The Gift Of Shade

shady neighborhoodLarge growing trees, commonly known as shade trees, take a lot of time and space to achieve a mature size. They need to be carefully sited, as they will eventually tower over a good bit of the square footage around them.  The maples that many cities planted at one time or another in the tree lawn – that space between the sidewalk and the street – eventually suffer. Their roots dislike being confined as much as their canopies. Many of those badly placed trees are gone, or in a serious state of decline.  Parks are a better place for the biggest growing trees to grow and thrive. But shady streets in the heat of the summer are welcomed by all.

shade (7)The shade that trees provide in the landscape is a topic of great interest right now.  We have had week after week of glaringly sunny skies and searing heat. Most lawns have turned a parched shade of beige. The temperature at 6am is too hot. Added to that mix – no rain, and no breeze. Our planting taking place in sunny locations is miserable for both the planters and the plantees. Keeping a new planting watered is a next to full time job. Even work that was done weeks ago needs to be monitored closely. A new plant not yet rooted into the surrounding soil can perish quickly if not kept watered. High heat means that water is evaporating from the soil at a rapid rate. A hedge of DeGroot Spire arborvitaes we planted recently is on a drip irrigation system that runs twice a day. The soil was dead dry and dusty down 36″ when we planted. It took over 2 weeks of this irrigation program for moisture to reach down to the bottom of those root balls. I have spent a lot of time on the business end of a hose, both at work and at home. Last but not least, if I am outside for any length of time, I am looking for a shady spot to land.

shade (6) The Princeton Gold maples in my yard, pictured above, were originally planted to screen the neighboring properties. This maple is a medium sized tree, meaning that it tops out at about 35 feet. There are lots of smaller growing trees suitable for smaller properties that can endow your landscape with shade. My maples have done a great job of making this part of my yard private. But with that privacy came a lot of shade. At first, that annoyed me. This summer in particular I am enjoying the shade they cast. After work, this shady part of the garden, and the fountain spraying water into the air makes a 90 degree day tolerable. A summer day when I cannot get out into the garden after work is a miserable day indeed. Though I like the freedom of choice that a sunny site provides, there are plenty of reasons to value a shady spot. There are not so many shrubs and perennials that will thrive in shade to this degree.  I grow hellebores, sweet woodruff, Japanese Beech ferns, European ginger, pachysandra and yews in this tree dominated garden. It is subdued, and mostly green. It is a fine place to meet and relax on a hot summer day.

shade (1)Dogwoods are usually open growing, but this particular tree in my yard is dense in leaf. From the vantage point of my upper deck, the cupped and curling leaves are an expression of distaste for the heat. There is nothing I can do to mitigate the temperature, but I do keep this tree well watered. My decks face east, which means they are shaded by the house in the late afternoon and evening. A terrace you intend to use located on the south or west side of a garden will need a shade scheme.  No doubt a canopy of leaves is cooler than an umbrella. To paraphrase from Wikipedia, only 2 or 3 percent of the water plants take up from the soil is used for growth and metabolism. Transpiration or the evaporation of water from stems and leaves is associated with the process of photosynthesis.  “Transpiration also cools plants, changes osmotic pressure of cells, and enables mass flow of mineral nutrients and water from roots to shoots”. The transpiration process that governs the life of leaves in the heat of the summer will cool you, too.

shade (2)A pair of magnolia planted on either side of my driveway have grown together overhead, and shade this spot in the drive.  If I park my car here on a hot sunny day, the time it takes to cool off is vastly less that if I had parked it in the sun. Though it was 95 degrees the day I took this picture, it even looks cooler. Extreme and long standing heat is a deterrent to gardening, but it can also be a call to provide shelter.

shade (9)A staircase going to the kitchen door has a less dense canopy of shade, cast by a pair of dogwoods. There are plenty of plants that tolerate this level of light.  In addition to the usual hostas and ferns, I am also able to grow campanulas, lady’s mantle, and acanthus.

