Gardens - Shade Gardens

Designing a shade garden

Looked at with fresh eyes, shade and light can become dynamic visual elements in any garden.

In the same vein, shade can be used to add depth and lengthen perspective. By creating areas of muted shade at the perimeters of a garden, its boundaries are blurred.

Shadows—as opposed to shade—are a different kind of visual device. They bring life to the garden with a shadow play of moving patterns, such as a filigree of branches dancing over lawn or paving. Long shadows cast by a single tree, a structure or a piece of sculpture stretch across the garden, moving with the sun as it crosses the sky. Shadows are most exciting in winter, when there’s little else in the garden to catch your attention.

Perhaps the most elusive value of chiaroscuro—and the most difficult technique to master—is its role as an organizing principle  in the garden’s composition. As in a painting, the idea is that elements of the design be clustered in balanced areas of llumination, partial shadow and full shade. In the real garden this means setting areas of mass (shade) and void (light) in pleasing equilibrium and harmony—a task best planned and worked through by playing with a marker on a photograph of the garden.

When it comes down to it, chiaroscuro may be a difficult word to pronounce, but the idea behind it is simple and obvious—so obvious it’s easy to overlook. When gardening in the shade, we tend not to see the forest for the trees.


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