Not all shade is created alike.
I used to wonder why certain shade-loving plants did not perform well for me. Over time, I discovered that garden conditions are multi-faceted and complex. They are never simply “sunny” or “shady.”
Every garden is unique just as every human is unique. It is as if every plot of soil had an individual fingerprint.
The gardener’s responsibility (and it is a wonderful responsibility) is to become the expert witness to her own bit of earth.
In this sense, gardens come in infinite flavors. However, just as we describe food with broad categories like salty and sweet, there are four categories that can help us make sense of our shade:
On the spectrum of light conditions, there is “full sun” at one end and “full shade” at the other. Full shade is fairly easy to identify. Perhaps, it lies under the heavy canopy of a large tree. It might lie alongside a wall where the sun rarely reaches.
Full shade is usually defined as any area that receives less than three hours of direct sun daily. And most shade-loving plants would prefer cooler morning sun, rather than the burning sun of late day.
Impatiens, yew, climbing hydrangea vines, and bleeding heart all do well in full shade.
This is a lighter shade where sunlight is filtered but bright.
Woodland plants generally love dappled shade. A honeylocust tree, with its feathery leaves, offers bright, dappled shade beneath its branches, while tall trees with large leaves, like the saucer magnolia in my own yard, can cast a very heavy shade.
Japanese anemones, like those pictured above, appreciate dappled shade, as do hydrangeas and hostas.
The quality of light isn’t the only thing to consider. There is also the matter of water. That tall, large-leaved tree? Chances are it blocks light and water. As a result, not every shade-loving plant will grow well in shady, dry soil.
Euphorbia, liriope, epimediums, and Dryopteris ferns all tolerate dry shade.
Damp shade tends to be less of a challenge than dry shade.
Plants that appreciate shady, damp areas of our gardens include astilbe, hosta, Brunnera, primulas, and trillium.