Category: Gardening

Creating A Shade Garden

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shade garden

Shady areas can be a gardening challenge. Whether it be a yard full of trees, the north side of your home or areas around a deck or shed that do not receive much sunlight, it may seem as though only moss and weeds can flourish here.   Daunting though it may be, it is quite possible to create a beautiful, lush garden beneath a canopy of shade. The key is understanding the growing conditions of your shady space and choosing the right types of plants that will thrive within those conditions.

Where to Start

The first step is to understand the surrounding plants in the area, the condition of the soil and the type of shade you are working with. But shade is shade right? Not exactly… There is light shade, dappled shade, filtered shade, partial shade, full shade, deep shade – it can be confusing with so many variations of “shade”, and if you plant for the wrong kind, your plants may not live up to their full potential.  There may have been a pun in there… Back to business now. Here is a great explanation of the variations of shade from The Old Farmers Almanac.

All plants require some measure of sunlight to grow and many will prefer full sun, which means 8+ hours a day of sunlight or partial sun which is 4-8 hours of sun exposure.  You will see this noted on plants at your local garden center – the tags will always tell you the preferred sun exposure. If the space you are working with receives less than 4 hours of sunlight per day, the full-sun or partial-sun plants will not do well there.

Also note the condition of the soil and the surround plants. Are there trees with shallow roots that hog up all the moisture? If you can see roots or find them very close to the surface then your new plants will have to compete for the moisture in the ground and therefore should be chosen for their hardiness in dry conditions.

Once you have a good idea of the conditions you can then choose the right kinds of plants.  And that is where the fun begins.


Choosing the Right Plants

Believe it or not, there is a lot of variety when it comes to choosing plants that do well in shady areas.  The idea is to think about color, texture, and form, then use those elements to create contrast and depth in your shade garden.  Here are some ideas to get you started.

Hydrangea – This showy shrub is a wonderful addition to a shade garden. The large puffy groups of blossoms are a favorite for both fresh bouquets and dried arrangements.  Be sure to check the variety because there are many choices and there are a few that actually prefer sun to shade.

Hosta – Another popular plant for shade gardens is the hosta. These too come in a wide variety of colors and patterns, and as such are often paired together to create contrast all on their own. Hostas are very easy to grow as well, and work well in a wide range of shade levels. Favored spots for hostas are borders, pathways and containers.

Camellia – The camellia is an evergreen shrub with dark green, glossy leaves and bright pink or white blossoms that come in either the spring or the fall depending on the variety.  It is a native plant of Asia and Japan and is often seen as part of the landscape in Japanese gardens.

Gardenia – Another evergreen shrub which has varieties for sun and shade, the gardenia is a wonderful accent plant that can stand on its own as a specimen or function as a hedge behind smaller plants with its dark, waxy leaves. The blossoms are creamy white, can come in spring or summer, and many varieties are very fragrant and will bloom multiple times in a season. A suggested paring is with hostas.

Dogwood – The dogwood is small ornamental tree or shrub that works nicely in shady landscapes and can add a dimension of height and depth to a space. It comes in a many varieties, but the ones we most see in Virginia are the variety with our state flower – the flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) – which are small trees with slender, horizontally weaving limbs. When they bloom in the spring, it can almost seem as though the flowers are floating the air, so dainty are the branches.

Amethyst Flower – Also known as the “bush violet” these small purple flowers are typically planted as an annual in Virginia and the blooms are long lasting, from spring until fall.

Coleus – When it comes to this annual, it’s all about the foliage. This is one exciting little plant and a guaranteed way to spice up a shade garden. There are many varieties to choose from and the options for shade are dazzling in their colors, patterns and shapes.  These little plants also have a variety of growing habits from small shrubs to trailing, which means you can get especially creative!

Begonia – This perennial flower can be quite the stunner when paired with glossy green hostas or golden Japanese forest grass. Begonias also look quite nice in pots and hanging baskets.

Honeysuckle – What can be more romantic than sweet-smelling honeysuckle climbing a fence or wall in the springtime? Very fragrant, and with a wild, unruly appearance, these lovely vines can give sharp angles some soft contrast.  Be cautious in your selection of Honeysuckle however, as some species can be invasive. One recommendation for a fragrant, non-invasive Honeysuckle is the Lonicera x  heckrottii.

Japanese Forest Grass – Elegant and attractive, this graceful plant grows slowly and fills shady spaces with arching mounds of long, flat, blades of leaves in an array of vibrant yellowish-green tones, some with stripes. The Golden Japanese forest grass is excellent for, and will brighten up, areas of full shade.

