Fix-It Guide: Backyard

Make Your Garden a Shady Paradise

Embrace your dark side.

By Jennifer Krazit March 26, 2019 Published in the April 2019 issue of Portland Monthly

As a new home buyer, you might be hoping to turn every inch of your property into a riot of color with dahlias, sunflowers, and Portland’s trademark roses. Not so fast: with our city’s big trees and increasingly taller, more densely packed homes, chances are at least some portion of your yard is too shady for the showy blooms of your dreams. You need to make friends with the shadows.

An easy go-to for shady situations used to be rhododendrons and azaleas, but they’ve become tougher to manage since azalea lace bugs made their leaf-sucking debut in Portland a decade ago. Plenty of other plants, from hydrangeas and hummingbird-attracting heuchera to blooming bottlebrush (a.k.a. fothergilla) shrubs, thrive in shade, and they can be the perfect starting point for building low-maintenance green spaces around a home.

“Embrace the shade, don’t fight it,” says Darcy Daniels, the PDX-based creator of eGardenGo, a website that helps DIY gardeners find the perfect plant combos for their unique spaces. She says the limitations of shade can be a blessing. “Starting a new garden is overwhelming. [Shade] narrows your choices, so you don’t have to look at every plant in the universe.”

Here’s how to plan and plant your own shady stunner.

Survey and prep. Take stock of your yard: How wet is it? How much light does it get throughout the day? Does the light change from season to season? These factors will help you decide what to plant. Once you’re set on your space, prep that soil. It’s not glamorous work, but don’t skip it. Clean up the area, get rid of dead plant debris, rocks, and all those stray nails from the previous owners’ roofing project. Turn over the soil with a shovel, breaking up any packed clay-like dirt and mixing in soil amendment like Black Gold Soil Conditioner along the way.

Pick your plants. Now, the fun part. Look for a variety of foliage colors and textures, plant heights, and seasonal interest.
Hardy hostas come in an endless array of colors and sizes and fill a space with lush greenery, while maidenhair ferns and native bleeding hearts add a delicate, wispy touch. To ensure you have something eye-catching happening all year long, visit garden centers like Portland Nursery and Xera Plants in every season. (When the weather turns, look for the stunning fall color of dwarf Japanese maples, and the elegant winter blooms of hellebores.)

Mix it up. Restrain yourself from picking one of everything you see at the nursery. Many plants look best when massed together in groups of two or three, or when you have repetition throughout a space. Once planted, if something just isn’t taking, move it. If it dies, don’t replant it. Watch what thrives, and double down on that next year. You—and your shady plot—will be happier for it.

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