Rage, rage against the shading of the light

The fact is that I've never been able to embrace shade. My gorge rises, my hands clench into fists, and my teeth grit involuntarily as I head for the glade in the back of the garden center, that dank area where they stash all the ferns and hosta. It's been going on ever since I started gardening seriously—about eight years ago—on a property overlooked by other tall houses in the back and surrounded by tightly-planted maples in the front. I think I can divide my struggles with shade into the following phases:

Stage one: Denial
At first, I didn't really understand the dynamics of light exposure and figured I could plant the pretty and fragrant plants I preferred anywhere. So I planted a veritable field of dianthus in a spot that gets about three hours of sun a day. I think I had some lavender in this spot, as well. Then there were delphinium, pansies, linaria, and maybe scabiosa. It's hard to remember because they're all long gone now.

Stage two: Anger
The failure of the lavender—a plant I associate with English novels and Yardley's eau de toilette—really hurt. So I started monitoring the amount of sunlight various sections of the garden got and found that only one spot got as much as six hours a day, while others got confusing spurts in early to mid-morning and late afternoon. The bitter realization set in that I would be limited in my plant selections. I started looking at the garden as a problem rather than a possibility.

Stage three: Bargaining
I learned to eschew the plants with the bright yellow full-sun symbol. But what about the ones with the half-black/half-yellow circles? I became very optimistic about the possibilities of "partial shade." I bought books like What Perennial Where? and 100 Favorite Plants for Shade. I got really excited about heuchera, rodgersia, and ligularia.

Stage four: Depression
Shade is one thing, but some of my shady spots have additional problems. In the back, the drainage is poor and the heuchera languished, then died. The rodgersia like the dampness but grow slooowly. The ligularia was mangled by slugs and I threw it out in disgust. In the front, the tree roots suck up all moisture, so drainage isn't a problem, but superhuman strength (or a jackhammer) is needed to get through them to plant any of the plants recommended for dry shade. I'm forced to tolerate pachysandra, which I attempt to brighten with some species tulips, erythronium, and other bulbs.

Stage five: Acceptance
I haven't reached this stage yet, and I don't think I ever will. But I have specific areas of rapprochement with the forces of darkness. I've been able to grow some lovely martagon lilies in a little section that I'm shaping into a urban woodland garden. Geranium (not pelargonium) seem to thrive in other areas, while a few clumps of daylilies are holding their own (though not exactly going crazy), and some rampant vines add an illusion of lushness. I depend on elephant ear and coleus for containers and on species lilies for height. There's an odd variety of gallium that gets quite tall as well.

I'll never love shade gardening. It would be nice to have a choice about growing hosta. But I've gotten accustomed to my nooks and crannies. Maybe this season I'll have the epiphany that will end my shade angst forever.


Anonymous said…
Would said epiphany involve an axe or chainsaw? Reclaim your garden's share of sunshine!
Carol Michel said…
So in my bare suburban lot, I long for the day when the trees are mature and I have more shade than the strip on the north side of the house, so I can finally spread out the hostas and ferns I crammed in there and have a choice of shady spots to sit and rest. It can be wearisome to always be in the sun, too! I want to go to the "shade section" at the nursery to show that I have a mature garden!

Great post!
Annie in Austin said…
It isn't cheap, EAL, but back in Illinois I saw gardens transformed by having an arborist properly thin out entire large branches and reshape the entire tree - not hack it back or 'crown' it. More air, more light, plants in the area did better with filtered light, and the birds didn't seem to mind.

Down here, with the light so intense, it's amazing what can grow under a tree.

Annie at the Transplantable Rose
lisa said…
I agree with Annie-time to take out your frustration on the tree canopy! That's my personal solution for too much shade, although I still refuse to stop trying to grow moisture-loving plants under water-sucking trees! Eventually I'll have to face reality and try planters or raised beds to keep the roots at bay...or give in and plant pachysandra! ;)
savvycityfarmer said…
Oh, I must tell you that for 10 years I've had a back yard with shade...just recently I had a 100 year old tree taken down that was th culprit...6000 pounds of culprit...I am not going to know how to act about a month from now...I'm scattering poppies tomorrow....I'm giving up the throne of hosta queen and marching on toward being the queen of roses.
Anonymous said…
The cedar elms are just about to leaf out and plunge my yard from full sun to full shade. All my plans and planting done in the fall and late winter when the yard is sunny are about to be spoiled.

As Annie said, the sun here is intense but most plants don't like to spend two hours under the magnifying glass and the rest of the time in the dark.

My shade is a hot (100 degree) dry shade...although the air itself is frequently sticky and humid causing many Mediterranean plants to mildew or rot.

I've about given up gardening in the summer and am working on strategies to garden during our mild winters instead.
Kasmira said…
Sometimes a good shade book can get you excited about lack of sunlight. I REALLY like Got Shade?
Felicia said…
I'm still in the "bargaining" stage with my shady spots. I'm trying to get hosta to grow without being eaten by the local fauna. Haha. Wish me luck!
LostRoses said…
Carol, I love your shade post. Been there, planted all the wrong things in the shade, watched them all die! Hope springs eternal for a gardener (yes, those half black,half yellow circles)but when I'm mowing the lawn in the heat of summer, I have to say I'm glad for the shade!
EAL said…
Many thanks to all of you for feeling my pain!

Yes Annie and Pam, when I can afford it, I will hire someone to trim the trees.

Or even cut one down, damn it.
Settima said…
wow...I thought I was the only person with issues with shade. I love shade for myself, but not for my 'garden.' Nowhere in my backyard does the sun hang out long enough to give 'full sun' - many natives need that here in my 'I wanna be a native/mediterranean garden when I grow up' garden. Don't know what to do about it. So, I keep moving things around...changing my mind about what I want...now..I'm just trying to keep what I have growing out there alive!

I like your blog!
The Merry said…
Oh dear... now I'm starting to worry...
I know nothing, NOTHing, about gardening. Put it in the ground and hope it doesn't die about sums up my philosophy. Yet now I have this backyard with these marvelous 60-year-old trees and I can't imagine chopping them down.
Would plastic plants work?
Anonymous said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Oh... shades of Dylan Thomas, a drunken god I once worshipped (my son inherited the name & an appreciation for pubs).
BTW...my dad was born in Buffalo. Love...your...blog

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