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Sun-blocked landscapes call for thoughtful approach

  • Karen Hamblett
  • I don't know about you, but I have a north-facing house on the edge of a redwood forest with one-third of the yard getting sun exposure for about five to six hours each day.

    You may have a similar situation — either because you live in a forested area or have shade trees in your yard or just have an area of your garden that's under an eave or large deck. If what to plant in shady areas has you perplexed, you are not alone. Fortunately, there are options.

    The soil under trees benefits from fallen leaves, which provide good mulch and compostable material. Dense leaf coverage, however, limits the amount of water that falls to the ground, which can cause thirsty tree roots to out-compete many plants for nutrients and water.

    One type of "plant community," as defined by StopWaste.org, is called redwood forest. According to the group's website, "Redwoods are adapted to snag moisture from the summer fog with their leaves, which adds to precipitation and soil moisture. A distinctive group of understory species is adapted to the deep shade of the redwood groves."

    Shady garden areas also can exist because of how a house is situated in relation to the sun's path or because a large tree blocks or greatly reduces the amount of sun exposure on a portion of your garden.

    Whatever your situation, there are plants that can still thrive in these seemingly challenging conditions.

    My garden's dry shade condition is more of a combination of woodland shade site (redwood forest plant community) and reduced sun exposure because of the orientation of my house and garden in relation to the sun's path. I've experimented with various plants and some have worked well, such as native western columbine, Iris of all sorts and a surprisingly sturdy Helleborus, part of the Ranunculaceae family.

    For a fence that I'd like to be vine-covered, Clematis proved tempting for the deer but it's still hanging on, although a bit shabby. Next, I'm going to try the California Dutchman's pipe to see how it covers the fence and stands up to the deer.

    It should be no surprise that several ferns have been successful in my shaded environment. The western five-fingered fern and western sword fern are just a couple of them. While I appreciate the texture of the ferns, I'm always on the hunt for more color and variety. This year, I'm going to add some coral bells for their red flowers and scarlet coyote mint for its unique low-to-the-ground shape and bright scarlet trumpet-shaped flowers.

    When planting, there are several things to keep in mind:

    • Dig carefully so you don't damage root systems of mature trees.
    • Dig a hole about three times the size of the root ball's diameter so the plant's new roots can have extra room to spread.
    • Add good organic compost to the top layer of your infill soil so your new plants have healthy nutrients to get themselves established.
    • Water your plants in well initially. Once plants become established, you should water less often but more deeply to encourage deeper root growth that will increase its drought tolerance.

    When getting started, take time to consult reference books such as "California Native Plants for the Garden" by Carol Bornstein and David Fross (280 pages, Cachuma Press, $29.95) and websites such as the Bay-Friendly Landscaping and Gardening Coalition (bayfriendlycoalition.org) and Marin Master Gardeners (marinmg.org) for plant options.

    Whatever your shade condition, be brave, do a bit of research and add some plants to enhance your garden rather than lamenting the lack of sun. Embrace the adage "grow where you are planted" and work with what you have. You may be surprised at how beautiful and low maintenance shade gardens can be.

    The University of California Marin Master Gardeners are sponsored by UC Cooperative Extension. For questions about gardening, plant pests or diseases, call 473-4204.