Do you have a shaded trouble spot in your yard? Do you lack vegetation beneath your mature trees? Brighten up this neglected area of your lawn with plants that do well in shade, such as hostas and heucheras.
First, check the soil to determine if it needs improvement. The best soil is well-drained and moist. Test your soil by wetting it thoroughly with your garden hose. Wait for 24 hours and then squeeze a handful in your hand. If the soil forms a ball that maintains its shape, but breaks easily when poked, your soil is ideal as it is and does not need improvement. If the ball of soil collapses rather than maintaining its shape, it likely contains too much sand. If the ball of soil maintains its shape even after poking it, refusing to break up, then the soil likely contains too much clay. Whether your soil has too much sand or too much clay, adding organic matter such as peat moss or compost will improve it.
Next, check your soil’s pH level and fertility. pH is a measurement of acidity or alkalinity. A measurement of 7 is neutral. Measurements lower than 7 indicate that your soil is acidic, with zero being the most acidic, while measurements higher than 7 indicate your soil is alkaline, with 14 being the most alkaline.
Each plant species has an ideal pH range for optimal growth. Generally, a neutral pH of 7 is ideal as this is the range at which bacteria are able to decompose organic matter in the soil, releasing nutrients that are then available for your plants, and the ideal range in which microorganisms are able to convert free nitrogen in the atmosphere into a mineral form available to plants. If your soil is acidic, add lime, which is readily available at your local garden store. Bear in mind that hostas like acidic soil. If your soil is alkaline, add compost or manure. You can get a pH testing kit at your local garden store. Make this part of your annual gardening preparations as pH levels can change over time.
Determining the Shape and Size of Your Shade Garden
Use a garden hose as a flexible means of laying out the edges of your shade garden. Once you have determined a satisfying shape, use flour as a non-toxic means of laying out a “chalk” outline of your garden bed. Use a sharp spade to dig along this outline.
If the bed is currently covered in turf, soak the area thoroughly and strip the turf using a straight-edged shovel. Once the soil is exposed, use the shovel or a power tiller to loosen it. If your shade garden bed is large, you can also use a power till to the turf into the soil, using that organic matter to improve the soil. Whichever method you chose, use the opportunity to add amendments to improve the soil. Loosen the soil to a depth of at least 6 inches, or up to 12 inches if you are able.
Next, soak the bed thoroughly and wait 7 days to allow weed seeds to germinate and sprout. Remove these seedlings or till them back into the soil.
Keep grass and other vegetation from encroaching on your shade garden with edging. There are a variety of options to choose from, including stone, brick, metal and plastic. If your shade garden is bordered by grass, consider including a mowing strip to your edging consisting of 6- 12-inches of brick or stone laid into the ground even with the soil level.
Working with potted plants enables you to lay them out within your garden bed and experiment with their placement until you find an arrangement that pleases you the most. Read the tags that accompany the plants to ensure correct spacing and placement by height, with the plants that will be tallest when full grown placed at the back of the bed. The bed may appear sparse at first, but will fill in when the plants reach maturity.
When you have settled on an arrangement, start planting with the largest containers and continue by size to the smallest. For hostas and heucheras, set them in your garden bed at the same level they were in the pot. Use your hands to firm the soil around each plant and then soak thoroughly.
Mulch conserves moisture, prevents soil erosion during rainfall, and keeps plant roots cool. Organic mulches such as wood chips or shredded bark will decompose over time, adding organic matter to the soil, and thus require occasional replenishment. Gravel or crushed stone are more permanent but do not amend the soil. A thick layer of mulch will prevent weeds from becoming established.
Maintaining Your Shade Garden
During the first two weeks, water your shade garden thoroughly every other day, and then twice a week for the rest of the first growing season. Thereafter you may water as needed. Weed regularly during the first growing season. Once the plants mature, there will be less space for weeds to encroach.