The Character of Shade
If you have an established garden, there is a good chance that you will have at least one large tree as part of your landscape. One of the benefits of large trees in the garden is the shade they provide. While this can be a blessing during the scorching heat of summer, these shaded areas can provide a few challenges for the home gardener.
There are a range of strategies to combat the challenges of planting under trees, the shaded areas can just as stunning as those in full sun.
There are several points to consider about shade under trees; lower light levels, root systems and available water are probably the most important ones.
By selecting plants suited to growing under the canopy of trees, you will avoid the heartache of watching a newly purchased specimen suffer and possibly die. While some plants will cope with shade, they may not thrive. Shrubby plants can become open and leggy as they struggle to find the light. Others, such as the Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum Spp), will flourish in full shade but fail to flower if the light levels are too low.
Roots from the trees create problems for understory plants by drawing up most of the available ground water and nutrients while competing for soil space. Shallow rooted plants, especially those which establish themselves in leaf litter, are ideally suited to these conditions. Ferns and Bromeliads are two that come to mind.
Building up the soil around the tree or regularly adding compost and mulch will increase the range of plants you can use. Some trees will grow new feeder roots into this new layer, continuing the battle for space. Others may suffer when soil is built up around their roots, effectively becoming suffocated. Seek advice from a landscaper or horticulturalist if you are unsure of how your tree will react.
As well as the tree taking up water, less water will actually reach the ground under the tree when it is raining. Select plants which cope with dry shade, such as Clivia and some cycads to reduce the need for watering. If a wider range of shade loving plants is preferred, installing a drip or mist irrigation system will be the most time efficient way to water.
Larger leafed plants, especially those with good colour and form, work particularly well under the canopy of a larger tree. A combination of Cordylines, Stromanthe, Philodendrons and some gingers can provide this colour and form, creating a picture of beauty without the reliance on feature flowers.
Other ways of enhancing shaded areas is to add structural elements such as feature rocks, paths and seating and artwork. Paths using mulch, gravel or stepping stones have less impact on the root zone of trees and in turn, will not be as noticeably disturbed by root growth.
Feature pots are another great way of adding a structural element that doubles up as good growing space for plants. Be sure to provide some form of irrigation for these as potted plants can dry out quickly. Using pots ensures that the tree does not compete for this water.
With a little thought and planning, an often scrappy and barren area of the garden can be transformed into a stunning feature for you to enjoy.