7 Tips for Planting a Great Garden in the Shade

Make Focal Points with Flowerpots
Photo: Robbie Caponetto

Beautiful gardens seldom arise in places that nice plants hate. So you can understand my surprise upon discovering Robyn Griffith Brown's wondrous garden sanctuary in Fairview, Tennessee. Flowering shrubs, luminous perennials, creeping ground covers, graceful grasses, and stoic evergreens occupy the spaces between winding paths that traverse her backyard. Twenty years after she began planting, it seems inconceivable that she actually picked a terrible place to garden.Shade thrown down by tall hickories and oaks precluded sun-loving plants. Tree roots sucked up every drop of soil moisture during Tennessee's droughty summers and falls, plus the leaves blocked any brief showers from wetting the ground. Add to that evil soil made of chert—basically clay and rock—and it's easy to see why Brown may have been tempted to give up in the early years.Three things helped. First, as manager of Nashville's well-known Moore & Moore Garden Center, she had access to an array of plants with which to experiment. Second, as an experienced photo stylist and designer, she knew which plants looked good together, what made great focal points, and how to guide the eye along a path to a surprise. Third, she learned from reading the widely praised book The Well-Tended Perennial Garden by Tracy DiSabato-Aust that a garden is only as good as its soil and the plants you choose. Brown shares some tried-and-true tips that will help you surmount a similar challenge.

01 of 07

Forget About Doing Everything at Once

Forget About Doing Everything at Once
Robbie Caponetto

You'll be overwhelmed and probably quit. Brown's garden is a series of areas developed over two decades. It began as a large burn pit in the middle of the backyard into which she tossed a handful of cleome seeds. She added a new area every two to three years.

02 of 07

Tend to the Soil Before Planting

"I remember using a pickax to dig the holes when I planted my first laurels," she says. Wisely, she tilled in copious amounts of organic matter (about 2 inches each of mushroom compost and soil conditioner) to loosen it and improve both drainage and water
Robbie Caponetto

"I remember using a pickax to dig the holes when I planted my first laurels," she says. Wisely, she tilled in copious amounts of organic matter (about 2 inches each of mushroom compost and soil conditioner) to loosen it and improve both drainage and water-holding capacity. "Put your money into soil first," she advises. "It will save you grief later."

03 of 07

Pick Foliage Over Flowers in a Shade Garden

Pick Foliage Over Flowers in a Shade Garden
Robbie Caponetto

Green leaves can add color, too, but the key is combining different shapes, sizes, and textures. Nashville landscape architect Duncan Callicott gave Brown a tip she now suggests to others—take a black-and-white photo of your garden (you can adjust a color image on your smartphone or computer) to reveal where plant combos are working and where they aren't. "If you don't have enough bold foliage, the picture will appear fuzzy," she explains. "Too much bold foliage will make it look flat." Plant thickly to leave fewer empty spots for weeds to grow.

04 of 07

Move Plants Around as You Wish

Move Plants Around as You Wish
Robbie Caponetto

"If I have a hole in a border and don't know exactly what to plant there, I'll fill it with a container for one season," she says. She might actually end up moving it two or three times until it finds a permanent home. In the pot above, the big, bold leaves of African mask (Alocasia amazonica) mix well with dainty Southern maidenhair fern.

05 of 07

Make Focal Points with Flowerpots

Make Focal Points with Flowerpots
Robbie Caponetto

Containers inject color—either by themselves or with what's planted in them. Plus, they add height, increasing the impact of what they hold. Pots also protect vole-prone perennials, such as hostas, from attack.

06 of 07

Consider These Picks for Dry Shade

Consider These Picks for Dry Shade
Robbie Caponetto

Shrubs: oakleaf hydrangea, smooth hydrangea, boxwood, plum yew, and yew
Perennials: hellebore, crested iris, epimedium, Solomon's seal, and Christmas fern

07 of 07

Don't Waste Time on Whimps

Don't Waste Time on Whimps
Robbie Caponetto

Brown believes in choosing the right plant (native or non-native) for the right spot. Anything in the ground must be able to survive with a single soaking a week from an oscillating sprinkler. If it doesn't, she replaces it with something tougher.

Pictured, ferns, perennials, ground covers, and oakleaf hydrangeas slowly reveal a birdbath as you round the bend.

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