Landscaping in a Shady Yard
LESLIE: Well, sizzling summer days make the shady areas of your yard especially inviting. But those are also really hard areas to landscape.
TOM: Well, the solution might be to create a shade garden, an area for growing plants and shrubs that are shade-tolerant and do well in little sunlight. Here to tell us more about shade gardens is a guy who always has the sunshine on him: it’s Roger Cook, from TV’s This Old House.
ROGER: Hey, Tom. I heard you were a little shady.
TOM: Sometimes. Well, certainly when it comes to my landscape skills and that’s why we like to have you here.
Landscaping for those shady places is difficult because we tend to want to choose one plant and put it everywhere, regardless of sun, but that’s a big mistake.
ROGER: There’s really no one plant that can exist in all the different conditions because you have sun; you have light shade; you have deep shade; moist, deep shade; you have light, dry shade. So, you know, you’ve got to pick the right plant for the right spot.
LESLIE: And that’s really tough because how do you define shadiness? Is it by the amount of sunlight it gets? Is there a certain duration of sunlight that we say, “OK, this qualifies as this type of plant.”
ROGER: Right. You have to look at it whether it’s early-in-the-morning sunshine or late-in-the-day sunshine. Obviously, late in the day, it’s not as strong as the morning, so there’s a little bit of shade there. Light shade could be caused by a tree. Deep shade is usually caused by a building or some side of a building.
LESLIE: An immovable object.
ROGER: There you go. That you’re not going to change. I mean you can cut down the tree and change light shade into full sun but certain areas you can’t change.
TOM: Roger, it seems that people will tend to tolerate their natural shade gardens, where they get some growth but it’s never quite right. You don’t really have to put up with that, though, do you?
ROGER: No. A plant that’s in the wrong environment – a plant that likes some sun and put in a shade – it will grow, it’ll exist but it won’t thrive. That’s the biggest thing. It doesn’t get beautiful, it doesn’t get better. But if you take it out and put it in the sun, it’ll become what it’s supposed to be. Shade gardens really need plants that like shade.
LESLIE: Mm-hmm. And I think that’s important. We had a similar situation in our shady area of the garden that had a rhododendron, which sometimes do OK in a not-so-sunny area. But this one just had a clump of giant leaves on the end and a very bare branch. I knew it was wrong. I just felt terribly guilty about getting rid of it or moving it or …
ROGER: Well, we’ve had – come into the same problem a lot. But what I do, good Yankee that I am and not to feel guilty, is I usually transplant it to a sunny part of the property. And you’ll come back two or three years later and all of a sudden look and go, “Oh, my God, that was that little skinny, scrawny thing that was out front. Look at it now. It’s beautiful.”
ROGER: It’s amazing what they’ll do in the right spot.
TOM: That’s right. Get the right plant in the right place and Mother Nature does the rest.
ROGER: That’s all it is. Mother Nature at her best.
LESLIE: And I think when it comes to a shade garden, to me green is the most beautiful color in a yard. And when you have a shade garden, you’re dealing with such a variety of greens and depths of greens and tones that it really is one of my most favorite areas to landscape, if it’s done successfully.
ROGER: Right. And a lot of times, shady areas are grown more for the texture and the color of the plants than they are for the flower they have. But you can use ferns, you can use hostas.
LESLIE: Which are so beautiful.
ROGER: You can get hostas from miniatures that are 6 inches tall or they’re some that are 4 or 5 feet across with beautiful, big, blue leaves.
LESLIE: And they flower.
ROGER: And they flower. So if you get it right, prep the soil and give them the right amount of water. You can have a beautiful shade garden and it’s easy to maintain.
LESLIE: And I think the financial benefit, let’s say, of a shade garden is that most of those are perennials.
LESLIE: So you’re getting those back year after year.
ROGER: I would say that 99 percent of the plants you use in a shade garden will be perennials.
LESLIE: Now, I did see an interesting spread in a magazine about moss as a ground cover.
LESLIE: And I think that’s such a great solution because you try – and mostly unsuccessfully – at trying to have a lawn in these areas, correct?
ROGER: Right. And that’s one of the indicators of a lawn in shade is when it starts getting mossy. Mother Nature is telling you what to use there; we just don’t pick up on the tip.
TOM: So in an area like that, moss actually might make the most sense.
ROGER: It would be easy to do. But there are actually nurseries that will sell moss. You can order pieces of moss. And it’s nothing like mixed in – again, like you talked about, Leslie – different textures and colors together and watching it spread and adding some rocks, which the moss will climb on and look absolutely naturally beautiful.
TOM: Now, is planting a shade garden any different than planting another landscape? Anything special about it that you need to keep in mind?
ROGER: The type of soil for what you’re going to have. Most shade areas are moist areas so that the material – you want to hold water; you want to have a lot of water there for these plants.
TOM: So does it actually end up using less water, though, in terms on a rewatering basis?
ROGER: Once they’re established, they don’t need any more. They take their key from nature.
TOM: Another big benefit.
Roger Cook, the landscape contractor on TV’s This Old House, thanks for stopping by The Money Pit and teaching us how to build a beautiful shade garden.
ROGER: Yeah, it was a lot of fun.
LESLIE: Alright. Catch the current season of This Old House and Ask This Old House on PBS. For local listings and step-by-step videos of many common home improvement projects, visit ThisOldHouse.com.
ROGER: And This Old House and Ask This Old House are brought to you by GMC. GMC, we are professional grade.