GROWING SUCCESS IN THE FARM AND GARDEN: Gardening in Shady Places – Park Rapids Enterprise


Gardening in shady areas can be quite a challenge: they are cooler; soil stays moist longer; these may be the last areas of your landscape to thaw in winter; soil fertility can be a challenge to maintain; and there are different levels of shade, from dappled shade to deep shade.

These factors may cause some gardeners to avoid landscaping the more shady areas of their yard. By implementing these tips, your plants can thrive, not just survive.

Having a basic knowledge of the garden will help you choose the plants that will grow best on your site. A plant will not perform well in conditions that differ from what it needs to grow. The plant will be stressed and unable to reach its full size, shape and form, nor will it produce healthy leaves and flowers.

Plants growing in less than optimal conditions are also more likely to succumb to disease and insect damage. Answering these questions can help point you in the right direction.

How much space will your shade garden take up?

Maybe it’s just room for a few plants under a shade tree. Or a large wooded garden. Either way, measure the planting space and keep that in mind when selecting your plants. Plants should be given enough space to grow to full adult size.

Consult plant labels, catalogs, or the University of Minnesota Extension Plant Elements of Design plant database for specific plant information.

What type of shadow is present?

Spend time observing the light levels in your landscape and how they change throughout the day and the seasons. Place a thermometer in different areas of your landscape and watch the changes as the sun moves across the sky.

For example, the morning sun is less intense and thus offers full sun conditions without extreme heat, while the afternoon sun is stronger and the temperatures warmer.

Light shade levels:

  • Dappled shadow: light filtering through a tree canopy
  • Light shade or partial shade: about 3 to 6 hours of sunshine
  • Full shade: less than 3 hours of sunshine
  • Deep shade: almost no sun

Although partially shaded areas receive direct sunlight for a small portion of the day, light intensity can still be quite bright.
There are many plants that grow in partial shade, such as woodland wildflowers.

Some herbs and leafy greens can be grown in dappled to partial shade conditions.

Some plants tolerate relatively low light levels and a few actually thrive.

Many ground covers do well in shady areas.

How much humidity is there?

Shade gardens generally retain soil moisture due to cooler temperatures and protection from sunlight. This can benefit plants that prefer cool, constantly moist growing conditions. However, this means that a shady garden can get warmer later in the spring. Moss and slugs can also be problematic in shade gardens.

Is this considered “dry shade?”

Dry shade is one of the most constraining for gardeners and plant lovers. Dry shade is created by:

  • Covered with trees.
  • Eaves and overhangs of a house.
  • Competition from other plants for light and soil moisture.
  • Build foundations and structures that block precipitation.

Growing plants under tall trees or under the overhang of a building is difficult because they prevent even heavy rains from reaching the plants. Dry soil and lack of sunlight create difficult growing conditions for plants.
Selecting plants that grow in dry shade will help reduce (but not totally eliminate) extra watering. Supplemental watering will be needed occasionally in dry shade plantings. Use a drip hose, irrigation, or water by hand to saturate the top 3-4 inches of soil when dry.

What is the fertility status of your soil?

Most shade plants grow well in moist, well-drained organic soil. However, adequate nutrients to maintain soil fertility can be difficult in shady sites.

Trees and some shrubs have extensive root systems or “feeder roots” in the top 18 to 20 inches of soil that compete with other plants for space, nutrients, and water.

Test your soil to better understand how to improve your soil, especially if the plants have special soil requirements, such as acidic soil pH.

As a general recommendation, apply a balanced fertilizer such as a 15-15-15 (NPK) in the spring followed by one or two applications as the season progresses. If your soil already has a high level of phosphorus, avoid applying additional phosphorus and use a 15-0-15 or similar fertilizer.

Lists of Plants That Grow Well in Shade

  • Zone 3 deciduous shrubs: Dogwood, Aronia, Northern Lights Azalea, Honeysuckle, Annabelle and Panicle Hydrangea, Blue Swamp Rosemary, Summer Hummingbird, Dwarf Viburnum, Highbush Cranberry.
  • Zone 3 conifers: Holmstrup arborvitae, aurea compacts hemlock, Eastern hemlock (a Minnesota native), dwarf shiny golden yew.
  • Small trees in Zone 3: Saskatoon/Serviceberry (native to MN), Witch Hazel (native to MN), Hops/Ash (native to MN), Speckled Alder (native to MN), Blue Beech (native to MN), Red Canada Choke Cherry (cultivar native to MN), Ironwood/American Hop Hornbeam (plant native to MN).
  • Zone 3 Tall Perennials: Ligularia, Bleeding Heart, Cinnamon Fern, King Fern, Goat’s Beard, Astilbe, Martagon Lily, Great Bellflower/Milky Bellflower, Meadowsweet, Prairie Queen, Black Snake/Black Cohosh black clusters, turtle
  • Zone 3 ground cover: Pennsylvania sedge/sun sedge, Catlin’s giant bugle, wild ginger

Planting the right plant in the right place will help you successfully transform shady areas in your garden.

Tarah Young is an extension educator from Hubbard County University in Minnesota in agriculture, food, and natural resources. If you have any questions on this or other topics, contact her at 732-3391. If you are interested in agriculture, gardening, and natural resources information, consider signing up for the Hubbard County Agriculture, Gardening, and Natural Resources Extension e-newsletter at .


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