Bleeding Heart – A native to shady woodland areas, bleeding heart is a perennial with tiny pink or white heart-shaped flowers that hang on slender, vine-like stalks. These little plants make a very subtle, but lovely addition to a shady space, and pair well with hostas and ferns.

There are endless combinations of shade-loving plants that can create an interesting and lovely garden space in your shady areas.  Do not be discouraged if your plans do not work out on the first try. Once you have found the right combinations of plants that will work in your shady spaces, your shade garden should be fairly low maintenance, just be sure to mulch it all well to keep the weeds at bay, then sit back and enjoy a cool oasis of foliage and flowers in the heat of summer.


Excellent references on gardening in the shade:

Meeting the challenges of shade gardening by Anthony Bratsch, Extension Educator, Horticulture – University of Illinois Extension

Shade Garden and Plant Definitions – The Old Farmers Almanac

Plant Combinations for the Shade – Fine Gardening

Plants To Add Color To Your Shade Garden – Sunset

Distinguishing Degrees of Light and Shade – Fine Gardening

Best Shade-Loving Plants – HGTV

Plants for the Shade Garden – Horticulture Magazine

Shade Garden Plans – Better Homes and Gardens

33 Easy Ideas for Shade Gardens – Birds and Blooms

A Hampton Roads Annual Lawn and Garden Maintenance Calendar

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The Hampton Roads area has a very diverse and variable climate. If you have lived here for a while, you have surely noted that we can have 70 degree days followed by 20 degree days in January. Our winters are mostly mild with cold snaps that sometimes drop a bit of snow. Our summers have hot, sultry weather, plus hurricanes, tropical storms and nor’easters with a sprinkling of perfect days in between. If you like seasons and variety, this is the place to be!

When taking care of our gardens and lawns, working with our ever-changing weather can be a little tricky.  So, it helps to have a basic understanding of our regional climate as well as your local microclimate. It’s important to know your frost dates as well. For the Hampton Roads area, the last frost in the spring typically occurs between April 11-30 and the first frost in the fall occurs between November 1-20. Frost dates can vary depending on your location in the Hampton Roads area. For example, Williamsburg will likely have frost later in the spring and earlier in the fall than Virginia Beach.  You can use the links in the references below to check the frost dates for your city in Virginia.


Late Winter through Spring – The Busiest Season

Be aware of the last spring frost date for your area.  Be prepared to protect delicate plants and sprouts in case of an unexpected late frost. You can cover plants with mulch, tarps, sheets or even containers like baskets and coolers. Be sure to cover them before it gets dark so you can trap the warmer air. You can also wet the ground around the plants and coat them with water. When the water on the plants freezes, the moisture in the ground creates humidity to insulate them from the cold.

Start seeds – If you have the space, now is a great time to start some seeds indoors. It’s typical to plant about 8-10 weeks ahead of when you want to put your seedlings into the garden outside.

Prune before plants bud – It’s also an ideal time for pruning, especially deciduous trees, shrubs and vines such as climbing roses and clematis.

Cut back ornamental grasses

Do not prune spring-flowering shrubs however, except to correct problems. Shrubs like Forsythia, Azalea, Rose of Sharon and Rhododendron are all examples of shrubs to prune after they bloom.  See the references below for more details on what to prune when.

Transplant – If you have been wanting to move any shrubs around to different locations in your garden, now is the time to transplant them, while they are still dormant (before they start budding).

Mowers and Tools – Sharpen your mower blades.  Dull blades can tear the grass rather than cut it clean, leaving jagged edges that discolor your lawn and invite pathogens. *Note: you should sharpen your mower blades once per month during the grass-cutting season. It’s also a good idea to have a backup blade on hand.

Clean and tune up your mower and weed eater, and get a fresh container of gasoline if they are gas powered. Old gas that has been sitting around all winter might have accumulated moisture which could harm engines. Your city’s website should have information on how to dispose of any hazardous waste (eg. Gas, oil).

Clean up your lawn – Get out your rake and remove any sticks and leaves that have accumulated over the winter months. This will let your lawn “breathe” as well as prepare it for any seeding or fertilizing you need to do.

Aerate – Aeration is the process of getting oxygen to the roots of your grass. You may or may not need to do this, it really depends on the type of grass you have and the condition your lawn is in. See the link in this section for details. This can be accomplished by using an aeration tool or machine, wearing spiked shoes and walking around the yard or even just a hard rake to loosen up the soil enough to make things happen.

