By Susanne von Rosenberg, UC Master Gardener of Napa County
One of the challenges many gardeners face is how to make shady spots look good. Fortunately, many beautiful, flowering native plants thrive in shade.
When you are planning your shade garden, analyze what kind of shade you're dealing with. Is it deep, all-day shade, such as in a redwood or pine forest? Do you have full shade for part of the day from a fence or other structure, and then sun the rest of the day? Perhaps you have dappled shade from leafy trees with loose foliage or a trellis?
Different plants are appropriate for each type of shade. Also, do you have dry or moist shade? If your shady area has moist soil, you have the most choices. Even if you have dry shade, though, as many of us do, there are lovely, colorful choices.
Native plants suitable for shady areas range from low-growing ground covers to understory trees, such as dogwoods, that can grow up to 15 feet tall. Some are even deer resistant. To expand your options in dry shade areas, you can provide drip irrigation for plants needing some supplemental water. It's also a good idea to mulch your shade garden toward the end of the rainy season to retain as much soil moisture as possible.
For ground covers for dry areas, consider coyote mint (Monardella villosa) and hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea). Coyote mint grows one to two feet tall and has a light minty fragrance with light purple globe-shaped flowers. Butterfly mint bush (Monardella subglabra) has deeper purple flowers. Hummingbird sage ranges in height from a few inches tall to those with flower spikes six feet tall. The flowers are typically red or pink.
Wild ginger (Asarum caudatum) and wood strawberries (Fragaria californica) are more suited to moist areas, but both can do well in dryer areas with a little supplemental water. Wood strawberry plants grow four to eight inches tall. The fruits are small but delicious. Wild ginger benefits from a rinse every so often in summer to simulate the fog drip of its native coastal forest habitat. Wild ginger has heart-shaped dark green leaves and unusual flowers. It has a light ginger-like fragrance, and reportedly the roots can be used as ginger.
Yerba buena (Satureja douglasii) has similar growing requirements to wild ginger. It grows four to eight inches tall and has small white flowers. It is lightly fragrant and makes a lovely herbal tea. Yerba Buena Island in the San Francisco Bay was named for its large areas of Satureja douglasii.
Many native bushy plants are adapted to shade. California monkeyflower, many currants and gooseberries (Ribes spp.) and cream bush (Holodiscus discolor) are all great choices. There are two genuses of California monkeyflower\s, diplacus and mimulus. Diplacus species are adapted to dry rocky slopes and therefore drought tolerant. Mimulus species are adapted to moist locations and need consistent moisture. Both come in a range of blossom colors, including yellow, white and red.
Our native ribes include species that flower in white, pink, yellow, and maroon with white. With sufficient water, ribes plants will grow between five and eight feet tall. I have a golden (yellow-flowered) and a pink-flowered currant bush in my yard. They bloom in spring and are gorgeous. The fruit is edible.
Ribes are summer-deciduous, meaning that if they do not get enough water, they will shed their leaves in the summer. You can plant them 10 to 15 feet from an irrigated area, and that will supply enough water to let them keep their leaves.
Cream bush (also called ocean spray and California spiraea) grows up to 6 feet tall and has beautiful 5-inch-long clusters of white flowers. I've added it to my list of plants to try. The growing notes caution that it has a lovely fragrance from 20 to 30 feet away, but that it smells like “old newspapers” close up. While I'm still trying to puzzle out how this is possible, I would definitely follow the recommendation to plant it 20 or more feet away from your house and garden areas you hang out in.
Finally consider native honeysuckles (Lonicera spp.) and California pipevine (Aristolochia californica) for flowering vines for a shady area. California honeysuckles are not aggressive and like to grow into and through other bushes. There are species adapted to both moist and dry areas and different shades of flowers. Without support, California honeysuckle acts like a groundcover. Pipevine is deciduous and fairly drought tolerant (but can also tolerate moist soils). It has very unusual flowers that are about 1 inch long and shaped like a small pipe. Larva of pipevine swallowtail butterflies live on this vine.
Before you decide to plant any of these plants in your garden, review the growing requirements to make sure they're a good fit for what you have in mind. With a little research, you will find many other options as well.
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Having a shady spot to rest in your garden should be one of your goals as gardeners....a place to sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labors. If you have lived with your garden for a while, you will know your favorite places. Investigate these areas as possible sitting areas.
A woodland setting on a hot summer day offers a protective canopy of tall trees. These shady retreats may not always be as showy as sunny borders, but they offer interesting scenes, with a layering of understory trees or shrubs and a mix of herbaceous plants at your feet.
The best sitting areas have both sun and shade. But if you have to choose one or the other, generally a sunny location is better. There are ways to provide shade if the sun becomes too bright: an arbor, an umbrella or an awning, for example.
Note where the sun falls in your garden. The south side of the house is in the path of the sun for most of the day and is the warmest. The west side gets the afternoon sun and is the next warmest, followed by the east side which receives morning sun. The north side of the house is the coldest because it is shaded most of the day.
Small gardens, usually partially shaded by buildings, need cheerful places where sunlight streams through the foliage and pools on garden furniture, flowers and paths. Study how the light falls in your garden and devise as many opportunities as you can to make the garden sparkle. Variations of shade and sun throughout the day create different visual effects during day and evening hours.
The “show” changes as light moves and fades. Paving and ground covers provide a surface for catching the play of light in the garden. To bring light into an entrance garden shaded by trees, remove the lower branches and thin the canopies, allowing sunlight to dapple the garden below. Cream or white variegated leaves lighten up shady parts of a garden. Chartreuse or gold foliage also has a warming effect in shade. White or blue flowers can brighten up a shady area.
Dappled shade is prettier than dark shade and usually sufficient protection from heat and glare. Select trees with open branches and delicate leaves and trim any dense vines. If a patio is shaded by walls, try to create a view from the patio that is bathed in light, where you can watch sunlight playing across the garden.
Trees and shrubs that are adapted to dense shade are valuable in the garden. Plants including Fatsia japonica, the hollies and mahonias are notable for their foliage, while others such as camellias are grown for their spectacular color. When planning your shade garden, think about layers: ground covers, small shrubs, and larger bushes. Think about colors and textures and your space.
Sunset’s Western Garden Book offers many suggestions for shade plants. A favorite of mine is Ajuga reptans (carpet bugle), which spreads by runners. There are several varieties with varied leaf colorings but all send up blue flower spikes in spring and early summer. Daphne odora ‘marginata’ (winter daphne) will take partial shade, provides a heavenly scent and is an evergreen. Hostas provide elegant foliage and a huge range of color. Lamium maculatum is a vigorous ground cover reaching six inches in height, with heart-shaped gray-green leaves with silvery markings. Pittosporum tobria ‘variegata’ is a dense, rounded shrub five to ten feet tall, with creamy white, fragrant orange blossoms in early spring. Vinca minor (dwarf periwinkle) makes a spreading mat of shiny, dark green leaves with blue flowers. There are many varieties available.
Visit a local nursery and browse through the shade plants. Be sure to note the plant’s mature size, usually indicated on the plant tag.
Let your garden reflect your environmental concerns as well as your aesthetic sense. It should be in harmony with nature, a place where you can enjoy the sounds of birds, insects and animal life and appreciate the patterns of light that change throughout the day. A shady oasis that provides the possibility of peaceful enjoyment can be a restorative place for you.
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