It’s July in Georgia, which means many of us are looking for ways to beat the heat. For some, that means waking up at 6 a.m., whether to get some gardening work done or just to enjoy a garden without melting. 

Personally, I prefer gardening strategically and setting a later alarm. I start working in the sunny areas upon waking, and by 10 or so, I definitely am working in the shade. I don’t mind a good sweat, but since reaching the half-century mark, I would rather not work in the sun in 90-plus degree weather.

A well-shaded garden provides more than just respite from the summer heat, including habitat for unique plants and reduced maintenance for you. My nieces sum it up as a cool place to get away from each other and vibe. 

If you want to create a shade garden and you’re starting with a treeless lot, the first thing to do is to create a plan. We are all tempted to just buy some of our favorite plants and place them in the first convenient spots, but there’s a better way than winging it! 

Greg Levine from Trees Atlanta

Getting your ideas on a piece of paper can make a big difference over the life of your garden. After all, a tree can easily live well over 100 years. Even the simplest design will help give your shade garden structure that can make the garden more usable, enjoyable, and refined. So, get out the pencil and paper now, and you will be ready to start planting in the fall! 

A checklist

Here are a few things to consider when designing a shade garden:

1. Create a garden with places where people can engage with their surroundings, not just a pretty view from the kitchen window. Design “rooms” throughout your garden using foundational plants to define and frame the spaces. Gardens that include places for seating, eating, and resting will increase the value of the shade garden to the family.

2. Develop a path system before you plant your first tree or flower. Focus on how you want to move through the space. The paths can meander through the garden or be more direct. Either way, using plants with interesting structure or color can help pull attention, creating the desire and intrigue to move throughout the space.  

3. Incorporate alluring objects, sculptures, varied seating, and screening at places along your pathways. Thoughtful placement helps to create an enchanting atmosphere in which to stroll or linger.   

Whether or not you choose to work with a landscape designer, creating a simple layout concept will help make a garden not only for people to enjoy, but also where all the plants you love can thrive. 

Draw a simple layout using a bubble diagram to place the major elements of the garden. First, lay out the different seating areas and objects of interest in your space. Create multiple layouts to see how the relationship of these desired spaces change with each different orientation and location. Next, draw circles to represent the placement of trees and large shrubs that separate, enclose, and define the spaces. Your efforts will help communicate your ideas to a designer or will just help you create a better shade garden.

Frame your space and create a foundational structure by selecting some bottomland tree species that tend to be fast-growing and tough. Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), pine (Pinus spp.), tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), and river birch (Betula nigra) can be used to create quick shade and enclosure for the shade garden. 

These are a few flowering plants that have interesting structure, texture, or form to bring interest to the well-shaded garden in the middle of July:

Sweet Tea gordlinia (x Gordlinia grandiflora ‘Sweet Tea’) – A beautiful, 30-foot-tall tree that has white camellia-like flowers from July to November. No joke, my tree has five months of flowering. This evergreen has a few leaves regularly turning red in the winter and spring. Gordlinia prefers full to partial sun, well-drained soil, and consistent moisture. It is easier to grow than franklinia (Franklinia alatamaha) and really worth trying.

Clethra Hummingbird

Hummingbird summersweet (Clethra alnifolia ‘Hummingbird’) – This native deciduous shrub blooms in the middle of summer with white fragrant flower spikes. They are sweetly fragrant and enjoyed by butterflies, a variety of bees, and, not surprisingly, hummingbirds. It is a dwarf variety, growing to about 3 feet tall. Summersweet prefers consistently moist soil and partial sun, but can tolerate full shade and wet soils.

River Oats can grow to nearly 3-feet tall

River oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) – This native four-season grass can grow to nearly 3-feet tall in partial sun to the deepest of shade and thrives in average soils and moisture. The oat seed heads hang elegantly and tremble in a breeze, turning a bronze to orangey-red in the fall. It is a prolific re-seeder and, when the conditions are right, it can be a great groundcover and a bit of work to control. I find it easiest to cut it where I don’t want it, and eventually it weakens and fades out.

Dwarf Turks Cap

Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii – Dwarf Turks Cap – This woody perennial is extremely drought tolerant once established and relishes the heat of summer. Starting in late June, early July, small twisted red flowers looking like hibiscus that refuse to open its petals, are produced which are guaranteed hummingbird attractors along with selected butterflies including Sulphurs. The blooming continues well into September and October, when small red fruit replace the flowers. This is one perennial that will not fade away, but after several years you may wish to separate a few out for friends.

Once you complete your design, it gets even more fun because you get to go shopping.  You can do this with a good conscience, knowing your plants won’t be sitting in their containers or have a lifetime of being moved around.

Good luck and get started.

Greg Levine

Greg Levine is Co-Executive Director & Chief Program Officer of Trees Atlanta.