Shade Gardening in Colorado

May 20, 2020 Mario Bertelmann , Assistant Curator of Shade Gardens

Shade is an essential resource for all life, providing refuge from the heat as the days grow longer. Denver Botanic Gardens has several shaded gardens where visitors can seek shelter from the intense Colorado sun. Under the canopy of trees that are beginning to leaf out, spring-blooming bulbs and perennials are freshly emerging from the soil and providing a glimmer of much needed joy to us all.

A shade garden truly shines in the spring in Colorado when blooming Crocus, squill (Scilla and Puschkinia), Fritillaria and Brunnera begin to grow and bloom. They fill the garden with vibrant greens, blues, purples, yellows and reds that attract pollinators like bees and make us feel at one with nature. In a matter of just a few weeks, the shade garden goes from fully dormant to full of life!

Creating a shade garden requires patience, persistence and willingness to adapt, but this all pays off when the shade reduces solar heat-gain in a garden and on the surrounding property. A shade garden can lower cooling costs in the summer, retain irrigation and provide habitat for wildlife.

As a shade garden matures, thin areas within the tree canopy so that dappled sunlight reaches the ground below, allowing perennials and bulbs to grow their best. Late winter is an ideal time to observe the branching patterns of your shade trees and to prune them before new growth begins in spring. Soil structure is also pertinent in a shade garden as the trees and understory plants all share nutrients and moisture. It's best to avoid the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides as much as possible; these products tend to damage the soil quality over time and reduce the beneficial microbial life within it. A quality organic compost or slow-release fertilizer will best improve soil structure over time and supplement the garden with essential macro- and micro-nutrients throughout the year. It is also important to select perennials and bulbs that are suited for shade when planting underneath the tree canopy. Hosta, Heuchera, Ligularia and ferns are shade-loving perennials that thrive in low light conditions and benefit from the protection provided by the tree canopy.

As we near the heat of summer in Colorado, I encourage you to begin your own shade garden at home that will provide you with joy and relaxation for many years to come.


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