Recently I had a consultation to look at a stressed dogwood. While we were talking, the customer asked about shade gardening. He had several new perennial beds, but the west side of his property was heavily shaded and he needed planting advice for the shade. Since this is a common problem, I decided to write up a simple guide for planting a shade garden in this region: Northeast Kansas, Southeast Nebraska, and Northwest Missouri.
The most important thing to remember when planning a shade garden is just that: its shade. Full shade gets less than 2 hours of sun per day. Partial shade receives from 2 to 6 hours of sun per day or is filtered through tree canopy. Typically our shaded beds come on the east or north sides of buildings or under heavily wooded areas. Watch out for the wooded sites, they can also be dry as the trees will use a lot of water.
Soil for shade gardens need to be well drained, heavy in organic matter, and slightly moist all at the same time. If you are working with a newly constructed building site, you will want to add organic matter in the form of aged cow or horse manure, cotton bur compost, mushroom compost, or leaf mold. These composts should be mixed or tilled into the soil. If you have a really dry site due to wind exposure or many trees, it may be necessary to add irrigation to the beds until the plants have established. A drip system or soaker hoses works best, but it may also be necessary to add an overhead sprinkler for those really hot days!
When picking out plants for your shade garden, you must know what works best in our area. Many places sell plants as shade plants that are more regional but not specific species such as ferns. Many ferns will do well, but then need special requirements for soil and water that may not work with other plants. Also, many plants that are designed for full sun in northern climates may work as shade plants here. It may be helpful to find your nearest expert on plantings; they could be a horticulturalist, garden designer, or Master Gardener. They can tell you about planting, spacing, location, and needs of the plant.
Mulch your plants with biodegradable materials such as chopped alfalfa, chopped leaves, or cocoa shells. This is beneficial for your soil and your plants. Be sure to never mix mulch into the soil and never use a weed fabric or weed barrier with organic mulch. Read our article on mulches to learn more.
After you find your plants you are ready to dig in! Make sure to use proper spacing requirements for each plant and dig the hole so the top of the root ball will be even with the ground. It can be helpful to fertilize when you plant to get roots established quickly. I recommend an organic fertilizer for best results. Be sure to water each plant thoroughly after planting. Continue to water as needed, but do not let the plants wilt down as they may not recover if wilted for more than a day during drought periods. Have caution too; overwatering can cause wilting and yellowing, so be sure the soil is moist, but not flooded!
Maintenance in your shade garden is very important. If weeds are allowed to take root, they will compete with and crowd out your new plantings. Be very diligent about weeding. In the fall after frost, many of the plants will brown and dry down. It is okay to remove unsightly dead foliage, but would be better to wait until spring. Hostas are an exception; their foliage can be removed after dying down.
Now for the plants! My favorite part of shade gardening is the sheer variety of plants available. There are actually a short number of species to use, but many cultivars. For example, hosta is one species, but it has more than 250 cultivars available in the market! Listed below are some of the best species and their cultivars for the Great Plains region.
Red Veined Sorrel
Lily of the Valley
Foamflower ‘Sugar & Spice’ ‘Pink Skyrocket’
Viburnum dentatum ‘Blue Muffin’ ‘Deam’ ‘Summer Snowflake’
Flowering Dogwood ‘Pink’ ‘Cloud Nine’ ‘Prairie Pink’ ‘White’
Lamium ‘Beacon Silver’ ‘Orchid Frost’ ‘Purple Dragon’
Hydrangea paniculata ‘Tardiva’ quercifolia ‘Pee Wee’ ‘Sike’s Dwarf’ ‘Snow Queen’
Ashleaf Falsespirea ‘Sem’
Japanese Maple ‘Bloodgood’ ‘Tamukeyama’ ‘Orangeola’ ‘Butterfly’