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Bright ideas for shady spaces

by Timber Press on April 4, 2017

in Design, Gardening

The edge of this garden shows the layers that are characteristic of the woodland garden style. All included photos by the author.

When designing your shade garden, it is helpful to study existing gardens to get ideas and inspiration.

You can find shade gardens around the world, and they are designed in distinctive types that are derived from various traditions. Some of these gardens emulate the informal look of naturally shaded areas, whereas others are formal and stylized.

The enclosed nature of a shade garden means that there is much more of a sense of mystery and excitement than in an open space. The structures that provide shade to the garden also block sightlines, so the entire garden cannot be seen at one glance. This gives visitors a chance to explore and investigate hidden surprises and vignettes. When designing a shady space, capitalize on these assets to produce a unique and personalized garden. Look at inspirational images of shade gardens to get ideas. Visit existing shaded spaces and think about what you do and do not like. Make notes about what appeals to you and use those elements in your own garden. The key to success when creating a personal shade garden is making sure that the design matches your individual needs and preferred style.

Woodland Gardens

Woodland gardens are stylized versions of naturally occurring, tree-dominated landscapes and are the quintessential shade gardens. In these gardens, large trees and an assortment of understory woody plants produce the shade. The cathedral-like boughs of the largest trees arch overhead and their trunks enclose the space. The ground layer is a carefully orchestrated progression of smaller plants that provide beauty throughout the growing year.

Phlox, Mertensia, and Hyacinthoides make a living blue tapestry on the woodland floor at the Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library in Wilmington, Delaware.

Gardens in this style are predominately informal. Trees left to grow into their natural form give character to the design because of their height, width, form, and leaf quality. Winding paths curve between the trees to allow exploration of the garden. Along these paths, sheltered sitting areas are found in secluded nooks and wildlife features are perfectly at home. Water may either be used to enhance the gardens as a focal point or tucked away as a hidden surprise.

Gardeners who prefer a formal look can adapt this style by planting trees in parallel lines to create either an allée or grid pattern. In this formal setting, the paths are straight and lead directly to a focal point such as a bench, large container, or fountain at the end of the axis. Trees are still the dominant design feature in these gardens, but are often shaped by pruning. Understory plants may also be placed in straight lines to mimic the geometric configuration of the trees. The woodland style of shade garden is one of the easiest types to implement in a home landscape because of its adaptability.

Formally planted Cercis canadensis ‘Hearts of Gold’ underplanted with Narcissus ‘Lemon Drops’ line a shaded walk.

For small gardens, a select grouping of trees can be the basis of a wooded scene in miniature. Choose small to medium trees as your tallest specimens and underplant them with flowering shrubs and shade-loving perennials. In larger landscapes, it is possible to emulate the scale of natural woodlands by planting layers of trees and shrubs in greater quantities. For cohesion, plant several of the same species together and match the scale of the garden.

Mediterranean-Inspired Walled or Courtyard Gardens

Walled gardens are common in urban areas where they are often in full shade due to the tall surrounding buildings that cast shadows throughout the day. If you are looking for formal garden ideas, especially in a walled space or courtyard, then you may be inspired by gardens that have their origins in Islamic culture. These design ideas initially came from the Middle East, and were brought to southern Spain. Spaniards then took this garden style to the American continents.

An ornate garden gate leads to a cool, vine-shaded walkway that provides respite from summer heat.

This formal shade garden style, reminiscent of Mediterranean courtyards, is still favored today, especially in hot climates. Shaded outdoor patios or terraces are excellent spaces for entertaining. Elegant tiles, flagstones, or bricks are used on the ground, often in symmetrical patterns. The light-hued color palette reflects heat and light away from the space. These gardens are beautifully simple and often include a water feature to cool the air and add movement, sound, and reflection to the garden. Water may be in a tiled fountain or in a long, narrow, water-filled rill.

In the Levies Courtyard at the Real Alcázar de Sevilla in Spain, light reflected by the white walls and pool brightens the shaded space.

Gardening against a wall makes a great backdrop for vertical plantings. Grow vines up a trellis, or grow a space-saving espaliered tree on the wall. Maintain the espalier by trimming it flat and by tying back wayward branches. Walled gardens are perfect places to grow plants that provide fragrance because the enclosed space concentrates the scent.

Orchard Gardens

A traditional orchard is composed of spring-blooming fruit trees laid out in a formal grid. The herbaceous layer consists of rough grass interspersed with accent plants including shade-tolerant, naturalizing spring bulbs like Camassia, Galanthus, Hyacinthoides, and Narcissus. Paths are regularly mown between the trees to allow access, and the entire ground layer is cut down once or twice a year to clear the vegetation. The major difference between an orchard and a woodland garden lies in the choice of the trees used to create the shade. In an orchard, the trees are smaller, widely spaced, and often pruned to constrain their size. Additionally, there are no understory shrubs, so there is a more open feeling among the trees.

Bulbs, such as this slender red and yellow tulip, are perfect for growing in the open shade of an orchard garden.

An orchard style can easily be adapted to a home garden. By planting a collection of small to medium trees spread out from each other, you can evoke the sense of space found in a conventional orchard. Any small or medium trees with an upright or vase-shaped habit, such as Cercis, Cornus, and Prunus, are appropriate choices for an adapted orchard garden. The trees do not all have to be the same species, but a uniformity of size provides a pleasing regularity. Select your trees for spring bloom and other seasonal appeal.

Wooden seats under an apple tree rest on a circular stone patio.

Beneath the trees, there are dappled, edge, and bright shade conditions perfect for planting up with shade-loving herbaceous perennials. You can introduce plants for summer and fall interest such as Digitalis, Eurybia, Lilium, Penstemon, and Thalictrum that will grow in the shade beneath the trees.

Apples or crabapples, such as Malus ‘Prairifire’, are a traditional choice for an orchard planting.

These lightly shaded areas are attractive to wildlife because they provide nectar for pollinators, grasses for habitat, fruit and seeds for food, and branches for perching and nesting. Aesthetically, orchard-style gardens are a beautiful space for people to stroll or sit. Garden features that are appropriate for this style include a wooden bench in the shade beneath a tree, or a garden house as a focal point and gathering place.


Jenny Rose Carey is a renowned educator, historian, and author, and the senior director at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Meadowbrook Farm in Jenkintown. Her gardens have been featured on the PBS series The Victory Garden, in the Wall Street Journal, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Green Scene magazine, and the Pennsylvania Gardener.



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“Approachable, well-illustrated, thorough guide to shade planting. . . . especially recommended for collections lacking shade-gardening titles.” —Booklist

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