Design practicalities for shade gardens

Updated: May 3, 2019

There is nothing I find more evocative and atmospheric than dappled sunshine breaking through the trees in a woodland; this scene speaks of mystery and romance to me so it probably comes as no surprise that my own garden is a shade garden.

There are many benefits to having a shady garden, not least, weeding and maintenance are dramatically reduced. However, nobody wants a garden in full, dank shade so this blog post is about some of the design and practical techniques you can use to maximise sunlight into your garden.

The first thing I ask clients is that they don't touch anything or take out any trees and shrubs before I get there; I have lost count of the number of times that over-enthusiastic new home buyers rip out wall covering ivy, cut down huge shrubs or get the tree surgeon in to take out trees to give themselves a “blank canvas”. Many times they end up spending to replace the privacy and structure that these elements provided. A good garden design should capitalise on the main features that already exist in the garden rather than a blank empty space.

As with any garden the first thing to do is assess how the owners wish to use the garden, is it drinks after work in the sunshine, a secluded private retreat for them and their family, a space for entertaining? With this in mind we designate areas to take advantage of where the sun hits at different times of the day.

There are three specific principles I apply when I'm designing a garden with lots of shade:

1. Increase the light

2. Increase the moisture

3. Improve the soil

Increase the light

There are a number of techniques you can use to increase light levels within the garden. Firstly, you can look at raising the crown level of certain trees.

By reducing the tree canopy you decrease the amount of shade cast by the tree and introduce more light to lower levels. Be judicious in how you approach your pruning as you need to maintain a good shape to the tree and consider it's future health.

A standard design approach that works whether you are inside the house or in the garden is to use light colours to bounce more light around. Painting walls white, using light coloured gravel, choosing plants with silver leaves or strategic positioning of garden mirrors can dramatically increase the light levels and broaden the range of plants that will grow in the same position without cutting back any trees or foliage.

The pictures below show the difference from replacing a dark, miserable tarmac path with light coloured pea gravel.

A mirror gate reflects back any sunlight and the lush greenery of a very shady corner.

One last idea for raising the light levels is to actually raise the plants themselves.

Sometimes light is blocked by garden buildings or other features, you can grow plants which will climb up a garden pergola and reach for the sky. Plants like clematis actually prefer to keep their base cool and shady. In addition you can use tall pots to raise the plants closer to the sky and out of shadows.

Increase the moisture

One of the main challenges associated with growing in shady areas is not actually light levels but moisture levels. Whether it is greedy tree roots sucking up all available moisture or the tree canopy or buildings preventing rain reaching the ground, many plants that would thrive perfectly well in shade struggle for lack of moisture.

Fundamentally I would always install a watering system when laying out a shady planting scheme. The cost of replacing plants that will die without proper moisture far outweighs any investment in a watering system. Please read my blog on setting up your own watering system and which suppliers are the most cost effective.

Improve the soil

Most trees are greedy and thirsty and have many years head start on any new planting you plant near their roots; as such you need to try and give any new plants the best opportunity to get established without competing with tree roots.

When planting new areas under trees I always lay down cardboard or a few thick layers of newspaper at the base of the planting pit before putting new compost and soil down for the new plants; this gives the plant a season's head start before the tree roots reach through and start stealing nutrients from the new soil.

As with any garden you need to improve the soil over time. Many shade plants are acid lovers so simply allowing fallen leaves to remain on the beds and letting the worms pull them down to improve soil structure will be enough for most shade loving plants. I tend to mulch the garden with organic compost or mushroom compost (which is great for providing aeration to my heavy clay soil) at least once a year either in spring or autumn.


Ultimately I follow Beth Chatto's maxim of “right plant, right place” but hopefully I've give you a few tricks and techniques that you can follow to help you make the most of shade in your garden.

As you can probably tell, I'm hugely passionate about shade gardening, so if you have a shady garden that you'd like some help and advice to make as beautiful and tranquil as some of these gardens please give me a call to arrange a visit. In addition to my full design and build projects I also provide a service comprising two-hour garden visits for advice on specific issues which is not chargeable if you choose to proceed to a full design solution.

I've got a variety of guides to help you make the most of your shady garden:

Definitive plant list for shady gardens

One page guide of design ideas and practicalities for dealing with shade

A more detailed presentation on coping with shade.

6 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All