a small fee. Make yard sale'ing a weekly excursion during summer and you will find awesome little garden features such as fountains, windchimes, plants, pots, bird baths, bird feeders, garden chairs and benches, bird houses and little nick nacks that might suit your taste. Grab nicely shaped/textured rocks from the roadside, attend plant swaps and join the seed swapping forums. Watch the paper for residents having plant sales and churches selling perennials/annuals to raise money. Make a friend in your neighbourhood who loves gardening and you can make swaps. Before you know it your garden will be a showpiece! :o)

The variety of shade plants you can use are abundant and just because it's shade, doesn't mean that you can have loads of colour as well. Even plants who's flowers aren't that particularly "gorgeous" can have the most interesting foliages that you don't need the flowers for them to put on a good show.

Here are just a sampling of all the wonderful plants/shrubs you can place in your backyard which is fully shaded:


Bleeding Hearts
Ferns (hundreds of varieties)
Hostas (hundreds of varieties)
Columbines (hundreds of varieties, shapes, sizes, colours etc)
Coral Bells
Solomon's Seals (several varieties)
May Apple
Jacob's Ladder
Pulmonarias (great varieties to choose from and super foliage)
Toad Lilies
Globe Flowers
Wild Ginger
Cardinal Flower
Asiatic Lilies (can grow in filtered shade)
Foxglove (can take dappled shade)
Lady's Mantle
Spiderwort (dappled shade)
Lily of the valley (caution: can get out of control)
Virginia Bluebells
Mosses (great for little "fairy garden features" or pond areas)
Bugleweed (good for groundcover but can spread too far)

Then there are shade ANNUALS:

Coleus (large varieties of size and colour combos)
Elephant Ears
Bachellor Buttons

***I'm not an annual gardener so others may be able to add to the list***

SHRUBS for shade... here are a few that I have in my woodland garden:

Highbush Cranberry
Silky Dogwood
Pagoda/Alternate Leaf Dogwood
Redbud (large shrub/small tree depending on how you prune it)
Winged Sumac
Arrow Wood Viburnum

***I'm a native gardener so these are all natives to my region that do well in full shade***

Have fun with your project and update us with photos as you work on the yard.

southern Ontario, CANADA

    Bookmark   August 19, 2006 at 11:31AM
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My garden was full deciduous shade when I first saw it, although a tornado subsequently opened up some sunny spots. It took a lot of trial and error to work out how to deal with it, especially since there is nothing but sand underfoot, and it freezes hard in winter and bakes in summer.

I agree with previous comments about perennials for shade. I would add the many epimediums and disporums. Although I would suggest you start with native species as foundation planting, there are many East Asian species that do well in shade. Look beyond the hostas.

It's also worth looking at high-altitude plants, many of which prefer some shade at lower altitudes. The columbines are a case in point. Summer-dormant plants are worth investigating too, because they will get their light before the maple is in full leaf.

Above all, however, think about bulbs. Most of the spring bulbs get all their sunlight early in the year, some summer bulbs such as English bluebells are happy in shade, and some fall-flowering bulbs such as the colchicums put up their foliage in the spring.

I would recommend the use of variegated or bright foliage for groundcover and structural plants, to create patches of artificial brightness among the dark green shadows. I would also suggest that you build areas of shady rock garden or peat garden, to make vertical changes in the terrain and to create different views and surprises.

Don't try to do everything in one year. Make a broad plan, and work on one area at a time, getting it right. This will save you a lot of grief over lost plants.

    Bookmark   August 22, 2006 at 2:14PM
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get inspired with a book on japanese gardens. They are the masters of shade. Some large rocks and a water feature along with ferns and shade tolerant bamboo. Add some seating and you will feel so relaxed everytime you go out there. My friend did an all green shady space and its so calming. Also it feels cool and inviting. Water is the key. The great thing about japanese design is that you can just do a small part of your yard and get big results. The rest of the space you can use to have a patio or build raised beds or mounds and grow some fantastic plants and flowers. I think having different levels in a yard makes it seem much larger. We have ours flatter and more open near the house for entertaining and built some little hills using big rocks in the rear. People get drawn back to the more wooded section where the water is. The sound of the water just reaches the rear door of the house. The great thing about gardening is that you can always change your mind later. I have seen more charming shady spaces than sunny ones. Grass isnt everything.

