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.