Dealing with sunlight transitions in the landscape

Story and Photography by Annie Barbas

Instant garden changes came in the form of a tornado flinging branches on rooftops and toppling trees. Live oaks (Quercus virginiana), some more than 70 years old fell, clipping the gable and splitting the satsuma tangerine tree (Citrus unshiu) while also eliminating the shade for the Japanese maple (Acer palmatum). 

Moon vine (Ipomoea alba) was planted on a trellis to provide temporary shade.

Similar scenarios can be caused by loss of trees to disease or even a neighbor’s planting or construction. Such transitions from sun to shade, and the cataclysmic change from shade to sun require assessment and then formation of a strategy.  

• Evaluation of the site: Personally or with a landscape specialist or architect, assess the site relative to sun/shade, slope, and plant options

• Estimate cost and timeline. 

• Explore resources: Consult local nurseries, extension services, city arborists, master gardeners, and landscape supply services for information and materials.  

• Execute a plan: Hire professionals or do it yourself with a workable financial and physical timeline. 

This Japanese maple languished and eventually died, resulting in a full-sun bed.

Whether your shade garden has crept up on you, or has changed catastrophically look to the change as an opportunity to explore new gardening opportunities.

Shade to Sun Transition
The most pressing need for the catastrophic garden event, “shade to sun to shade” scenario entailed removing fallen trees. After debris removal and site evaluation, it became apparent that shade needed to be replicated as quickly as possible to reduce heat on the southwest side of the home. This was accomplished by bringing in 7 cubic yards of soil to establishing a berm for plantings. This immediately raised the height of planted trees by 2 feet, extending the shadow onto driveway pavement to reduce heat. Exploring options for trees entailed choosing trees with filtered, moderate, or deep shade dictated by tree form and leaf shape. Trident maples (Acer buergerianum) won out, but many options were considered. Future fall cleanup was a factor in the choice of trident maple. While tridents have leaf and seed litter, much is eliminated by squirrels and birds feeding on seeds and a quick pass with a mower. 

A crimson camellia bloom in the winter sun.
The entry to the new shade garden.

Plantings for the berm were transplanted from the existing landscape and only one large tree purchased. Evergreen Loropetalum were transplanted from the existing garden to establish a backdrop for perennials and annuals. Previously rooted Lantana was planted for quick visual appeal in the full sun with golden rain trees (Cassia fistula) and marigolds (Tagetes spp.) above the lantana. Other areas accommodated Pink Drift roses (Rosa ‘Meijocos’) and dusty miller (Senecio cineraria). Opposite the berm, the shade-deprived Japanese maple languished and died, resulting in a full-sun bed planted with a satsuma tangerine and a fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus). This set the stage for a white annual and perennial garden for spring. The immediate result was a sun-tolerant landscape with a future transition to shade as quickly as possible.

Transplanted holly ferns (Cyrtomium falcatum) line the pathway.
A formal double white camellia brightens the winter shade.

Sun to Shade Transition
The sun to shade transition of the garden was easier to implement, as nature had done most of the work while we enjoyed the garden. Evaluation of the site indicated a need for replacement of the roses with shade-tolerant plants, replacing the pathway with organic material that did not need mowing, pushing back the shrubbery, and limbing up trees and shrubs to allow morning or late afternoon sun. Estimating the cost of materials focused on using and transplanting existing plants and pathway materials along with purchasing a selection of Camellia. Exploring resources necessary for the transition included mainly a local nursery specializing in camellias. Executing a plan entailed purchasing camellias and amendments while transplanting existing shade-tolerant ferns and adding annuals. Excess post and rail fencing created an entrance to the walkway paved with small pine chips bordered by sectioned limbs from tree removal.

Hydrangea join native azaleas and ferns in shade garden.
As shade encroached the former rose bed, native azaleas (Rhododendron spp.) were planted.

Whether your shade garden has crept up on you, or has changed catastrophically look to the change as an opportunity to explore new gardening opportunities.

Scroll to Top