By David McMullin
As I stroll through my garden, I realize that the years have brought more and more shade to my space. The little trees that I planted years ago are sprawling, reaching up towards the sky. My negligent neighbors have allowed hackberries and pecans to thicket skyward along the property line, shading out a once vibrant perennial border.
If I didn’t also have a sunny farm to play around with, I might start pruning and chopping. Given this, I welcome the cool and shady retreat of my home garden. Planting in shade is always challenging for intown gardeners. The quality of shade isn’t exactly the moist, mountain cove-type shade that nurseries sell plants for. In Atlanta, we typically deal with big thirsty oaks on small lots and high rise neighbors with heavy-handed shadows that block the sun and air, leaving a dark desert.
Over the many years of designing gardens here, by necessity, I have adapted my thinking to address the shade.  I include the toughest plants to accomplish my design goals.  Carexes and Hellebores, dry-loving ferns and forbs are now a part of the repertoire; and dry-shade loving shrubs like oak-leaf hydrangeas, hardy Pittosporums, and graceful Momi firs have found their way into many gardens that I design.
A few pointers for a shady intown garden:

  • Morning shade and afternoon sun is a lethal combination for many plants. In this scenario, choose mostly full sun plants. Select those that can handle the hottest, harshest sun after lolling around all morning. Alternately, morning sun and afternoon shade can bring the best out of flowering plants that scorch in high light. Add a little moisture to this scenario and hydrangeas will thrive.
  • Big trees can suck the water out of the ground faster than a Hoover. Water is a higher priority when planting under the oaks and maples. A deep leaf mulch is essential to long term success.
  • Forget flowers. The meadow plants of sunnier yards just won’t bloom in the shade.  Instead, fulfill your garden needs with the essence of foliage, texture and variegation. Take a subtle approach.

Shade gardening, though tough, can make your garden look fabulous, lush and refreshing.
David McMullin, an acclaimed garden designer, has owned New Moon Gardens design firm for 20 years. His gardens have been featured on tours, in magazines and on television. David recently ventured into retail, opening Garden*Hood, the newest garden center destination located in Grant Park. For more information on his design services, contact David at newmoongardens@gmail.com or 404-593-0996.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.