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Turn a barren shady patch into a woodland wonder

Updated: Mar 17, 2022

By Pamela Sleightholm

If you find gardening for shade challenging, know that with the right plants pollinators can love the shady spots of our garden as much as the sunny spots! And lucky for us, the native plants that thrive in shade offer gorgeous rich colours, interesting textures and early spring blooms.

If we look at the natural environment for inspiration, we can mimic the layers of a forest to create a pollinator friendly habitat that looks stunning, can improve the environment and provide a peaceful cool retreat on hot summer days.

Above: Layered woodland plants at the Evergreen Brickworks in Toronto, showing low sedges bordering the path, flowering shrubs, a blooming redbud as an understory tree, shaded by tall white pines (Photo© 2016 Jeanne McRight, 500 px) .

A layered woodland includes a combination of:

  • tall native canopy trees (oak, maple, birch etc)

  • native understory trees (serviceberry, dogwood, redbud) or shrubs (winterberry, buttonbush, arrowwood)

  • native spring ephemerals (trillium, Jack in the pulpit, wild ginger, Virginia bluebells)

Clockwise from top left: Virginia bluebells, pin cherry, trillium, wild ginger and serviceberry - they can all layer together with tall canopy trees to create a layered woodland garden (all photos ©2021 Peeter Poldre)

If you’re short on space you can plant the smaller plants in layers, or use “borrowed landscape” if a neighbour has a larger tree whose shade you can plant under.

The benefits of a layered woodland garden are huge – the trees and shrubs provide habitat for pollinating insects and birds and can also produce the berries, pollen and nectar they need. Woodland gardens also host some of the earliest spring blooms to come up – making them a very important food source for pollinators that come out of dormancy or hatch early in the season. Shady areas are also a great spot for a water feature – whether an elaborate pond, a bird bath or a place for butterflies to “puddle” – all creatures need water to live and if you have enough of it, water can even create habitat for other wildlife like frogs and toads.

Above: Native northern red oaks with an understory of pin cherries, pagoda dogwoods and serviceberries shade Jeanne's back yard deck. Shrubs include bush honeysuckle, maple leaf viburnum and the sub-shrub flowering raspberry. Native perennials for shade include wild columbine, big leaf wood aster, turtlehead, mayapple, wild ginger and zigzag goldenrod.

Below: Native male ferns and big leaf wood aster grow amongst non-native evergreen shrubs (photos ©2021 Jeanne McRight).

For human benefit, the shade makes an incredible spot to relax on hot summer days. The canopy and understory trees keep the earth cooler, reduce carbon dioxide and can provide enough shade to cool that section of your house, resulting in lower air conditioning needs and costs. And come fall and winter, when you want more light to come in and warm your home, the deciduous leaves have fallen letting the sun reach your walls.

Just like natural forests, woodland gardens benefit from high organic content in the soil, which makes them low maintenance. When it’s time to do light pruning, just “chop and drop” – don’t bag up the yard “waste”, as it provides important organic material for your soil. And in the fall don’t rake up the leaves, just let them rot in situ to improve the health of your soil.

Layered woodlands are striking, beneficial to the environment and easy to maintain. If you want some more inspiration for shade-loving native plants, here's our list of woodland/shade garden all-stars.

C-Wildflower All-Stars for Shade_handouts copy-compressed
Download PDF • 3.41MB

Also, check out these resources from Credit Valley Conservation. There are lots of options!


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