Very few gardens are static, they all go through an evolutionary process, starting off as sunny, ornamental trees and shrubs are planted for shade, windbreaks etc. and gardens develop - they start sunny and soon parts become shady, demanding an increase in the use of shade adapted plants.
Trees and shrubs are the first plants established in a new garden. The sunny garden is often gradually turned into a shady garden which poses new problems to the gardener (there is also the positive side, less frost damage under trees and near buildings!). As the trees and shrubbery increase their canopy, grasses and many sun-loving plants are deprived of light and sufficient moisture and nutrients. The result, dry shady earth. This is also especially true for the winter rainfall region in the Western Cape. The surface roots of the trees and shrubs also provide severe competition for other ground-layer plants. Buildings also ensure lots of shady microhabitats, such as the south side of a building remaining cooler and retain moisture for longer periods.
Fortunately for each shady situation, there is a suitable indigenous solution, even for fences, focal points etc. South Africa harbours one of the worlds richest floras, with several botanical hotspots; and many of our shade plants are international hits. Hen & Chickens or spider plants (Chlorophytum comosum
) are one of the examples, regarded as the second most commonly grown shade plant. Clivia
are increasingly used, and others such as Plectranthus
gaining popularity. Sansevieria
surviving on so many shady stoops, one of the hardiest, can tolerate neglect and abuse to the extreme! The number one survivor of total neglect!
"Fortunately for each shady situation, there is a suitable indigenous solution..."
What makes our shade-loving plants so special? Most have drought-adapted features, thus, tolerant of dry shady conditions. These features include shallow subterranean fleshy roots or water storage parts such as bulbs as well as above-ground fleshy parts. The latter include leathery to fleshy leaves. Most of these plant originate from dry forested river valleys in southern and eastern parts of South Africa (the southern & eastern Cape as well as KwaZulu-Natal a shade-tolerant botanical hotspot). Well adapted to forest disturbances, prolonged droughts, rainfall at any time of the year, and tree root competition, the main reason for their success in gardens thus where similar conditions reigns. There is therefore a suitable indigenous shady solution for all the major horticultural categories, even trees. These include shrubs, accent plants, climbers, ground covers etc.; thus even for shady fences, there is a suitable plant.
Establishment is vital, especially in a new area to be planted up. Subsurface competition is for water, nutrients and space, an intense battle for survival. Tree and shrub roots are the main culprits. However, once the shade plants are established, they would be able to cope better with dry conditions. The first year it thus crucial to provide a solid foothold. The soil should be well cultivated and tree roots removed and soil conditioned with compost.
Soil is the basis and the most important part of a garden. Most shade-adapted plants grow in slightly acid soils but some will tolerate soils with a higher pH. The upper layer of the natural forest is rich in leaf debris. This acts as a constant, slow-release fertilizer. The shade plants are naturally fed by falling leaves. That is why it is so important to keep this leaf litter layer. In the garden, this can be supplemented by adding compost, leaf mould or chipped bark.
Ground-living organisms continuously break down leaves and turn it into humus which plants can utilize. However, they need efficient moisture. Traditionally leaves and branches were carted away and our gardens impoverished. Thus important leaf mould organics or compost feeds, retains moisture and is essential for ground-living organisms. Additional feeding with natural products such as bounce-back can be added which would vastly improve plant health and condition. Old tree stumps act as slow-release, although taking years to decay they contribute to the health of the shade garden. Ample bone meal will also be beneficial.
After planting, thus make use of a mulch, and initially water frequently.
The best time of establishment is in spring, the start of the growing season of most of the shade plants. In winter rainfall regions autumn is also a good choice for establishment due to the start of the winter rainfall.
Embankments due to their sloping gradient rapidly lead to soil erosion and best planted with shade-tolerant plants which are good soil binders. It includes plants such as Hen-and-chickens (Chlorophytum comosum
), Forest onion (Ledebouria petiolata
species etc. Embankments can also be terraced with dry stone walls or making use of tree trunks. Accent plants such as Dracaena aletriformis
, Encephalartos villosus
should also contribute to the scenery. All which would help to combat soil erosion.
