Knowing Shade

Blooming foam flower (Tiarella cordifolia ‘Brandywine’) mingled with unfurling Himalayan Maidenhair fern (Adiantum venustum)

Shade.  When we garden in the Maritime Pacific Northwest (or anywhere), we ought to welcome it.  Adore it.  Explore it.

With majestic trees comes the blessing of shade and its numerous quirky personalities. Beyond bland generalities of part shade or full shade; we observe the qualities and moods of morning,  mid-day, and afternoon shade.  Deep shade, bright shade, light shade, filtered shade, dappled shade, exclaim the plant tags and encyclopedias.

If only plants could talk, oh how they would describe light!

Ken Druse in his classic book,  The Natural Shade Garden, dedicates nearly five pages to the “degrees of shade”.  He describes characteristics, and duration, and reminds us that how plants respond to light exposure varies from region to region. I have learned more about plant care from how they perform in different types of light exposure than any other factor.

Many gardeners talk about coping with shade and plants that tolerate shade.  When considering lush ferns, poetic spring ephemerals, and romantic woodland denizens, gardeners should pray for shade.

Spring vetchling (Lathyrus vernus)

Gardens created by working with natural site conditions are more successful functionally. There is an emotional energy imparted by the willingness of the gardener to embrace shade’s myriad faces.  Those gardens honor and take on a sense of place.

Rick Darke in The American Woodland Garden, writes of deciduous forest environments as “one of the most luminous landscapes on earth.”  I can’t think of a better descriptor.  My woodland gardens in April and May are indeed luminous and each hour, each advancing spring day, is unique and captivating.  

The nature of shade is transitory throughout the seasons and over the years, making it a fascinating and enduring focus of study, journaling and gardening.  And if you have none, consider the art of plant layering to create some. 

Newly unfurling, fuzzy fronds of evergreen Korean rock fern (Polystichum tsus-simense)

For inspiration, immerse yourself in shade’s flavors, styles and local spirit at a botanical garden. The spring gifts of fresh leaves and tender blossom are a reminder to celebrate and work with our garden’s shade.  Whether it be deep, dappled or beautifully indescribable.

About Colleen Miko

Colleen Miko is a certified professional horticulturist with 20+ years experience in landscape design who has designed award winning gardens for the NW Flower & Garden Show as well as HGTV’s “Landscaper’s Challenge”. Colleen is freelance garden writer and speaker.
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