Link to this Article:

The Llewellyn Journal

Shadowplay: Herbs for the Shady Garden

This article was written by Elizabeth Barrette
posted under Pagan

Herb Garden

Too often, gardeners look at shade as a problem rather than an asset. This happens often in herbalism because many well-known plants come from the Mediterranean and grow in full sunlight. However, many herbs thrive in lower light conditions, and some need protection from fierce sun, particularly in hot climates.

Also, most yard and garden spaces have a mix of different light availability. My two-acre yard runs the complete spectrum from sunny meadows to dappled lawn under trees to a few corners that are quite dark. A small yard may have a sunny patch, but almost always has sections overshadowed by the house or some trees. When you want to grow herbs, you work with the space you have and plant a diversity of species accordingly.

All shady gardens are not created equal. The density and duration of light vs. darkness influence what kinds of plants can grow in a given place. The amount of available water also plays a vital role: damp or wet shade is much more hospitable than dry shade. Sometimes you can modify the type of shade to make it a little darker by erecting an arbor, or a little brighter through replacing a brick wall with a lattice fence. Use the guide below to help determine what kind of light conditions you have available.

Full Sun: For comparison, this space receives direct sunlight for at least six hours a day, usually including the brilliant midday sun. Unless the soil is very heavy, it dries out fast after a rain. Plants that prefer full sun tend to dwindle in the shade; plans that prefer shade often wilt in full sun. Note that in heavily overcast climates, a garden right out in the open may not get enough light to qualify for full sun! You may then do better planting species that do well in partial or dappled shade.

Partial Shade: The area receives several hours of direct sun per day, and shade at other times. For instance, a garden on the eastern side of a house may get direct sun in the morning, but open or deep shade in the afternoon. Other times, a garden may get morning and evening sun. If it lies under a solitary tree, slanting light will reach the garden, but the canopy will bock overhead rays. This is useful for plants that can't tolerate the intensity of noon sun, especially in hot or drought-prone environments.

Dappled Shade: This creates a pattern of equally mixed sun and shade, which travels across the area over the course of the day. Fine-leaved trees such as birch, honeylocust, or goldenrain create this type of shade under their canopies.

Open Shade: Here we see fragmented direct sunlight, but bright indirect light. Large trees with dense canopies, such as oak and maple, cast this kind of shade when they are spaced some distance apart, as in parks and yards. Their high branches block most of the direct light, but allow ambient light to get underneath, reflected from the ground or other nearby objects. A garden near a wall or building may also be in open shade. If not watered, open shade gardens are often a bit dry.

Deep Shade: This space receives little or no direct sunlight, and has moderate ambient light. The understory of a forest typically falls into this category; the light is absorbed by successive layers of foliage so that only an occasional sunbeam reaches the ground. Even in daylight it has a slightly dusky tone. Woodland gardens tend to be moist. Certain wildflowers and herbs belong to such habitats, and languish elsewhere. Few other plants do well here. A walled garden, or the space near a building with an overhang, can qualify as deep shade. These tend to be dry, and may need extra watering.

Full Shade: The area receives no direct sunlight and little ambient light. It always looks rather dark. Rock overhangs, wall corners and crevasses, decks and boardwalks, canyon bottoms, and the undersides of dense trees such as pines and spruces can all create this type of shade. If the ground stays dry, little or nothing will grow there. But in wet areas, such as a hidden spring or a water garden, a thriving colony of mosses, lichens, liverworts, and ferns may emerge: a miniature enchanted forest that will grow nowhere else.

Shade-Loving Herbs

Designing a Shady Garden
Shady gardens perform best when planned primarily around the amount of light available in a given location, as that has the strongest influence on what types of plants will thrive. However, you can usually work in a secondary theme, such as the intended use of the plants or their attraction for other creatures.

One popular choice is the woodland garden, which thrives in op to deep shade under trees. A small woodland garden could include angelica, comfrey, foxglove, ginger, lily of the valley, patchouli, sweet woodruff, and violet. A larger woodland garden might add a darker grotto with ferns and moss around a tiny pool. These secluded gardens and their plants attract shy creatures like frogs and snakes.

Another common feature is the shady border, which runs alongside a building or fence. Typically in partial shade, this allows a wide choice of plants that need just a little protection from the sun. Plant taller ones at the back, shorter ones in front. Good choices include chervil, creeping thyme, lemon balm, peppermint, salad burnet, and wild bergamot. This is ideal as a kitchen garden for tea, salad, and seasoning.

Many yards have a spot between the trees that gets a mix of sun and shade, direct and dappled light. This is a lovely place for flowers that attract hummingbirds and butterflies, a way of brightening up the shadows. Plant such flora as borage, chameleon plant, Jupiter's beard, pineapple sage, and Roman chamomile. Add a gazing ball, birdbath, or white statue to draw the eye.

Shady gardens illustrate two important magical principles on a very practical level. First, they balance light and darkness, thriving in a place of moderation rather than extremes. Second, they make use of the available resources, reminding us to cherish what we have and make the best of it. Shade-loving herbs allow us to grow a garden even if we don’t have a bright, sunny lawn. Shady places allow us to grow herbs that can’t survive hot sun. They give us a serene refuge from the harsh light of day. Find a place to create such a garden where you live, and you, too, can discover the joys of shadowplay.

From Llewellyn's 2008 Herbal Almanac. Click here for current-year calendars and almanacs.

Please note that the use of Llewellyn Journal articles
is subject to certain Terms and Conditions