Rewilding a shady piece of land requires a planned approach. Once you remove grass from a shady area, it’s harder to get it back. You’ll want to consider plant choices and locations to ensure the best outcome. But don’t worry, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know for shade rewilding.
Why is rewilding in the shade a challenge?
Shade rewilding can be difficult because only certain species are considered shade happy plants. Any many of these are nonnative plants with limited ecological benefit.
Plants only need a few things to grow – sunlight, air, water, and nutrients (soil). The reason trees invest so many resources into a tall, thick trunk and branches is to take up as much sunlight as possible. Under the forest canopy, shade happy plants slowly spread out in a natural setting.
This slow spreading can create an additional problem when selecting shade happy plants for rewilding. Exposed soil is vulnerable to erosion, which is your worst enemy when working with land. You need something to grow quickly enough to “stabilize” the soil.
Types of shade
Before we dive into native shade happy plants, let’s look at the types of shade. Gardeners will be familiar with the distinction between “partial shade” and “full shade.” This is a subjective measure of sunlight levels in a particular spot, but it can be misleading.
Trees produce the shade in forests, which is the natural setting for most shade happy native plants. But the leaves creating most of the shade in the forest are translucent. Light can pass through them. So, underneath the canopy light is still reaching the ground.
The canopy will also occasionally lose a branch or a whole tree. Levels around the opening skyrocket until it can be filled by neighboring trees. Similarly, wind can cause trees to sway, giving the forest floor short, intermittent bursts of stronger sunlight. Some trees also drop their leaves for part of the year, and some shade happy plants take advantage of this by waiting to go dormant or keeping their leaves altogether.
Rewilding in the shade of a tree is going to closely resemble the natural conditions that most shade happy native plants prefer. You’ll have more options for placement and species selection in this type of shade.
Houses and buildings produce plenty of shade, too. And you may want to rewild the shady side of your house. This can be an extra challenge as most structures are fully opaque and permanent. The north side of your structure is similar to the north face of a steep hill in nature. In places, the only sunlight that reaches a plant has to be reflected off another surface, like the clouds or a neighbor’s house. There are plants that are happy in this insane amount of shade, too. But the list of them is short in most climates.
Structure shade has its benefits, though. Once your plants are established in an extremely shady spot, they should need virtually zero maintenance. And because your structure has a clear outline that does not sway, you can easily predict how much sunlight your plants will get, depending on the time of year. No guesswork needed.
Important characteristics of shade for rewilding
Shade affects your water levels
Some plants are both shade happy and “mesic.” Meaning they don’t mind standing water on their roots for part of the year. This can be important, because shady spots are going to hold water in the soil much longer than sunny places. If your plants are susceptible to drowning or root rot, a shady place that tends to get muddy will invite diseases.
Why does shade affect water?
The energy from sunlight makes water evaporate quickly. Without that energy, water will either flow over the soil, flow through the soil, or pool on top. If you have land that doesn’t naturally allow water to flow over the soil, adding drainage used to be the norm. But drainage is environmentally damaging and has a negative impact on stormwater control and flooding.
So, what makes the difference between water flowing through the soil rather than sitting on top of it where it creates a muddy mess? It’s plants.
Plants create a flow of water through the soil through photosynthesis. They need 6 water molecules to go with their 6 carbon dioxide molecules to make sugar. Where do they get these water molecules? They pull it up from the soil through their roots. Which also happens to bring along nutrients that are dissolved in the water.
Mitigating wet shade
So, in tree shade you are more likely to find dry sites, while structure shade is more likely to be wet. This is extremely general, and “dry” or “wet” depends on many factors. But there are things you can do to dry out your wet spots in the shade. Increase your soil’s ability to hold and move water by adding organic matter like mulch or plants that self-mulch. If you are working with a grass lawn in clay, you could aerate the soil (when it’s dry). Taller plants will allow water to flow more quickly, and plants with deep roots will allow better infiltration into the soil.
Besides plant selection and soil amendments, your other option is to change the shape of the land. You should NOT add drainage unless the water is threatening a structure or road. If you feel that you must change the shape of the wet area, do so by adding a rain garden or a swale. These structures will contain the excess water, similar to the purpose of a retention pond. But they have the added benefit of being potentially excellent plant and wildlife habitat. Adding native habitat has lots of other benefits as well.
Shade affects temperature
The sun’s energy that evaporates water also raises the temperature of the air. Without it, shady spots stay cool after the sun rises. On hot days, this represents shelter from searing temperatures. On colder days, it can mean death by freezing. Plants from a hardier zone might do well in your shady spots. This effect is compounded if you have wet shade. The moisture in the soil evaporates on hot days, cooling the ground like sweat. It also retains cold during freezes better than dry soil, which can kill roots.