Fertilize – If your lawn could use some nutrients, now is the time put down your fertilizer. You can do this with or without aerating. However, if you aerate, do that first and fertilize after.  There are many fertilizers to choose from – it’s best to do a soil test to see what nutrients might be missing and to also get what is best for your type of grass. There are also organic fertilizer options when there is a concern about storm water runoff being contaminated with chemicals. Read more about organic fertilizer options at Rodales.

Prepare outdoor flower beds – Once the last frost has come and gone, remove all old mulches,  newspapers and compost, pull out any weeds that may have sprouted up, turn the dirt and add new compost/nutrients to the soil.

If you did any planning over the winter for new beds, now is the time to dig those out and prepare them for planting.

Planting – After the last frost, it’s time to start planting! This is the time to plant new trees, shrubs, perennials and early vegetable crops as well as annual seeds.

Late Spring through Summer

Planting –  With the danger of frost in the past, planting should be in full swing now. The garden centers and nurseries will be stocked up. Now is the time to get out early and fill your beds with bright annual flowers, hardy perennials to accent your landscape, vegetables to grace your table and herbs for cooking.

Prune – Summer is a good time for pruning and shaping up your evergreen shrubs and hedges.  It’s also time to prune those flowering shrubs we skipped in spring such as azaleas and rhododendrons once they have finished blooming.

Deadhead – Deadheading or pinching back the blooms that have faded will keep your plants looking good and blooming longer in many cases.

Water, Water, Water – All growing things will need lots of water now because this is prime growing season.  Be conscious of how much rain you are getting and supplement that as needed to ensure your flowers, shrubs, trees, grass and gardens are getting all the water they need to grow beautiful and healthy.  Lawns especially need long, deep waterings to grow green and healthy. You can set up a sprinkler system for large areas, or get a sprinkler that you can move around as needed.  You can also get a nice glass of lemonade or a cold beer and sit in a lawn chair and just hold the water hose!



Planting – Early fall is a great time to add some pops of fall color to your beds or in pots around the outside of your home. Popular choices are annuals like pansies or perennials (these can also be used as annuals) like mums (Chrysanthemum). Use these colorful flowers to fill in the gaps between dead or dying perennials to keep the colors going until the first frost.

Prune – Fall is typically a bad time for pruning, but there are a few plants that are okay to trim back when the blooming season is over. These include perennial flowers such as purple cone flower, beebalm and fennel.

Clean up Your Lawn – In the fall, the main concern is keeping your lawn free of leaves and other debris.  Be sure to get up clumps of gumballs and twigs as well as piles of leaves so they don’t kill your grass.

Prepare your garden beds for winter – Before you put your beds to sleep, there may be time to get in one last crop of late season veggies. But when you are ready to be done for the year, clean out the beds and cover them with newspaper and leaves. Read more about preparing your garden for winter.



Shop for next year -Peruse garden/seed catalogues to help determine new and exciting vegetable varieties to try in the garden.

Plan – Plan out and design next year’s vegetable garden. Keep a journal of what you plant each year so you can try to implement crop rotation of vegetable families. This helps reduce disease buildup and keep your soil fertile.  You can also plan for ornamental plants you might like to grow that are low maintenance or better for shade or bees, etc. Each year there will be trial and error, but you have the opportunity to craft your garden to suit your needs and liking.

Indoor gardening – If you have a sunny window, consider growing herbs and/or microgreens to add fresh greens to your diet

If you are storing bulbs – Keep a check on the bulb’s condition to ensure they are firm, removing any soft or rotten bulbs

Avoid fungus gnat infestations in house plants by allowing the soil to dry out in between watering

Plants are always growing whether we participate or not. But when we take a hand in it, we can create an oasis of natural beauty around our home.  If you love keeping a nice lawn and garden around your home, we hope this list will be helpful and inspirational.  We’ve only touched on points, so please check the references in this article and below for more detailed information.  And happy growing!



Virginia Last Frost Dates By City:

Virginia First Frost Dates By City:

Gardening by the Month in Hampton Roads:

Lawn and Garden Checklist from Southern Living:

A guide to successful Pruning / Shrub Pruning Calendar:

More on Microclimates:

Caring for your garden tools:

Year round guide to Lawn and Garden Maintenance:

Season by Season Lawn Maintenance Calendar: