Design an Engaging, Naturalistic Garden in the Shade

This well-structured, ecologically friendly backyard is a wonderful place for creatures of all kinds to hang out

Fine Gardening – Issue 218
naturalistic shade garden
It is possible to have a garden that’s attractive to humans and bugs alike. This shady suburban lot is hopping with activity from visitors of all kinds. The textural array of native and nonnative plants keeps both the gardener and the local wildlife happy year-round.

Twenty-five years ago when my wife Kathy and I started searching for a new home for our growing family, she focused on all the qualities one looks for in a new house. I, of course, looked at what every gardener considers imperative—the lot. Thanks to Kathy, we ended up with a wonderful new place. And much to my delight, the property had one particularly important feature—good soil. The other nice bonus was that the backyard bordered a small city park, with lots of open space for the kids to play, so my garden design did not have to include an area for kicking a soccer ball. Plant-wise, however, there wasn’t much other than invasive shrubs and trees. So after removing all the nasty invasives, I had a clean slate to work with.

Starting a new garden from scratch can be daunting, but it’s also a fantastic opportunity to create exactly what you want. My vision was based on the many small English gardens that I was lucky enough to visit in previous years—not the gardens with impeccably maintained lawns and neatly clipped hedges, but those that had plants spilling out of every nook and cranny. Our landscape has been slowly undergoing a transformation over the past decade, from a traditional shade garden to a more naturalistic one that embraces an ecology-first mindset. This evolution, however, hasn’t sacrificed the original intention of my dream garden—that it be a visually appealing space with plenty of activity.

backyard before landscaping and naturalistic gardens
From a typical suburban lot to an ecological oasis. Over two decades ago, this quarter-acre backyard was filled with turf and invasive species and had open access to a public park (above, courtesy of Jeff Epping). Today it has more privacy and is a shady haven for the homeowners and local wildlife (below).

backyard after naturalistic shade plantings

Build a strong a connection between the house and the garden

steps from home down into lush garden

I was more than a little excited to start working on the new landscape, but adding some much-needed living space to the residence was a more urgent task. We built a new kitchen and living area off the back of the house, but we stressed to our architect that bringing the garden into our home was a big priority. The new back wall of the addition included a double set of French doors and kitchen windows that would allow us beautiful views of the soon-to-be-built garden.

The lot sloped away from the house, so we had to deal with a 6-foot drop from the door thresholds to ground level. The easiest and cheapest solution would have been to build a raised deck, but that would have required view-blocking railings and put us high above the garden rather than enabling us to feel like we were in it. Instead, we designed an elevated patio with three steps down to the entertaining area (centered on one set of the French doors), which then has only two steps to the garden, putting us in the garden instead of on top of it.

patio garden leading to driveway
Create a fully integrated landscape. The back patio was built so it could be completely immersed in the garden. There are only a few steps leading down to the main park path and up from the driveway entrance. The back doors allow a perfect view into the outdoor expanse.

Once the construction project was complete, I began to work on the paths and plantings with what little money was left in the budget. I built a central stepping-stone path centered on the staircase that guides the eye from the house and patio out to the park, taking full advantage of the borrowed view. On the back lot line, I constructed a short wall out of the same rustic blocks that the patio walls are built of, tying together the two spaces with similar materials, yet separating the garden from the park.

back steps of house with lots of container plants

A more relaxed planting plan provides visual and ecological impact

Structural plants were the focus after the hardscape was complete. I chose ‘Whitespire’ gray birch (Betula populifolia ‘Whitespire’, Zones 3–6) first for a few reasons. Its upright habit would obscure the utility lines but not interfere with them too severely. It has beautiful bark that would be even more visible if lower limbs were removed, and doing so would allow nice views into the park. And it was a tribute to my professor and mentor who introduced the cultivar.

patio with four Adirondack chairs
Mix woodies and herbaceous plants for maximum appeal. A choice maple provides needed shade to the main outdoor living space (above), while birches offer year-round interest at the rear of the garden (below, right). Native perennials fill in the bulk of the square footage, with species such as northern maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum, Zones 3–8) and hairy alumroot providing great texture (photo below).

Several other trees were then added to provide height and beauty and to eventually create the shade that would make the backyard more enjoyable for people. A triad of Canadian hemlock (Tsuga canadensis, Zones 3–7) helped hide a utility pole at the back of the lot. We couldn’t get shade quick enough next to the seating area on the patio, so the fast-growing trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides, Zones 2–8) was chosen not only for its rapid growth but for its pleasing taupe bark and lovely quaking leaves. I knew these aspens wouldn’t last forever due to their aggressive suckering nature, but they provided shade while a slower-growing ‘White Tigress’ maple (Acer ‘White Tigress’, Zones 4–9) sized up.

various green plants in the garden

birch trees providing shade in the garden

Shrubs and herbaceous plants were next on the list. At first the garden exposure was full sun, so I designed mixed borders that were chock-full of sun-loving perennials. As the structural trees grew larger and produced more shade, these initial plantings were no longer happy, nor was the once-lush Kentucky bluegrass lawn that occupied the center area. The garden, as all gardens do, evolved over the years—as did my philosophy on gardening. When I started, I cared most about making the landscape beautiful for me and the other people who spent time in it and didn’t devote much time worrying about the creatures that lived—or could have lived—there.

Around this time, by good fortune, I spoke at a gardening conference with renowned entomologist and author Doug Tallamy. After I heard his lecture on the importance of using more natives in our gardens, I was all in. Though I utilized a decent number of native plants in my initial design, I certainly could have used more. So I killed off what was left of the lawn and “plugged in” three native species—rosy sedge (Carex rosea, Zones 4–8), Pennsylvania sedge (C. pensylvanica, Zones 3–8), and eastern star sedge (C. radiata, Zones 4–8). In the years following, I have added many other Carex species to create a tapestry of soothing green shades.

matrix planting of sedges surrounded by shrubs and birch trees
A matrix of sedges provides a stage for other native plants to shine. The base of the back garden is an array of Carex species that provide the illusion of turf but are more eco-friendly. Popping up through those are groupings of other native plants, both flowering and not. The result is a textural tapestry backed by a block of Canadian hemlocks that screen an ugly utility pole. While sitting in the rustic chairs at the center, you‘re able to witness the constant show put on by the resident population of pollinators and songbirds.

Among the sedges, I planted a multitude of forbs that give the garden color throughout the seasons. For spring interest and to provide nectar for early emerging bees, I planted an ­array of native spring ephemerals. Plants adding later-season drama include bugbanes (Actaea spp. and cvs., Zones 4–8), which offer some height, and meadow rues (Thalictrum spp. and cvs., Zones 4–7), which—much to my delight—reseed freely. White wood aster (Eurybia divaricata, Zones 3–8) also helps brighten up the shade with its brilliant white flowers. Among several fall bloomers are tall Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium fistulosum, Zones 4–9) and hairy alumroot (Heuchera villosa, Zones 4–9). And there are tons of wonderful ferns that all thrive in this shady spot. These beautiful native species form the foundation of my garden now and are infused with 25 to 30 percent nonnatives. Select exotic species bridge floral gaps when the native species aren’t blooming.

Ensure that ongoing maintenance and substitutions are all eco-friendly

corner of patio filled with container plantings
What do oaks and patio pots have in common? In this space they both serve an ecological purpose. When one of the original trees died, it was replaced with a white oak (Quercus alba, Zones 3–8), a native keystone plant (photo below, right). Patio pots are filled with native species and hummingbird favorites (above), all of which will be transplanted into the garden later.

young white oak

With good planning, I’ve been able to have a garden that has something in bloom every month during the growing season. After all, we gardeners are most drawn to colorful blossoms in the landscape. At the same time, with “right plant, right place” in mind, it’s important to choose eco-friendly plants well-adapted to a site’s conditions so they can live well on what Mother Nature provides, which is more important than ever given our changing climate.

Over the years the plants in my garden have taught me to become a lighter-handed gardener and to work with them instead of against them. These days I find myself acting more like a manager or referee than a “maintainer” that methodically mulches, weeds, and waters. When something dies off, I select a replacement based on the conditions of the space, what I think will play well with neighboring plants, and what contributes to the whole of the garden and the environment. I try to choose plants that help support insects, birds, and other creatures without the input of supplemental water, fertilizers, fuel, and other chemicals. The needy, noncontributing “look at me” plants that I used to grow mainly to impress those that visited my garden have fallen by the wayside. Some exceptions are in a few pots and planters on the patio, but even those are selected to help support hungry hummingbirds and bees. I have heard many a gardener lament that they are “forced” to garden in shade, but I am not one of those; I love my little shade garden and all the plants and animals it supports.

bumblebees visiting pink flowers

Don’t be afraid of self-sowers

Plants that freely reseed, such as meadow rue, are the true workhorses of my garden. They fill holes and nudge out unwanted weed seedlings, adding beauty in the process. In spring they are easily removed or transplanted if they aren’t growing where you want them. Or you can leave them to fill gaps between slower-growing perennials and then pluck them out later if they’ve grown too big for their neighbors.

Jeff Epping is the principal designer at Epping Design and Consulting and the former director of horticulture at Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, Wisconsin.

Photos, except where noted: Danielle Sherry

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