Shade glorious shade – 5 top tips for perking up the darker corners

spring garden inspiration for hedgerows

I hear all the time – “oh nothing grows there, its too shady”…there are very few spots where really nothing can grow – nature is amazing, and in the lighter shade areas you can create the most magnificent displays. Here are some suggestions for how to cope with shade

1) Improve dry soil

Is the real problem lack of water? Shade is challenging, but lack of water is worse – if you have a space under the roots of a tree or hedge that is dark and dry you will always struggle and only the very hardiest of plants will manage there. If you can improve the soil moisture with a simple drip irrigation line in from a tap you will find a miraculous improvement! If you can’t do this then at least have a go at improving the moisture level with some soil improvement – adding some well-rotted horse manure or other compost to hold the moisture better with make all the difference (preferably do both). Hostas and Ligularias (the yellow in the image below) will thrive in shade but do need a fair bit of water. They are sadly also somewhat slug prone so that is a bit of a balance!

spring garden inspiration with wild garlic and bluebells

2) Don’t feel constrained by the shade – go for scale!

Balance shrubs and perennials and even small trees. Ideally you want the scale of the underplanting to stand up to and blend with the trees – funnily enough this makes a garden feel larger not smaller. If you are creating large beds in semi-open woodland with decent headroom you should be able to achieve a good mix of planting and it should be easier to maintain than trying to keep a lawn going here. Consider some small trees as well as large shrubs for structure. Cornus (dogwood) is a good option, and Acers will do well in the more open sections. Add some good large shrubs such as Hydrangea (H.’Annabelle’ and H. ‘Limelight’ are amazing, and H. Quercifolia a delight) and Viburnum (such as V. Plicatum and V.Carlcephalum are always good). Add some lush bulk perennial planting such as ferns, Persicaria and Hostas, and groundcover such as Tiarella and Brunnera.

spring garden inspiration mown path through meadow

3) Make good use of the light that is there

Where there is heavy tree cover but the trees are deciduous such as Oak and Beech, you have a window of opportunity for spring planting to get going and flower before the leaves come in and shade the ground. That is why almost all woodland planting is spring flowering.

In wilder spots it can be worth trying a wildflower approach – Sarah Raven does a good seed mix, or you can cheat by adding more bulbs/plug plants to an already wild corner.

spring garden inspiration mown path through meadow

In more ordered planting schemes bulbs are often still the best splash of spring colour.

Go for all the early spring bulbs:

Grape Hyacinth, Fritillaria of all types, Anemone nemorosa and Erythronium are all good. Many such as bluebells will naturalise and give you a good carpet of cover. I love cyclamen and Winter aconite too – expensive but they do spread.

Mixing this approach in with some early flowering shrubs such as Daphne (fabulous smell and evergreen), and the hardy geranium (Geranium Phaeum Alba or Samobor are good varieties), and of course Hellebores of all varieties.

spring garden inspiration mown path through meadow

4) Block plant for really tough dark spots

Where you want some good year round ground cover and don’t want to have to do much to it, seek some of the really hardy plants – Vinca is genius for this – it spreads pretty fast and can be trimmed with shears to keep in check. There are larger and smaller varieties (V. Major and Minor) and it comes in purple, white and more pink shades.

spring garden inspiration mown path through meadow

Pachysandra is terribly named but a really useful lover of dense dry shade.

spring garden inspiration mown path through meadow

And liriope is a good evergreen option too and tough as old boots – although I have to be honest and say it rarely looks quite as colourful as the image below

spring garden inspiration mown path through meadow

5) Solving The Pine Tree problem

And finally, whilst in our neck of the woods pines are not the main tree cover, in some areas they are, and they do have their own ecosystems!

Planting under pine trees is a particular challenge – you are adding a strong acidic soil to the lack of light and competition for water, and the needles do seem to have some kind of sterilising impact that makes ground cover tricky – shrubs seem to fare better if you can get them in. Assume you do need to water weekly for the first year so that the plants get established, but all the suggestions here are pretty drought tolerant once established.

spring garden inspiration mown path through meadow

I tend to avoid planting under them if possible, but where it is desirable for a garden, I would aim to improve the soil as much as I can and then go for acid loving and shade tolerant shrubs such as Azalea and Rhododendron as well as Hydrangea Quercifolia. Perennials such as Hosta, Dicentra, Sweet Woodruff, Jacobs Ladder and Wild Geranium (Cranesbill) and Ferns. Foxgloves also seem to do well, and bulbs such as Lily of the valley.

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