By Walt Harrison
A frequent question I get at Habersham Gardens is, “Do I plant this in sun or shade?” A straightforward question deserves a straightforward answer, but as with most things in life, the answer is just not that simple.
The only general rule I know of that holds true concerning sun and shade is this: Almost every plant will benefit from morning and early afternoon (1 p.m.) sun. Even plants that will handle moderate to high shade will do well in this situation.
Rhododendron and azaleas bloom more profusely and almost all plants have denser foliage and look more robust with this early-in-the-day sun. After all, plants need sunlight to produce food (remember photosynthesis?).
It’s the late afternoon, summer sun that separates the men from the boys, or women from the girls, so to speak. Junipers and most conifers (notice I said “most” and not “all”) tolerate a full day of summer sun. Many flowering shrubs like spirea, viburnum and some types of azaleas (gumpo) seem to prefer full sun. Also, many perennials (be careful here) and all vegetables will do well.
Generally, all shade trees including oak, maples and ash prefer full sun while under-story trees like redbuds and dogwoods will tolerate some shade. On the other hand, I know of few plants that will thrive or even live in dense shade; agarista, a beautiful, graceful arching native and aspidistra, ivy and certain perennials come to mind.
And let us not forget about grass. Almost everyone has it. The hybrid turf grasses like Zoysia and Bermuda need about eight hours of sun a day although a new variety of Bermuda is said to be more shade tolerant. Centipede and St.Augustine seem to tolerate some shade pretty well. Fescue will not tolerate a full day of summer sun and usually looks pretty bad by July.
When thinking about planting, assess the sun/shade situation in your yard in both morning and afternoon. Notice which plants are doing well. Look at other yards in your neighborhood and see what’s working. Consider asking an experienced landscape professional to evaluate your site and make suggestions (it will be money well spent).
I’m big on several plants for the Intown garden this year and would like to share a few favorites with you. Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Pee Wee’ – as you might expect from the name, this one is smaller and more compact than other oakleaf varieties and is often called a dwarf oakleaf. In my garden, it’s four to five feet high and easily maintained at that height. Beautiful, deep maroon foliage late in the  summer and prolific flowering along with its size makes this a natural for the urban garden. This plant does best with some sun but probably not a full day.
Another hydrangea that can tolerate and, in fact, needs more shade is Hydrangea arborescens ‘Ryan Gainey’. This plant is named for the well-known Decatur plantsman, designer and author who noticed it in a group of Annabelle hydrangeas (Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’). This plant looks very much like its famous relative, the Annabelle, but has characteristics that I believe make it a superior plant. The bloom on ‘Ryan Gainey’ is somewhat smaller than ‘Annabelle’ being 6” wide compared to 10” -12”.
Due to the truly large bloom, ‘Annabelle’ tends to flop over in rain, wind or simply due to the sheer size of the flowers. This is not a problem with Hydrangea ‘Ryan Gainey’. This plant blooms profusely with very white flowers and has deep green foliage. All in all, a great bloomer for your garden.
There is still time to plant hydrangeas this spring. These two plants – Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Pee Wee’ and Hydrangea arborescens ‘Ryan Gainey’ – derive from species native to our region. Once established in your garden, they will need minimal care including watering.
I hope I’ve shed some light on this tricky subject of sun and shade. It is that time of year to be out in the yard, so let’s go have some fun.
Walt Harrison is the owner of Habersham Gardens Landscape Services & Intown Garden Center, 2067 Manchester St. For more, visit habershamgardens.com.