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A Garden Made for the Shade

Not every plant needs bright sunshine. Some thrive in dappled light and the soothing protection mature trees offer.


As trees mature and houses top two stories, gardens are becoming increasingly dark in many Southern California neighborhoods. Shadows creep across the landscape, and there is less and less of that precious full sun that plants are so fond of.

Nurseries see this trend, which is why more and more plant labels say "sun/part shade"--suggesting that the plant can grow in either situation--though in many cases it's simply not true.

Most plants want a full day of sun, from sunup to sundown. Any less and their growth will be weak and floppy, they may not flower and are often prone to pests and diseases.

If your garden has become shady, forget about roses and tomatoes and a thousand other sun-loving plants, but don't abandon hope. There are plants that grow well in shade, though first you must decide what kind of shade you actually have.

Deep, Dark Shade

Is the shade in your garden deep and dark, even gloomy, as shade under a ficus tree or an evergreen magnolia or under the wide eaves of a house?

Architecture sometimes conspires against gardening. Said Los Angeles landscape designer Chris Rosmini: "Architects sometimes add little nooks and crannies and say 'Hey, that's a wonderful place for plants,' but it's like gardening in a closet."

The choice of plants that will grow in such a situation or under a big dense tree is extremely limited. Ask anyone trying to grow something under an avocado tree. Even weeds won't sprout.

Not enough light may be only half the problem. There are also tree roots to contend with, so plants need to be able to survive on the dry side, making do with whatever moisture the tree doesn't take.

When planting under trees, don't plant right up to the base of the trunk. For the health of the tree, leave a little breathing room around the trunk, a circle of several unplanted feet.

Bold, orange-flowered clivia are the unchallenged champions in deep shade. They'll even grow under an avocado. There are now pale yellow-flowered clivia for those with more modest color schemes. They're still hard to find and a little pricey but very pretty.

If you want a little more variety, Rosmini likes to use the variegated English ivies, like 'Glacier,' as a ground cover in dark areas, perhaps punctuated by tufts of the grass-like white-striped 'Silver Dragon' liriope.

The gold-and-white markings on variegated plants look especially good in the shade, and often these plants do better out of the sun. "They're bright points of light in dark places, pretty even if they don't flower," she said.

Dappled Shade

The shaded ground under trees can be an excellent growing environment, if the tree is open and high, letting in speckled sunlight from above and scattered light from the sides. Lots of plants thrive in this environment, which some call dappled shade or filtered sun.

You can lighten the shade of a dense tree. Pruning out entire branches and lots of twiggy growth--a technique called "lacing"--can let in more light for gardening underneath without destroying the cooling canopy of the tree.

Laguna Beach landscape architect Jana Ruzicka said to consider yourself "blessed" if you have this kind of light shade. "In Southern California, it is such a relief from the hot sun, and you can grow so many beautiful plants in it," she said.

Many plants actually prefer light shade over direct sun, especially inland, where the sun is more intense. She mentions princess flower (Tibouchina) as one plant that does fine in full sun near the coast but needs light shade inland in places like Tustin.

In one lightly shaded area in a Pacific Palisades garden, Colleen Holmes, a landscape designer and contractor based in Culver City, put in a classic planting of ferns, foxgloves, cannas, azaleas, baby's tears and white impatiens. This grouping is nearly foolproof in light to medium shade, yet it provides a variety of heights, leaf sizes and textures. The color scheme is simple white and pink.

If you're feeling more ambitious, you can try what landscape architect Mark Beall did in his own garden. He has found that many tropical, or tropical-looking, plants thrive in shade. Around his shadowy patio in Silver Lake, he mixes the tropicals with more traditional temperate-climate shade plants. His hillside garden, however, is essentially frost-free.

In the darker areas he mixes the big-leaved monstera and Philodendron selloum with mother ferns, ligularia, ajuga and Aristea ecklonni, an iris relative with small, true blue flowers.

& He's found that the Brazilian plume flower (Justicia carnea) blooms bright pink in complete shade, as do the multicolored shrimp plants and Billbergia bromeliads with their colored leaves.

One visit to Beall's garden shows it's quite possible to plant a fascinating palette--a garden to please any plant lover--even if there is no sun.

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