    Bookmark   August 26, 2006 at 2:14AM
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Great ideas above. Try lamium for ground cover--its silver varigation really lights ups shade, use different ground covers to help define your rooms and create different textures around your plantings.
And think UP! Use your fence (it looks like you get some sun along the fence line). If so, try a floribunda rose--there are also some climbing roses that will take part shade. Climbing hydrangas are beaufiful in all seasons.
Use tall planters to vary height and to make the most of the sun they get (I have a brass tuba standing upright with potted sun annuals).
Look for sales so that, if you make a mistake, you won't feel as badly with your experiment.
If you have visions of spending time in your yard relaxing, a shade garden is the best--it's so serene.

    Bookmark   August 27, 2006 at 10:48AM
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mamcc(z7/8 NC)

Not sure what zone you live in but, in my area ajuga and mazus do fabulous in the shade. I also have a very shady yard and use mazus as a ground cover instead of grass. It grows very thick and bonus - in the spring it has little lavendar flowers.

    Bookmark   August 27, 2006 at 11:30PM
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I have a patio in New York city and much of it is in the shade. Suggestions so far have been great. Thanks especially to knottyceltic for the plant list.
A couple of additions... periwinkle is a favorite of mine and does very well. Sweet woodruff and Goutweed (bishops weed) cover areas well too..
BUT all of these can be invasive. If they spread on the surface its easy just to pull up. If they spread underground (like goutweed) I plant them in long plastic window pots and then bury the whole pot in the earth. The plastic contains the root system and the plant when established hides the edges of the container. It makes it easier to thin/divide plants later too... just take the whole container out of the ground.
Another find this year for the shade in my garden has been calladiums, BUT they can't take cold so its best to dig them up and take them indoors for the winter and replant when the SOIL is at or above 70.
All the best

    Bookmark   August 29, 2006 at 6:58PM
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What can I grow in a shade area that will prevent people from cutting through a short cut on my property thats about 5 ft wide.thorny and stiff brush,quick growing etc. Any suggestions appreciated........Also How can I trnsplant some Poison Ivory where they broke into my garage,I need to get some vegetation in these area as a deterent

    Bookmark   September 2, 2006 at 8:33PM
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LOL--only about your ideas of deterrents, not the break-in.
Don't know what zone you're in, but barberry, if in sun, is thorny, will form a barrier, but, if you're in a neighborhood where break-ins are an issue, you might want to think carefully before screening your house from view. In this case, you might want to try putting in a berm, so they would have to walk up hill to take a short cut.

    Bookmark   September 3, 2006 at 3:54PM
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I was wondering how this was coming along? I know it's been a long time!

    Bookmark   August 10, 2013 at 3:31PM
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great ideas...cannot add anything but look at a lot of shade garden pictures, books etc and see what you like.

    Bookmark   October 13, 2013 at 1:36PM
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Although this is an older thread, just for the benefit of anyone reading now:

Japanese barberry is an invasive, non-native plant that escapes cultivation and crowds out native plants. There are a few studies that found higher levels of deer ticks in areas where there was Japanese barberry.

"Hardy orange" (poncirus trifoliata) has large, nasty spikes, but is also an invasive, non-native species.

Hawthorn can be used to create an impenetrable hedge and is native.

I've heard that good thorny roses have been helpful as a deterrent, and there are some that can take some shade, but stay away from the invasive multiflora rose.

    Bookmark   October 14, 2013 at 11:03AM
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Just to amend the above post:

While concerns about invasive plants can be well-founded, it is important to realize that invasiveness is highly dependent on location - what is invasive in one area of the country is unlikely to be equally invasive everywhere else. As an example, neither Japanese barberry OR bitter orange are considered invasive across much of the western half of the US.......and bitter orange (Poncirus) is not even hardy lower than zone 6.

Check with your state department of natural resources or other local invasive species governing authority before unnecessarily eliminating what may be very site appropriate species.

    Bookmark   October 16, 2013 at 3:00PM
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