Sunday, December 11, 2011

Shadows and Sunlight

Surrounded by towering Western red cedar trees, our barn basks in
the light as winter shadows frame the scene.

This may seem a strange time of year to be writing about shadows. Shadows need sunshine – and I live in Seattle. Not exactly the sunshine capitol of the world in December. However, I recently wrote a post called ‘Winter silhouettes’ and received some wonderful insightful comments from my colleagues on LinkedIn. One in particular reminded me that those plants which offer striking winter silhouettes in the garden also cast beautiful shadows. Shadows and the patterns they create need some careful planning which is quite different from silhouettes, however.

As attractive as this archway may be, the shadows are
distorted. Roses overhead and cobbles underfoot, not
to mention the small table all vie for visual dominance
and result in a confusion of shadows.

Design by Avon Gardens, IA
A shadow is an area of relative darkness that is being blocked in some way from direct sunlight. In a garden shadows may be cast upon the ground or upon a vertical surface depending upon how such objects are situated. In either case the key is to have an uncluttered screen upon which they may be displayed. Projectors show off images when focused on a plain white background. Likewise for the patterns of shadows to be appreciated in the garden they need to be seen against a clear plane – snow, grass, bare earth, smooth stone or a wall are all possibilities.

Our emotions are triggered by the degrees of shade we experience. The dappled light of a woodland glade seems inviting, drawing us in as sunlight pierces the canopy here and there. Long dark shadows create deep shade that may give a sense of foreboding yet in areas of intense sunshine these same dark shadows can offer respite on a hot day and therefore feel welcoming.

It has taken centuries for the wind to carve these
gravity-defying arches, yet just a moment of sun to
create the dramatic shadows which enhance it.
Shadows can add depth and drama to the mass which is casting it. Consider this image taken at the Arches National Park, Utah for example. Intense August sun sent deep shadows across the rock face transforming this geological wonder into breathtaking architectural sculpture. 


This large pergola casts fascinating shadows on the
ground but also against each of the large wooden beams
overhead. A wonderful balance of scale and light.

Leppard and Bloom residence, IA






In our gardens features such as pergolas, arbors and archways can be used to create interesting effects. The overhead design of crossing timbers will dictate specific shadow patterns with parallel members creating striations or lattice work a crisscross design for example.  Such patterns make a space feel cool and inviting – a perfect location to sit on a warm day. If the structure is being designed primarily to provide shade, the dimensions and spacing of each member is important, but their direction in relation to the sun is also key. For maximum shade at midday the timbers should be placed with an east-west orientation i.e. perpendicular to the sun.

What about using shadows to highlight other areas? The photograph at the beginning of this post shows our barn. It is surrounded by mature conifers which cast long shadows. Rather than making this part of the garden feel dark, their shadows frame the barn in such a way as to showcase it. Without the shadows the barn would not be in the light. 

The abstract shadows cast by the trees
turns this pathway into a magical
journey. Notice what a different 'feel'
the same path has once it enters the shade.

Design by LA Michael Van Valkenberg
As sun filters through a canopy of deciduous trees a delightful dappled light is cast upon the ground. When a breeze whispers these shadows dance, playing tricks of light especially if rays alight upon a reflective surface. This contemporary, diamond plate pathway sparkles like a sheet of silver where the sunbeams are caught. 


As much as I love the sunshine, there are times when I need to sit in the shade. My good friend Alyson has a lovely deck overlooking the forest. By planting a Japanese maple in a nearby container, shadows have been cast onto the fabric of the large sun umbrella. The result is that one still feels a connection to nature even while harbored under the manmade canopy. 

Connecting earth to sky, this maple tree
lends a shadow pattern even though
it is too young to provide shade.

Design by Alyson Ross-Markley


Ever the artist, it was also Alyson who placed this attractive mirror on an easel in a quiet part of her garden. It was placed in such a way as to reflect the nearby plantings yet it did far more than just that. By inviting the visitor to pause and admire the mirrors’ perspective there is also an opportunity to appreciate the intricate pattern of maple leaves shadowed on the house wall. Nature will outshine even the most gifted artist.


What do you have in your garden that throws interesting shadows?

The mirror may reflect the garden, but
look at the wall behind  it.

Design by Alyson Ross-Markley










'Shadows are in reality, when the sun is shining, the most conspicuous thing in a landscape, next to the highest lights'. 
- John Ruskin

8 comments:

  1. Karen, what an interesting post! I'd actually just been thinking about how different the shadows in the garden are these days with the sun at such a low angle, and trying (unsuccessfully) to work it into a post. At this time of year I'm mostly aware of the dark shadow from the garden's south wall, which now takes up about 1/3 of the main planting area--some grasses are growing just in front of it in the sunshine, so the shadow makes a wonderful backdrop for the bright seeds. In summer I love the dappled shade given by the small leaves of the desert olives, especially in the one bed where I have a tree underplanted with Ceratostigma. It looks more forest-y than I had any idea it could.

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  2. Your vignettes sound beautiful Stacy. Great ideas. We tend to think of shadows (and shade) as such a negative feature of the garden yet we can really make the most of these ephemeral visitors.

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  3. This is a magical post! Very perceptive. Thank you--it will help me with my photography! Thanks for joining in the "Lessons Learned" post!

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  4. Thanks for leaving a comment PlantPostings. I'm so glad you enjoyed this post but your photography is already beautiful!

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  5. Hi Karen, Design is a big interest of mine and though I like learning more about plants, shrubs and trees, I am always happy to find posts like this one which step away from plant profiles and more of a design focus.
    Most of my back garden is in shadow and my attention has been centred around finding plants that will be able to cope with the lack of sunlight. I am almost embarrassed to admit that I haven't really even considered cast shadows. I think I will now pay more attention to them.

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  6. Hi Jennifer. I tend to write a lot of design focused posts from hardscape ideas to plant combinations but this was a new aspect to explore.

    Shade gardens are actually my favorite to design! Maybe you could copy Alyson's idea of adding a mirror to reflect light? Send me a photo if you do!

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  7. Fascinating post with beautiful photos. The shadows in my gardens (and the shade) are cast by the 15 100 year plus London plane trees and similar maturity walnuts, maples, oaks, ashes, etc. I especially appreciate the shadows in winter when the leaves are off the trees.

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  8. Carolyn isn't it wonderful that these trees which offer us summer shade and structure also offer subtle beauty in winter? We talk so much of evergreen and berry interest for the winter yet there is so much more that can be added to that.

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