Episode 86 – Shade is Hard: Solutions for Shady Gardens and Landscapes

Ground Breaking Banter - Rick

Recently, a YouTube viewer commented, “Shade is hard,” and we agree completely. That’s why we’re devoting this episode to addressing the challenges, and opportunities, that come with a shade garden. It is true that your plant palette in shade is a bit more limited than in even part sun (or part shade – same thing, different terms), but there are still lots of excellent plants that you can grow. Plants adapted for full shade end to have thinner, softer leaves that are also broader to collect more of the limited light.

Join us on your favorite podcast platform or at the YouTube link above to hear our whole conversation, complete with plant suggestions for shade. Here’s this episode’s shade-themed Lim-A-Rick:

I like the occasional accolade

For the plants around my yard displayed

But praises are diminished

I think I’m almost finished

I’ve lost my battle to dense shade. 


I enrolled in gardening classes

My plants grow slower than molasses

Lack of light has left a mark

I’m sitting here in the dark

I lost my expensive sunglasses. 


What options I behoove

that my plants would approve

Their stems are weak and stretched

My dreams are all far fetched

Call the realtor, I’m going to move. 

As Rick said earlier, it is absolutely true that shade is hard. Plants need light to photosynthesize and make their own food, and in shade, there’s just less light. So plants that can tolerate (or, in some cases, like today’s plant on trial, even need) shade have to be better at making do with the light they get. This makes the plant palette available to those with shade much narrower than those who have sun – or even some sun – but it doesn’t mean that the plants in that narrow plant palette aren’t pretty darn fabulous. Case in point: Sweet and Lo sweet box, known botanically as Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis. It’s a plant that doesn’t just tolerate shade but actually needs and appreciates it. It can grow in full, deep shade, and needs at most just a few hours of sun each day. It’s a true shade-lover!

So, you might be thinking as someone with shade, sounds great, but I bet it’s an ugly, boring plant, right? No! It’s actually fabulous, and especially when it flowers in winter and early spring. Yes, that’s correct – this beautiful evergreen flowers in the dreariest part of the year with unique tufts of white, thread-like flowers tipped with red. They are small and may not be very noticeable to many people except for their beautiful fragrance. It’s a sweet, rich fragrance that is especially strong on a sunny winter morning, and gives the plant its common name of “sweet box.” The flowers nestle in the axils of the glossy evergreen foliage and last several weeks, often even months. The warmer your climate, the earlier they’ll bloom, which is why another common name for this plant is “Christmas box.” The “box” part of both common names refer to the fact that this plant is in the Buxaceae, or boxwood family, which helps you get a sense of what its foliage looks like. However, if you’re envisioning a boxwood shrub in your head, you’re going to need to think again, because sarcococca has a completely different habit and shape.

It is a shrub, but instead of growing as a rounded or upright habit, it is a suckering groundcover shrub. I know I may have lost some of you with “suckering,” but bear with me, because it really is a good feature, especially in shade. It naturally forms beautiful thick carpets of foliage and does not become a nuisance. If it were to spread into an area you didn’t want it, it can easily be pulled up or dug up and replanted. Its slow-growing enough that it won’t take over your yard, and pretty enough that you’ll be glad to see it spread and grow. It also helps stabilize soil and keep down weeds, like a good ground cover should.

For success with sweet box, it’s crucial that it grows in moist, acidic soil. It doesn’t need to be super acidic, but a soil on the acid side will keep the foliage a nice dark green and the whole plant healthy and happy. This is not a plant for dry shade and needs a rich, well-drained soil high in organic matter. It’s also going to benefit from a good layer of shredded bark mulch over the roots, which will further break down into more organic matter. It’s also very, very deer resistant and is a part of our Deer Proof line. Since it grows just 1.5-2.5’ tall, it never needs pruning or cutting back. So if you can plant it where it is happy, you’ll find it’s a beautiful, easy-care flowering shrub – one you may even be happy that you have enough shade so that you can grow it!

If you’d like to add Sweet & Lo sweet box – or any of the 320+ Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrubs – to your garden or landscape, you’ll find a list of local retailers here

Gardening Mail Bag - Stacey

The answer to this depends entirely on the product(s) that he is using, and the answer will lie in that little booklet that you have to peel open, or at least somewhere on the package. That will include information about using the product around edibles,  and any necessary precautions. That can be difficult to read, though, so we recommend taking advantage of the product’s website to read all of the details easily – the entire user guidelines should be published, along with the materials safety and data sheets (MSDS) which further spell out the risks and precautions of the product. 

Most pesticides (and even fertilizers) will include some mention of using around food. However, it’s possible that products formulated exclusively for lawn use may not mention it. As such, you can use the distance that plant roots grow to estimate a safe application distance. Generally speaking, the roots of a herbaceous plant will spread to at least the mature height of the plant, so expect tomato roots to go out at least 6′ in all directions; one-and-a-half times the total height would be safer. And be very cautious of conditions when the lawn chemicals are applied: heavy rains following application can cause run off that, depending on the slope of your yard and the garden’s position, could flow into the vegetable patch.

A small, nearly dead pine tree struggles next to a brown fence. A pine tree that has lost its top due to snow damage grows next to a brown fence.

“Should I remove a plant that’s not doing well?” is always a difficult question to answer, because it really could go both ways. On the one hand, life (and the growing season, especially if you are in a cold climate!) is too short to spend years looking at a struggling plant in a prime spot. You deserve better, and it’s not worth beating yourself up that the spot wasn’t ideal for the plant you wanted there – trust me, every gardener has been there! Similarly, if a plant has been broken or bent out of shape from snow, it might not be worth its real estate anymore – though, on the other hand, it could grow into something quite interesting. That’s really up to you to decide based on your original intent for the plant and why you liked it in the first place. If you do decide to remove these plants, I would recommend transplanting them to a different, perhaps less prominent, area of your yard to see what happens. Sometimes a small change can have huge impacts, and I have some experience in this area that might be helpful in your decision.

When we moved into our house ten years ago, there was a small magnolia tree that was really, really struggling (left photo) due to a combination of factors: one, a black walnut was growing just a few feet away, which notoriously can interfere with the growth of sensitive plants, including magnolia; and two, very dry, sandy soil and no supplemental water. It was doing so poorly, that I thought I’d take it out. But time got away from me, I started using the dead branches to hang a suet feeder in winter and a hummingbird feeder in summer and didn’t think all that much about it. Then my neighbors took down the black walnut so they could fence in their yard for their dogs. Soon after that, we installed downspouts, and the water just so happened to be directed toward the magnolia. Slowly the plant started to grow more and more until I realized I could no longer even reach the dead branches to hang my bird feeders anymore. Fast forward to this year, when the photo on the right below was taken, and it is full, healthy, and completely covered in blooms. So it is possible for a plant to make what appears to be a miraculous recovery if the things that were keeping it down change. The key is figuring out what those things are!
A small tree in very poor health with only two branches of green leaves.A healthy magnolia tree covered in white flowers on a spring morning.

Do you have a question for us? We’re happy to help! E-mail us or use the contact tab above. Due to high volume, we may not get to your question, so if you need an answer quickly, please reach out via the Proven Winners website.

Branching News - Rick