When my mother wanted to fill in a shady spot near the house, she invariably went into the nearby woods and dug up several clumps of ferns.
She knew enough about gardening to figure out that plants do best when they are transplanted into areas similar to where they grew in the wild.
In those days, hard-earned money wasn't spent on ornamental plants. Instead cuttings, suckers and divisions were passed around among friends and family members until everyone seemed to have the same garden. The frugality of World War II extended into the 1950s and families continued to plant vegetable gardens even as grocery stores were booming with vegetables and fruit. Young parents still remembered the lean years of their childhoods, so instead of buying flowers, shrubs and other ornamental plants, household income was used to buy vegetable seeds, fruit trees and grapevines.
Yet even without spending hard-earned dollars on decorative plants, it was important to have flowers and other ornamental plants to decorate the landscape and make the family homestead as attractive as possible.
Trees were important, especially when planted close to the house to provide shade and relief from hot summer temperatures. With all this shade so close to the house, it was important to find ornamental plants that grew in those conditions.
Everyone interprets shade gardening differently, but in fact there are many different definitions for shady areas. The American Horticultural Society has distinct definitions for shady areas, which can be helpful when deciding what plants to put in those areas. Keep in mind that an area that receives direct sunlight at least six hours during the hottest time of the day is considered to be in full sun.
Light shade is defined by areas that are sometimes exposed to light, such as shade that is cast from the side of a building, wall or tree. As the sun moves across the sky throughout the day, those areas can be sunny during various times and shaded during others. Since most blooming plants prefer sun, this type of shade is best for blooming plants.
Partial shade also offers and opportunity for blooming plants, although they may not produce as many blooms as if they were planted in light shade or full sun. Areas of partial shade may still get up to six hours of direct sun, most of it in the morning. By afternoon, this area is in the shade for the rest of the day. At my house, this definition describes my immediate back yard. The sun rises off the back corner of my house and as it moves overhead, by 2 p.m. when temperatures are peaking, that area is in the shade.
Dappled, or filtered shade, are areas that have sunlight filtering through tree branches, lattice arbors or pergolas throughout the day. In these areas, the amount of light is constantly changing. These areas are most often found in woodland areas, back yards that are peppered with trees and patios covered with pergola-type structures.
Full shade is the darkest, usually found beneath thick branches of trees such as evergreens, where no direct light can get through. Very few blooming plants will grow in these areas. What will do best in those areas are plants with interesting leaves of all shapes and sizes and many varieties of groundcovers.
Light isn't the only concern when choosing plants for shade gardens. Filtered or full shaded gardens may not provide adequate moisture for a lot of plants, especially if rain doesn't get through to those areas. In addition, trees and shrubs, which are causing the shade to begin with, likely use up whatever nutrients and moisture is available. Many gardeners prefer to use container plants to fill in those areas. Sweet potato vine, coleus and heuchera (coral bells) are plants with a wide variety of leaf color that do well in containers.
When deciding what plants will do well in your shade garden, be sure to check the tags that come with the plants. Some experimentation and trial and error may be needed before you find what works best for your particular space.