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Shaded garden space

Emily L
July 24, 2018
There is a flower bed along our back fence that is shaded most of the day. I’m wondering if I can turn it into a garden space so my children have the whole yard for play. What will grow here, if anything? In Iowa. Thanks!

Comments (2)

  • NHBabs z4b-5a NH

    You can have an ornamental garden. Most veggies need sun. Depending on the type of trees, you may only be able to plant successfully toward the left and right sides of the yard because trees that large will have thirsty roots which outcompete smaller plants for water and nutrients. But a hammock or bench would fit between the trees and could be enjoyed by the whole family. Or the kids could build tent forts with old sheets strung on ropes between the trees.

    Think about your goals for the spot. You will most likely want plants that are large enough to be visible from the house or if smaller, planted in large enough groupings so that they make a large mass.

    Shade can vary, so take photos at different times of day and both now and into the fall. Are there spots that get some sun for part of the day or dappled sun? If so, you may have more choices. Be sure to leave at least a foot between the plants and the fence so that you can do maintenance and the fence is able to dry. It will help extend the life of the fence if there are no plants touching it.

    Growing conditions may vary in other ways beyond light levels. You might want to have a soil test done, especially to check the pH. There are many plants such as Rhododendrons which won’t grow well unless you have acidic soil, so knowing whether your soil is has a higher (more alkaline) or lower (more acid ) soil will help you be successful. Also, knowing your USDA growing zone will help you choose plants that won’t be killed by winter cold.

    Do you want some winter interest? If so, consider evergreens or plants with an interesting shape or branch color that will stand out against the snow and fence.

    With perennials, consider at least some plants with leaves that provide variegation or a color that isn’t green. such as purple leafed bugbanes including Actea Bruunette or Hillside Black Beauty, or many of the hostas which can have variegated, blue-green, or chartreuse-gold foliage.

    In addition to the plants on the link GG48 provided, many ferns appreciate shade conditions and some can grow to several feet when they are happy. Some shrubs that can do well in shade include many of the Viburnum species (several of the Viburnum plicatum cultivars bloom really well for me in shade and have nice autumn color), bottlebrush buckeyes (Aesculus parviflora), and a couple of types of of hydrangeas. There are many cultivars of smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) in shades of white, pink, and almost lavender, including Annabelle, Minimauvette, Incrediball, and Invincibelle Spirit II. I have been successful with Hydrangea serrata Tuff Stuff, but I would avoid any of the Hydrangea macrophylla cultivars since the flower buds are often killed by winter cold, so it can be frustrating to grow plants that only flower well every 5 years. I think that Iowa generally doesn’t have acidic soil, but if I am wrong about your soil pH, there are other shade tolerant shrubs that will do fine in acidic soil.

    One thing I have found that makes gardening easier is to prepare the whole bed or a good sized chunk of the bed all at once rather than plantin individual plants in the lawn or supplimenting individual planting holes. Make the bed at least 5’ deep front to back so there is room for plants to grow. Remove all grass in the area and use it to start a compost pile that will keep yard waste out of the landfill (aa simple ring of welded wire fencing in an out of the way corner will work.) Then add organic matter to the bed such as composted manure or old leaves. Dig it in a bit and you are ready to start planting. If there are lots of roots where you try to dig, it is easier to not plant there and move the garden elsewhere since as noted above, trees will make it difficult for smaller plants to get enough water and nutrients to grow well.

    Have fun! I usually wander around nurseries and look at the plants they have in their shade sections that appeal to me and then look them up on my phone or tablet. Generally, taller plants can go at the back and shorter ones at the front. Groundcover perennials and mulch will help keep weeding to a minimum as will having a good cut or buried edge between the lawn and the garden so grass doesn’t grow into the bed.

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