Hen-and-chickens | Chlorophytum comosum
Plant categories for dry shade
There are many shade-adapted shrubs suitable for the various regions in South Africa. They can be established in shady parts (shade of trees, south side of buildings etc). These range from small and shrubby to almost tree size and their shapes vary from spreading to erect. Their leaves also vary in size and texture. The pioneer fast-growing species are great for a rapid result. The larger, such as the pistol bush (Duvernoia adhatodoides
) and the Cape stock-rose (Sparrmannia africana
) in the background blocking out views. Plectranthus ecklonii
in its three colour forms ('Erma
', 'Medley Wood
'), Plectranthus fruticosus ‘James’
and Plectranthus zuluensis
are two fast-growing species when well established, being able to tolerate dry conditions.
Spurflower | Plectranthus ecklonii
Larger long-lived shrubs include the bird berry (Psychotria capensis
), the yellow flowering Mickey Mouse bush (Ochna serrulata
), Ochna natalitia
), red flowering Natal flame bush (Alberta magna
), pink flowering pink Carissa (Carissa edulis
), white flowering small-flowered Rothmannia (Rothmannia globosa
), bladder-nut (Diospyros whyteana
), lemon thorn (Cassinopsis ilicifolia
), orange flowering wild-pomegranate (Burchellia bubalina
). Others include smaller long-lived shrubs such and the forest bells (Mitriostigma axillare
), forest num-num (Carissa wyliei
). The ribbon bush (Hypoestes aristata
) etc. can be used on the south side of shrubby borders or in mass. The bird-berry a rounded shrub bearing leathery leaves, masses of yellow flowers popular among butterflies and followed by red (turning black) berries relished by birds. The latter a must of shady gardens.
Ribbon bush | Hypoestes aristata
Forest lily | Veltheimia
Crane flower | Strelitzia
Natal cycad | Encephalartos natalensis
Ground covers are plants which cover ground in mass with good soil binding properties. They are planted for a function, a green carpet below the trees. This group is very diverse, ranging from the forest sedge (Cyperus albostriatus
), increasing by stolons to the Hen-and-chickens (Chlorophytum comosum
) and bosplakkie (Crassula multicava
). The latter three excellent ground covers, especially embankments.
Fairy crassula | Crassula multicava
Bush lily | Clivia miniata
Perennials and bulbs
Crinum lily | Crinum moorei
Forest climbers cover shrubs, dead shrubs and can be used on shady fences etc. sickle leafed asparagus (Asparagus falcatus
) is ideal for shady fences, the latter forming an un-penetrable thorny fence). The asparagus fern (Asparagus plumosus
) with fern-like spreading foliage and without spines. The wild jasmine (Jasminum multipartitum
) another excellent example. The binder (Acridocarpus natalitius
) is a slow-growing but long-lived climber bearing leathery leaves and yellow flowers during summer. It is excellent for shady fences. Senecio macroglossus
and Senecio bryoniifolius
are two others climbers bearing succulent leaves and daisy-like flowers great for shady areas. The cat-thorn (Scutia myrtina
) scrambling spiny shrub excellent as barrier planting in shade.
Wild jasmine | Jasminum multipartitum
Ferns vary from the single-stemmed tree ferns to smaller maidenhair and others. They generally require sufficient moisture year-round. The seven weeks fern (Rumohra adiantiformis
) can tolerate dry conditions to some extent.
Various epiphytic orchids grow well on tree bark in shady conditions. The largest the Mopane orchid (Ansellia africana
) which can be established on a tree branch. They are very slow growers but with great long term results. Once established need little care. They live from debris accumulation, however, feeding would increase performance.
Mopane orchid | Ansellia africana
Dig into the Knowledgebase collection below for more plant options for shady spots!