Book review: Glorious Shade

I live and garden in Davis, about 15 miles west of Sacramento and 75 miles east of San Francisco. We have a Mediterranean climate typical of California's Central Valley (Csa in the Köppen climate classification system), characterized by dry hot summers and mild rainy winters.

I have figured out what to plant in the areas the get sun all or most of the day--California and Southwestern natives thrive here, as do many Mediterranean, South African and Australian plants and, of course, cactus and succulents. Gardening in the sun is the easy part.

What's not easy is gardening in the shade. Specifically, dry shade.

Our backyard is dominated by four 30+ ft. bay trees that cast deep shade. Even areas away from the bay trees receive varying degrees of shade, be it from other trees and shrubs or simply from the 6-foot fence that encloses the backyard on three sides. Add to that the fact that from May to November we go 5 or 6 months without any significant rainfall (and we try to irrigate as little as possible). All these factors result in a situation that is quite challenging.

These were the constraints I had in mind when I asked Timber Press if I could review their upcoming title Glorious Shade by Jenny Rose Carey.

The frontispiece spread is a perfect example of what a shade garden can be. At least in some parts of the country.

The author of Glorious Shade, Jenny Rose Carey, is the senior director at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Meadowbrook Farm. Previously, she was the director of the Ambler Arboretum at Temple University in Philadelphia. Born in London, Jenny has gardened both in the UK and in the US and has many years of experience working with shade.

Glorious Shade has six main sections. They describe the different kinds of shade; seasonal variations; soil types and organic matter to promote healthy root growth; planting and maintenance techniques; examples of gardens you can create in shady areas; and plants that prefer or at least tolerate shade.

"Shade," Jenny Rose Carey says, "[is] the absence of light, but the lack of something is rarely so beautiful and so useful." This positive view sets the tone for the book. Shade isn't an annoying problem to be overcome--the attitude so often found in gardening books. Rather, it's an opportunity to create a special garden that not only harbors a huge diversity of plants but also offers humans relief on a hot summer's day. "Instead of seeing these areas of lower light as ones to be avoided in your garden," Jenny adds, "I encourage you to relish the pleasures to be found there."

This is a big book (323 pages) and it covers a wide variety of topics. These range from observing how shade shifts throughout the year and ensuring visual interest in every season to performing practical tasks like dividing plants, planting a tree, pruning, mulching, and fertilizing to dealing with pests. Whatever it is you want to know, chances are there's information about it.

My favorite section is "Designing in the Shadows: Bright Ideas for Shady Spaces." It showcases a wide variety of shade gardens from around the world. "[I]t is helpful," Jenny explains, "to study existing gardens to get ideas and inspiration." I couldn't agree more.

The garden types represented in this portfolio include woodland gardens, moss gardens, Japanese- and Chinese-inspired gardens, rock gardens, xeric gardens, tropical gardens, water gardens, Mediterranean-inspired walled or courtyard gardens, container gardens, and orchard gardens. 

The list is impressive, and you're likely to find a style that suits your own taste. Not surprisingly, my two favorites styles are xeric gardens...

...and Mediterranean-inspired wall or courtyard gardens:

The second half of the book is a 150+ page section entitled "The Plant Palette." Here you learn about "plant layers," "understanding and supporting natural processes," and "illuminating combinations." The bulk of this section are concise profiles of 300+ plants that thrive in the shade. They are broken down into plant groups such as trees and shrubs, vines, ferns, herbaceous perennials, and tropicals and annuals.

Most of the plants, unfortunately, require moist or at least medium moist soil. Scanning the pages for "dry soil" didn't yield a lot of hits. Yes, I found a few, but their number pales in comparison to the riches available to gardens in areas that receive ample precipitation.

At least our winters are mild enough to grow quite a few of the plants in the "tropicals and annuals" category--given regular irrigation, that is.

If I were willing to water my garden, say, twice or three times a week, I could easily grow half of the plants listed in the plant palette. But given California's precarious long-term water situation (this winter's abundant precipitation notwithstanding), I'm trying to garden much more sustainably than in the past. This means working with and around the dry shade that is our default from May through November. 

Unfortunately, Glorious Shade isn't much help for gardeners like me. The advice Jenny gives is far too general to be of concrete use: "Choose plants native to your specific area because they are acclimated to your climate." 