shade (4)A shade garden holds its moisture much longer than a garden in full sun. A thorough soaking once in a while is all it needs. An established garden sheltered by trees can take advantage of moisture in the soil around it. An irrigation system or sprinkler is fine for maintaining an adequate level of moisture in the soil. This is not to say that the most established of trees do not suffer during periods of no rain. The interior leaves of many shade trees will turn yellow, and drop, when the soil is too dry.  The tree will jettison interior leaves in an effort to conserve what precious little water there is for those outer leaves that actively photosynthesize. Our little leaf lindens at the shop drop interior leaves the moment they are dissatisfied with our sandy too well draining soil. We water them with a small rotating sprinkler called a poppy, made by Nelson. Our version is every bit of 20 years old. Poppy Sprinkler  It can be turned down such that all of the water your tree needs will soak in. London Plane trees are notorious for dropping their leaves in hot and dry weather. Their larger than life leaves have more opportunities to transpire.

shade in the garden (1)We have been in the process of planting a large shade garden for a client. The area is large enough for kerria japonica pleniflora, aralia cordata Sun King, thalictrums, and dwarf oak leaf hydrangeas. The dappled light means we have a wide range of plants that will thrive here. No small amount of the installation has been the watering in. We watered again today.  And celebrated a few hours of rain this afternoon.

shade in the garden (5)Not only will this garden be lovely when it has some age, it was a relief to have some shade during the planting. Though the irrigation for this garden will be installed this Tuesday next, every plant will need water directly to their root balls until they have had time to grow roots into the surrounding soil. New plants need lots of hand watering. The old spruce are a huge help.  They take the brunt of the sun and heat, and protect the new plants underneath them.

shade (5)Milo’s long black fur coat looks hot as blazes. He is not a fan of this heat.  He is much happier when we have 28 degree weather.  Though I know that fur to a point insulates him from the heat, he has a considerable appreciation for a shady place. Wherever he can get it. The gardener in me is taking a cue from him.










  1. This entry really hit home with me. I live in Asheville, NC, and since May, my husband and I have installed well over 120 new plants…I lost count in late June. Since May 1st, we’ve had just five days of rain during which we got ¾” or more, 13 days of ¼” or less (useless), and 73 days of trace amounts or none. I’ve become a rain-gauge-obsessed nut. These pitiful amounts, combined with the glaringly sunny skies and (not quite as) searing temperatures you are experiencing, have combined like a perfect storm to create quite a watering challenge. Hauling hoses and keeping track of the schedule for the new stuff, combined with trying to water the one- and two-year-olds, and offer a drink to the established stuff has left me exhausted and brain-numb. I’m sure it comes as no surprise that we’re investigating drip irrigation systems.

    Your photos are a refreshing relief from the heat and drought. They are green and deep and lush…and provide a beautiful illusion of coolness. And thanks for the insights to London Plane trees. The street I live on is lined with gorgeous 100-year-old specimens. I’ve always wondered why they seem to start dropping their leaves in May! I look forward to, and learn so much from every one of your entries!

  2. I spy flowering plants (purple and larger yellow/gold) in your client’s shade garden. Can you please identify? My shade garden has many shades of green, while very soothing, could also be called boring in spite of hellebores, epimedium, hosta, ginger and oak leaf hydrangea. Competition from large trees has been challenging in establishing plant material as well as determining which plants will do well in partial shade, deep shade or filtered light. My garden gives me high marks in satisfaction and almost equal amounts of frustration!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Sally, the shrub kerria has gold yellow flowers, and is very shade tolerant, as is the big leaved sun king aralia. Corydalis lutea has yellow flowers on and off all summer. It has lime green stems which look great in the winter. The Visions series of astilbe is very tolerant of shade, as long as it is open shade. We planted some foxglove in sunny pockets that get sun for 5 hours. Fernleaf bleeding heart is shade tolerant, as is variegated Solomon’s Seal.I get the equal parts satisfaction and frustration! best, Deborah

  3. “Extreme and long standing heat is a deterrent to gardening, but it can also be a call to provide shelter.”