Shade affects animal behavior
Shade is closely associated with “cover” in biology. Cover refers to basically anything that is over top of the thing being covered. Cover can be from predators, sunlight, rain, or a number of other things. Shade is one aspect of cover that is used by certain species.
Animals use shade for sleeping during the day, but also for sneaking up on prey. Shade is also useful for hiding a nest or offspring, but physical cover is more important for those things. Food like nuts and berries grow in the shade, and some leaves and shoots are edible. Generally, there is less to eat in the shade than in the sun because there is less sunlight energy to convert into sugar. Shade makes gardening difficult for this reason.
Shade affects aesthetics
The design of a landscape has to match the nature of the things that are in it. Shade may make up most of your property now or in the future as trees grow. What effect will that have on how your landscape represents you and your home?
For animals, the shade is a place for nesting and resting, and sometimes stalking and sneaking. That sounds like a recipe for great bird photographs to me. For other people, it might make you look reclusive or lazy, or even hostile. We definitely want to avoid upsetting the neighbors.
The tried and semi-true method of appeasing the neighborhood is to add a tasteful level of garden kitsch. Some neighbors will be even more appalled at your landscaping choice, though, if you add glass orbs and gnomes.
The more recently thought-of gesture of neighborliness that is gaining traction these days is official signage. Obtaining a wildlife habitat certification for your yard is pretty easy.
Working with shade for good aesthetics
It all comes down to what message you want to send to your neighbors about this place and who lives there. So, if your place is naturally shady, make sure it is also inviting. That could mean signs, paths, or flower beds. Shady places are naturally quiet. Things move slowly in the shade. Make your shade an opportunity to slow down and take refuge from the busy day. If you slow down, you will start to see incredible things. With the help of shade happy native plants, you will discover a new world of insects, birds, and other wildlife.
Take advantage of spots of brightness for contrast. And combat overgrowth if it starts to detract from the ecological value. For example, vines may completely cover a tree, preventing all sunlight from reaching the ground and damaging or killing the tree. Or a shrub may produce fewer berries over time and need pruning.
Shade happy rewilding plants
With ALL that information in mind, let’s talk about plants. In our plant selection we need to account for
- Light level
- Hardiness Zone (temperatures)
- Water level
- Soil pH
- Nutrients in the soil
- Plant maintenance & rate of spread
That’s quite a few variables! Luckily, if you start by restricting your search to only shade happy plants that are native to your region or close to it, you can produce a fairly short list. Check it against these variables to find a plant match for your shady spot. There are lots of native plant databases online. But sadly, none of them are set up for this kind of research. However, nurseries like Prairie Nursery in Westfield, WI have excellent regional information that is well organized.
Example of shade rewilding
Let’s do an example – the north side of my house. It happens to be a short, steep hill and it used to just have some grass growing on it.
- Light level – extremely low. The north side of a hill and a structure.
- Hardiness Zone – 7a
- Water level – fairly low (for the area) due to quick drainage and the house uphill diverting most rainfall around this area.
- Drainage – the steep slope lets water from short storms run off quickly. But frequent rain will soak the clay soil which takes a long time to dry in the shade
- Soil pH – slightly alkaline
- Nutrients in the soil – poor
- aesthetics – the area is hidden almost completely from view from the street and our house. It is right next to the main entrance to the neighbors’ house.
- plant maintenance and rate of spread – Erosion must be prevented, but I would prefer not to have to work on the steep hillside every year
- cost – we aren’t going to invest in a big project here, where we won’t easily be able to see it. But we also don’t want something ugly where our neighbors have to look at it.
We left the grass on the hill. With limited sunlight and water, it grows very slowly. I mow part in the summer to keep it from getting onto the neighbor’s driveway. We planted coral bells, which are native to most of the eastern U.S., in the grass in groups. A few of them died of sunburns in the summer near the edges of the shade. We replaced these with columbines.
Grass isn’t suited to this spot, so it’s slowly dying off. But it’s holding the soil in place and mulching the ground while the coral bells and columbines spread their seeds across the hillside. Under the taller grass, mosses are growing since we stopped mowing.
Aesthetically, both of the added native plants produce beautiful blooms that attract pollinators. They leave tufts of stalks in the winter where insect larvae hide from predators. The hillside wasn’t useful as a lawn before. It just looked barren against the brick of the house. Now, it fills up with butterflies and bees, especially on hot days.
How to find shade happy native plants for your yard
The easiest way to find plants for your shade rewilding project is to visit a native plant nursery website like Direct Native Plants. Then all you need to do is create conditions for your native plants to thrive and spread. You may find that a species just doesn’t like your yard. That’s OK, try different native plant species until you have a healthy and stable mix of perennials. Don’t forget that you can always add understory trees and shrubs to shady spots, too.