Home & Garden

Don’t be afraid of the shade

This green gazing ball brightens a shady area when it’s hit by dappled sunlight.
This green gazing ball brightens a shady area when it’s hit by dappled sunlight. OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

I have been hearing from people who have had difficulty growing shrubs and perennials in the shade. Some have wondered which plants work best and seem to think choices are limited.

Gardening in the shade is not as limited as some may think, and it can be wonderful. Many home landscapes in the Piedmont are evidence of this. They look lush and they bloom. In just a few weeks, we will see this happen at top speed.

However, a successful shade garden is not automatic. It requires thinking about three important things: soil condition, plant selection and the amount of shade, from light to deep.

The state of the soil. Large shade trees and mature shrubs create dense root systems, often shallow, that take their share and more of water, nutrients and space. A young shrub or perennial may have a hard time getting going without extra help from you. This means the selected spot must be dug widely and the soil improved with the addition of good compost.

Wide digging is important because the roots of most plants spread horizontally as well as vertically. In many cases, the horizontal spread is greater than the vertical depth.

Dig the space at least 1 1/2 to 2 times the width of the root ball, which will encourage easier development of the roots. That means, for example, if you have an azalea with a root ball whose diameter is 12 inches, you would dig a space 18 to 24 inches wide. The depth should be deeper than the root zone but not by much. You don’t want to sink the root ball in softly dug ground. It should sit so the top of the root ball is at or just above the surrounding soil to ensure excellent soil drainage and to avoid root rot.

Work good compost into the existing soil. This helps create a loose soil environment that encourages root development. It also greatly aids in keeping the soil just moist while allowing excess water to drain off. Compost and soil should be well mixed with your shovel. You should see much improvement in the texture, color and even the smell of the soil. Compost works wonders.

The state of the shade. Not all shade is the same, and it helps to understand what you have before you start making plant selections. Some shade is quite dense, allowing little light to get through and narrowing your choices. Evergreens with large leaves tend to create deep shade because light does not get through the canopy. Large conifers that block sunlight from reaching plants nearby all year do the same thing.

But most people have what is known as light shade or part shade. Even large shade trees create light shade because the canopy begins high up the trunk and the leaves are not so dense that they prevent light from filtering through to the ground. You can see this once the leaves come out in spring. This is a highly desirable form of shade and quite lovely in the landscape. Your choices are much larger than you might think.

Next week: Making good choices in shrubs and perennials for the shade.

Nancy Brachey: nbrachey@charlotteobserver.com

Ask Nancy

Q. How much damage was done to plants by the very cold weather recently?

A. Plants that weren’t blooming yet seem fine. The main damage was done to open blooms on camellias and early-blooming daffodils that were left outside when the temperature dropped significantly. Dormant plants as well as foliage and buds of daffodils should be fine. The best way to know whether evergreens such as gardenias have suffered leaf damage is to wait a bit for it to show up. However, any leaves that were damaged will be replaced or covered by new growth this spring.