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Illuminating shade gardening

Canopies offer gardeners both respite and an opportunity to embrace gardening in the shade.

Shade provides us with respite in the garden. It gives us cool places to gather and socialise, sanctuaries for contemplation and welcome refuges away from the sun’s glare during our hot Australian summers.

We speak for the trees

At Diggers we advocate the importance of planting trees. Trees that produce quality shade create cooling effects for our gardens and homes during harsh conditions.

Planting trees provides an ongoing valuable contribution to the environment. As the climate continues to change, the need for summer shade will become increasingly important. Gardeners can use appropriate plantings and the canopy of trees as an adaptation technique, sheltering our surroundings from extremes of heat. But what can we plant beneath the growing canopies to create unique garden spaces?

Design ideas for shade

Our members often ask for advice on what to plant in the shade and ‘dry shade’ is one of the more challenging positions in a garden to select and cultivate the right plants. 

Plants chosen for shade need the tolerance and adaptation to thrive in partial or minimal light, as well as an ability to perform with root competition from trees for water and nutrition. By planting in shady areas we can extend our gardens and create cool retreats with an abundance of foliage – the key is choosing the right plants. 

Foliage colour and contrast: Light coloured foliage can illuminate darker places. Variegated Honesty, variegated Metapanax and Turf Lily enlighten darker corners at The Garden of St Erth. At Heronswood, the lush greenery of Baby Sun Rose and scalloped Bergenia create a verdant carpet and contrast to the taller textures of hellebores, Plectranthus and Geranium ‘White Guernsey’, with its luminescent white flowers, or the strappy Lord Howe Wedding Lily. 

Cool places: Intuitively we are drawn to cool shady spots in our gardens, so design this into your plan. A well-placed bench provides a perfect picnic spot and a grassy glade beneath a shade tree is a peaceful setting for an afternoon nap. It is a common sight in summer to see visitors dozing under the majestic Desert Ash at Heronswood. 

Trunk features: It can be tempting to start with taller shade-loving plants at the trunk of your canopy, but trees and their trunks are a feature to be embraced, as seen with the sprawling buttressed roots of the Moreton Bay Fig at Heronswood. The wonderful texture and colour of bark is often overlooked, so showcase it with complementary planting at ground level to highlight, not hide, these unique features.

Living lessons

Inspiration for shade gardens can be found in our three world-class gardens. We can also find ideas for design and plant selection at our botanic gardens, especially Adelaide and Melbourne, both notable for their use of plants that thrive in dry shade situations. 

The Garden of St Erth’s bush garden has experienced the realities of climate change, with annual rainfall declining sharply in the decades since Tommy Garnett planted a rhododendron collection under the surrounding eucalypts. Several rounds of planting ideas have been trialled in the bush garden. Through firsthand experience in the challenging conditions, the planting selection has been honed and developed for success.

The challenge of eucalypts

Eucalyptus are renowned for the aggressive competition they place on other plants for nutrition, whilst their leaves provide thin shade through the summer months. Members often ask us what they can do beneath eucalypts and The Garden of St Erth offers successful ideas and inspiration. 

When selecting understorey plants we have avoided tall growing species. The multiple gum tree trunks are exposed and their impressive vertical mass is juxtaposed against the rock features and textured shade plants beneath. Plant selection is eclectic, with both exotic and native plants combined and celebrated in contrasting foliage. Prostanthera, Westringia, Correa glabra and clipped Correa alba, with their delicate soft grey leaves, contrast with the sizeable textured foliage of Hellebore argutifolius, Melianthus major and Mahonia. New Zealand Cabbage Tree (Cordyline australis) also provides that glorious ‘illusion of lushness’ for a plant that tolerates periods of dryness. Euphorbia (both E. robbie and E. wulfenii) are tolerant of the root competition eucalyptus present. The acid green of their flowers in cooler months provides the perfect electric zing. Succulents such as Blue Chalk Sticks and Aeoniums border the base of the garden and are tolerant of both full sun and partial shade. 

Shade will continue to be a valuable refuge in a garden so let’s look to success stories and explore and experiment with new ways of gardening in the shade. As the climate changes, the unique opportunities that shade gardening brings will be even more pertinent.

Embrace the shade!

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