I do know that in the US our problems are specific to the western states. Jenny gardens in Pennsylvania where the reality is much different. I can't blame her for not solving my challenges with dry shade in a hot-summer Mediterranean climate. Maybe someday somebody will write the authoritative book on that subject. Or maybe it simply cannot be done.

However, please don't let my comments above take away from the usefulness of this book for gardeners in regions where water--either from the sky or a faucet--isn't in short supply. If that describes you, Glorious Shade will serve you well as a source of inspiration and reference for creating or refining your own sanctuary in the shade.

Note: All photos shown above are by the author, Jenny Rose Carey, and are copyrighted. Timber Press provided me with a complimentary review copy of this book.


  1. Someone once asked me for a list of plants that I have found to tolerate dry shade in our area, here's what I sent them. These could cope with twice a month watering in the height of summer, and once a month during cooler weather.

    Arum italicum pictum
    Italian arum

    Aspidistra elatior
    Cast iron plant

    Australian fuchia

    Geranium macrorrhizum
    Bigroot geranium

    Hedera helix
    English Ivy

    Hedera canariensis
    Algerian Ivy

    Helleborus argutifolia
    Corsican Hellebore

    Helleborus foetidis
    Stinking Hellebore

    Iris foetidissima
    Gladwin Iris

    Liriope spicata
    Creeping lily turf

    Mahonia aquifolium
    Oregon grape

    Nandina domestica
    Heavenly bamboo

    Symphytum grandiflorum
    Dwarf comfrey

    Trachelospermum jasminoides
    Star jasmine

    Vinca minor
    Dwarf periwinkle

    1. Thank you, Sue. A very useful list although it's still slim pickings, esp. considering many of these are small plants and some (like ivy and vinca) are, in my opinion, so invasive that they should never be planted in the ground.

  2. I've several books on gardening in shade (my former garden was mostly shade) and my impressions of all of them have been the same as your impression of this one. If you plan any trips to Annie's in the near future, you may want to take a look at Arthropodium cirratum (Renga Lily), if you're not already familiar with it. I got a few plants years ago from Annie's for use in my current garden and it's now my go-to dry shade plant. The clumps get large but are easily divided. I've spread divisions through all my dry shade areas and have given away many more.

    1. THANK YOU for the recommendation. I'll be in the East Bay tomorrow anyway so I'll swing by Annie's on the way home. They don't have Arthropodium cirratum listed as available on their website, but the nursery carries many plants that aren't available online. From what you describe, it would be perfect in several areas of the backyard.

  3. The most densely shaded areas of my garden tend to remain humid all year round,I plant ferns, hydrangeas, fuchsias, alocasias and camellias in those areas and they do very well.

    1. You are so lucky. Ferns! Hydrangeas! Fuchsias! Alocasias! I love all of them. If only it weren't so dry here.

  4. Surprisingly there are many succulents for dry shade--most of the Gasterias, many Echeverias, several Agaves, and a few Aloes are happy there. Agaves are especially handy where you have 10 hours of shade and 2 hours of fierce afternoon sun. Hellebores. The native species of Heucheras. In So Cal Clivia and Bromileads are go-tos for shade. Camellias are not that thirsty once established since in their native habitat they must submit to the root systems of the large trees under which they grow.

    I think what is most difficult is not the dryness but the tree roots themselves--many mature trees make the ground a solid mass of roots that nothing else can compete with. If you pop a pot on top, the tree roots grow into the pot seeking out water...

    1. I was going to say that: dry shade due to tree roots! Under my sugar maple in the front yard (my driest visible spot) the bully plants seem to be doing okay: Plumbago, Chasmantium latifolium, Persicaria 'Painter's Palette' -- they all have done pretty well here for several years. Monkshood is a newer addition but seems to be getting bigger each year with little to no attention from me.

  5. In interior valleys of southern California like mine, think Pasadena, ***so-called house plants*** do very well in the shade with very little irrigation: shefflera (10 ft tall), spider plant (graceful white blooms), most mints, russeleia (coral fountains, needs some water), asparagus fern (almost a thug), cyperus (like papyrus, but no water), cordyline (12 feet tall), Agave americana does beautifully, that purple thing now called trandescantia, sword fern, but best of all is plain old-fashinoned Kalanchoe blossfeldia. Right now it is stunning but getting a little past its prime.

  6. Dont forget Clivia. Drought tolerant, grows best in dry shade under trees. 0.0C / 32f limit. Mediterranean, not xeric / desert though


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