Low light is not the only problem facing the gardener with mature shade trees. The roots rob the surrounding soil of water and nutrients. They take up space in the soil. Pine straw, bark, or leaf litter is not the only option above the roots. By choosing the right plants, a garden will grow.
There is several striking shade plants that are shallow rooted and will settle into a dry, shady area. Hostas, variegated Solomon’s seal, cast iron plants (Aspidistra), heucheras, tiarellas, and hellebores look great in drifts under trees. The foliage of autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora), Japanese painted fern, and bear’s breeches (Acanthus) contrast with each other nicely in the shade.
Less common but worth finding are epimediums, daphne, sweet box (Sarcococca), sweet shrub (Clethra), and cinnamon fern.
In her high profile front yard, Hannah Rogers has created a lush garden in the shade of a huge old oak tree. The entrance to her Columbia, South Carolina home looks cool and inviting, even in the heat of summer.
Mixes of shrubs and understory trees help delineate a free-form flowerbed. A Japanese magnolia, Magnolia Soulangeana, anchors the bed near the front porch steps. A dogwood thrives under the spreading canopy of the oak. This planting bed was created twelve years ago. Sasanqua camellias, white flowering Japanese selections, were chosen for their spreading growth habit. Dark green pittosporum shrubs also afford evergreen winter structure and a subtle background for the summer perennials.
Euphorbia has settled in at one end near the house. Even though cultural directions said to plant it in full sun, Hannah planted it in the shade of the Japanese magnolia, and it has colonized one end of the bed. “I just try different things,” she said. Its distinctive miniature evergreen tree shapes, only about a foot tall, are further enhanced by deep bronze overtones on its round green leaves.
Near the street, sweet box, (Sarcococcahumilis) and liriope intermingle. The liriope is stoloniferous, traveling underground and coming up wherever it pleases. The sweet box shrubs are the ground cover form and also travel about. The contest between the two appears to be a draw.
Artemisia lactiflora is an unusual artemisia. Hannah planted some in full sun. They all died. The clump in the shade garden not only survives but also is prospering. It has dark leaves and sprays of tiny white flowers on nearly five-foot stems. “It has just been great in the shade,” she said.
The native sweet woodruff groundcover is less happy under the oak. “Sometimes it goes away and sometimes it comes back,” she said. Lamium ‘White Nancy’ along with the bold, white and green leaved caladiums, and swaths of impatiens, provide color.
A shade garden can take over the blah areas under trees by supplying tints of green foliage and pale or bright flowers. Fall is the perfect time to plant trees, shrubs, and perennials. Watering them their first year will relieve transplant stress and help them settle into their new home. A garden can grow in the shade, gloriously.