    That phrase means more than otherwise, in this time of climate change. I live in Northern California. Where our summers used to roll by in the 70s, for the most part, this year we’ve been living in the 80s. Old trees have fallen, albeit in my neighbor’s yard. My shade garden is exposed. I am hose-watering my elm, trying to restore its canopy after a root fungus, and despite our water restrictions.

    I feel that by maintaining trees, and letting my two small lawns go unwatered, I must be helping the ecosphere somehow. And I’ve planted new trees in the side yard, madrone and olives, again despite the need for extra summer water until they’ve established. I look at it as an investment in everyone and everything’s health.

    Your garden emanates peace.

  4. Kathleen Randall says

    Thank you again Deborah for an informative, delightful reading with beautiful photos. I love lush healthy green plants, bushes and trees. Your canopy of trees reminded me of the beautiful shady elm lined tree canopy on the street where I was raised. Now lost out to Dutch elm disease with about 80% of the elms gone, and new non-elm trees planted in their place.
    I was thrilled to read about your plantings in a shaded area near pine. Our family has a small rustic cabin with 100’s of Norway, White pines we planted in the late 60’s in the yard. As we planted the seedlings, I remember my mom saying, “someday these trees will be taller than the cabin”, are they ever! I have been searching for a bush or two to plant to provide some privacy, block view of neighbors, and thought Hellebores was a perfect fit to plant under the pines amongst the pine needles. Checked the zone, and it is 3b, not zone 4, so will continue the search. Thank you, again for helping this gardener grow in knowledge and gaining a green thumb.

  5. This is a lovely article, and respite for my hot eyes! I live in SW Washington state. Everyone thinks it rains year round, when in fact we get less rain in the summer than Arizona. Where I live, in a rural valley, we’re usually at least 10 degrees warmer in summer than Seattle and the northern Puget Sound region (and colder and snowier in the winter). Our 1978 ranch house has virtually no shade, making our yard very uncomfortable. There’s a row of 1970s-planted conifers in the front of the circular driveway, near the road, but they’re just far enough away that they don’t shade the front of the west-facing front of the house. I dream of good shade. One of these days, we’ll do something about it. Meanwhile, I spend a lot of time in the AC, not outside enjoying the view.

  6. Another outstanding post. In MA the heat wave and no rain has been ongoing. Today we have a light steady rain since 8 AM. We probably need rain for a week to get out of the drought situation. I love your Princeton Gold Maples. The color is outstanding. Do they also have great Fall color? I have a patio with sun south exposure that is currently very hot so I am looking for a few sun loving, shade producing trees. Fall will be the time I plant my new trees. I’m off to the garden center! My home away from home…Susan

  7. Thanks so much for a post that I can really relate to. Last year I discovered Sun King at new shade garden planted at MSU. Bought 5 at a local greenhouse for dirt cheap. They are beautiful this year. My kerria was lovely too. I think it’s such an underutilized shade shrub. Thanks for sharing your list of shade perennials. I will look for Japanese Beech ferns. Years ago I planted ostrich ferns and I’ve sent learned how aggressive they can be.

  8. Debbie Buckingham says

    Deborah, I am in love with your blog! While googling information on the Lime Light Hydrangeas that our builder planted in the front of our condo, I came across your article on them. Wow! What a wealth of information and I just couldn’t stop reading! You write in such an easy to understand way and communicate a thought just as my mind is starting to have the questions! Very thorough, yet not textbook style just great information! I’m going to be reading past posts like a novel! Thank you!

  9. Yomayra Ocasio says

    Hi there!
    I’m happy to have found this blog. I’m a new homeowner with gardening dreams. I’ve found so many good information about limelight hydrangeas, thank you. I’m in between limelights or little lime…what should I do? I want to make a hedge on my property foundation, I live on top of a slope. I want a show with a boxwood hedge to frame it. Maybe the problem is the space. It’s 14′ long but 5′ wide, it’s that a good space for 2 limelight hydrangeas?? If not I’m thinking of 3 little lime. Thank you, just by writing I can make a better picture in my mind. I have a long way ahead of me. I’m planing a shade garden on my back yard and a vegetable garden for the kids(I successfully made one 2 years ago).

Leave a Comment