When I moved into a new house in 1985 and started my garden, I was disappointed to find that my fifth of an acre lot was mostly shady. The Norway maples in the curb strip effectively shaded our small front yard. In back, we had mature trees to the west, north and south, leaving a patch of lawn between the back fence and the house that got sun in the middle of the day. My first attempt to grow flowers was in that patch of sunnier ground.
I wanted to grow roses and sun perennials. It took a long time to recognize that I was gardening in shade, whether I liked it or not.
Some of the trees around the yard were on our property, so we could have cut them down. For each, there was a reason why we chose not to. A line of droopy Norway spruces blocked our southern exposure, but they also created a privacy barrier between our yard and our neighbor’s house. Next to the garage stood a red oak that an arborist guessed was at least 100 years old. Was I really going to evict every creature that depended on that venerable tree? Behind the fence to our west was a thicket of Norway maples rapidly growing from seed on our neighbor’s land.
So shade gardening was my fate. I learned to love a lot of woodland plants and to seek out attractive leaf forms, textures and variegations.
Then we got a surprising opportunity to expand our lot to a third of an acre by buying some land from the neighbors behind us. After we cut down the Norway maples around the perimeter of our new land, I had something I’d never expected—a place to garden in almost full sun.
But instead of putting in those English-style deep perennial borders full of sun-lovers, I went out and planted a lot more trees. We wanted a visual barrier along the back of the new lot, so we built a berm and planted evergreens including white pines, a balsam fir, and a blue spruce. I really wanted a gingko and a dawn redwood. For understory trees I had to have a stewartia, magnolias, redbuds, shadbushes, and witch hazels. By the time all that planting was done and the trees put on some height, my sunny garden area was mostly gone.
I enjoy the variety of foliage that my shady garden offers. Later I learned about some other advantages of shade. Those Norway spruces along the south side of the yard shade our house in summer, decreasing our air conditioning bill. The berm to our west planted with now-tall evergreens shelters us from winter winds. A lot of New England’s worst invasive plants don’t prefer shade, so I have less of a battle keeping them at bay. The plants I grow in shade need less maintenance than sun-lovers would. And I’m certainly providing lots of shelter for animals, from insects on up to mammals.