Make a shady garden thrive by opting for plants that suit the conditions and giving them what they need
Create a lush tropical outdoor space with shade-loving plants. Image: Getty Images
Finding plants that will survive and thrive in locations where little sun penetrates is one of the most difficult gardening dilemmas.
In Australia, this usually means the area on the south side of your home, which can be moist as well as shady.
Many suburban gardens have large established trees that cast shadows over part of the backyard.
In small backyards or courtyards, the trees don’t need to be very big to create shady problem areas.
With plot sizes shrinking and housing density increasing, gardening in areas without sun is becoming more relevant across the country.
Variations of shade
The key to creating a successful shady garden is in the planning, so it’s essential to identify the type of shade you’re dealing with before planting.
FULL SHADE means no direct light penetrates. It usually occurs under large trees or on the south side of a building, especially between houses.
Complete shade presents the toughest challenge. A garden under established trees competes for nutrients and water, with the canopy stopping a lot of the rain reaching the soil.
SEMI OR PART SHADE means the area gets sun for only half the day. It’s important when working with part shade to distinguish between plants that like morning or afternoon sun.
LIGHT OR DAPPLED SHADE refers to an area that receives filtered sunlight during the day, such as under plants with foliage that is not too dense.
Other areas that need thought are the pergola, balcony and indoors.
House plants receive neither rain nor nutrients, so these should be very hardy, or very well looked after.
A shady garden has the potential to be soothing and restful in a way sunny yards are not.
Shaded spots make great summer retreats, so add a comfortable outdoor setting for those hot days.
Choosing marginal plants
For wet and shady areas, try these plants. Called marginal or bog plants, they grow in a range of positions from light to full shade and are used to landscape around the edge of a backyard pond.
Lacy tree fern. Image: Getty Images
Select a variety
Mass-plant anemones in the dappled light under deciduous trees for cool-weather colour and add classical statuary or a pond.
FOXGLOVES add height as well as colour at the back of garden beds.
HELLEBORES multiply well and provide lovely winter colour.
BLUEBELLS flower in spring and look delightful in drifts.
HOSTAS have a range of foliage.
FORGET-ME-NOTS self-sow to bloom year after year.
Hostas have a range of foliage
Go bush under eucalypts with natives, logs and rocks, and a rustic sculpture.
SHRUBS such as correas attract honeyeaters, and Hardenbergia ‘Bushy Blue’ flowers during winter and spring.
BANKSIA ‘Roller Coaster’ and ‘Cherry Candles’ are striking groundcovers.
PERENNIALS like brachysome have daisy-like flowers, and fan flower, or Scaevola, is good for dry spots.
GRASSY PLANTS like lomandra look great in drifts while dianellas have pretty blue flowers and purple berries.
Hardenbergia plants, also known as ‘Bushy Blue’, flowers during winter and spring. Image: Getty Images
Vegetables and herbs
Generally, fruiting plants need sun to ripen, but those grown for their leaves and roots will tolerate shade.
SPINACH and silverbeet will both perform well in part shade.
LETTUCE prefers part shade with the morning sun only.
ROOT VEGIES such as potatoes, radishes, carrots and beets grow in part shade but mature more slowly.
CULINARY HERBS like chives, mint, thyme and parsley all do well in part shade. Mint likes morning sun.
Root vegies such as potatoes, radishes, carrots and beets grow in part shade but mature more slowly. Image: Thinkstock
Indoor and balcony
In apartments, all gardening is done in pots and the conditions are usually part to full shade. But the plants can be moved about to take advantage of sunny spots.
BONSAI need protected positions, as their small pots tend to dry out.
CYLCAMENS provide constant winter colour. Feed and deadhead regularly.
DAPHNE ODORA has fragrant, late winter flowers and likes morning sun.
ROCK LILY is a native orchid with beautiful shiny green leaves and wonderfully fragrant flowers.
Cyclamens provide constant winter colour. Image: Thinkstock
These areas are usually found right next to big trees. For these challenging places to garden, choose robust types that look lush but need little water.
BROMELIADS come in a variety of different leaf colours.
PLECTRANTHUS has eye-catching leaves and flowers in the autumn.
HOLLY FERN has glossy green fronds and can be planted as a groundcover.
ASPIDISTRA or cast iron plant, as it is known, has hardy attractive leaves.
HENS AND CHICKS are shade-tolerant, rosette-shaped succulents.
Bromeliads come in a variety of different leaf colours. Image: Thinkstock
For very shady yards or south-facing passages, try a mini jungle look with canopy, filler and groundcover plants.
BANGALOW PALMS and native frangipanis are ideal canopy plants, with cordylines as a palm alternative in a small backyard.
AZALEA and Fatsia japonica shrubs are great fillers. Use bird’s nest fern on tree branches and Canna ‘Tropicanna’ for a lush understorey.
MONDO GRASS, variegated liriopes and kaffir lilies are verdant and make ideal groundcovers.
Azalea and Fatsia japonica shrubs are great fillers. Image: Thinkstock
Shady gardens have very different maintenance needs to sunny spaces. Most plants grow more slowly, so pruning and weeding is easier.
Here’s how you can help your shady backyard thrive.
MULCH planted areas under established trees with compost and manure, then top with a thick layer of organic mulch to provide nutrients and trap water.
FEED plants with a seaweed foliar liquid spray directly on the leaves so the trees can’t steal the goodness.
REMOVE any bark, small branches, sticks and fallen leaves smothering plants and return them to the garden as mulch or compost.
CHOOSE hardy plants with low water needs and a tolerance for shade, such as orchids, bromeliads and succulents.
BUILD up beds over tree roots to 150mm deep and use bark mixes.
USE root barriers near big trees to help plantings establish. The barriers must not interfere with major tree roots and should extend above the ground.
PLANT in pots under trees where it is difficult to dig into the roots.
PRUNE established trees carefully to let more light through to the ground.
As a general rule, don’t prune more than one-third of the canopy of a tree at any one time.