Low-Maintenance Shade Landscaping for Your Yard

shade garden

In the summer, finding respite in a hammock under a shady spot is bliss. But plants around that shady spot may barely grow, damaging your relaxation. What landscaping ideas are there for low-maintenance shade landscaping for your yard?

Shade Plants vs. Full Sun Plants

“You won’t get the same hot, vibrant colors in shady plants compared to those in full sun,” says Carol Reese, ornamental horticulture specialist with Western Region Extension of the University of Tennessee, Jackson. However, a lot more choices exist than ever, including more gold and variegated plants to add a little pizzazz.

“You can have a refined appreciation for texture and different shades of plants in shade gardens,” she adds. “Remember, it’s always about complementing and contrasting. Don’t put a dark blue hosta on dark mulch. You need to frame the plants to show them off.”

Assessing the Amount of Shade and Light

Figuring out how much shade or sun your yard gets can get a little confusing. Before spending any money on garden plants or bushes, it’s a good idea to scope out the different outdoor spaces of your lawn.

  • Shade, in gardening terms, totals fewer than two hours of sun.
  • Full sun means you get six or more hours of direct sunlight each day. Those hours don’t need to be consecutive: It could be two hours of morning sun and four or more in the afternoon.
  • Partial sun consists of four to six hours of sun a day.
  • Partial shade is two to four hours of sun per day.
  • Full shade means no direct sun. Don’t give up, though: Indirect, reflected sun can provide sufficient light for some plants to photosynthesize and grow.

To figure out how much sun your yard gets, go outside every hour starting at 7 a.m. Mark sections receiving sun or shade on a sketch of your yard. The results provide a foundation for your shade garden ideas and design. At different times of the year, the sun’s angle differs; for example, southern exposures get more sun in the summer.

Or, if you’d rather someone — or something — else figure it out for you, you can try one of the available apps. Examples include the Sun and Shade Analyzer (SASHA) and Sunseeker, which is available for both Apple and Android products. Each costs a few dollars.

How to Start a Shade Garden

Shade Garden
Photo Credit: Mark Levisay / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

A garden can become a part of your shady front yard or backyard if you follow these basic steps

  • Find a location and determine the shade level.
  • Measure the space.
  • Test the soil and determine soil drainage so that you can buy the right plants.
  • Decide on the plants you want in your shade garden.
  • Sketch your garden design, rope off the area, and remove any turfgrass.
  • Till the soil and break up clumps.
  • Add your plants and some mulch (optional).

Best Shade Perennials for Your Flower Garden

Some of the best plants for shady areas include perennials, Reese adds. They save you time and money because they flower each year. These plants can be used to add color to shady areas. The following list provides some shade perennials:

  • Columbine
  • Ferns
  • Bleeding heart
  • Hostas
  • Clematis

Best Groundcovers for Shade

Photo Credit: U.S. Forest Service- Pacific Northwest Region / Flickr / Public Domain

Some of the favorite groundcovers for shade include the following: 

  • Bunchberry
  • Wild ginger
  • Astilbe
  • Yellow archangel
  • Plumbago
  • Sweet woodruff
  • Lenten rose
  • Coral bells, or Heuchera
  • Crested iris
  • Stonecrop

But Reese warns against planting quick groundcovers that take over the whole area. They become a weeding nightmare. She suggests slow-growing groundcovers that grow in discrete clumps so that they don’t spread like wildfire. Never plant the following:

  • English ivy 
  • Vinca
  • Ajuga

Best Shade Annuals for Your Flower Garden

Periwinkle, an annual plant rated for hardiness zones 4-9.
Photo Credit: Kenneth Allen / Geograph / CC BY-SA 2.0

They may live for only one growing season, but annuals can provide color to shady backyards and flower boxes in the front. It’s easier to plant such annuals because you won’t be blasted with the hot sun as you prepare pots and beds. All the work such as fertilizing and watering is done in the shade. 

Some of the most popular annuals for shady areas follow: 

  • Begonias
  • Periwinkle
  • Dahlia
  • Sweet alyssum
  • Coleus
  • Petunias
  • Impatiens

Best Shrubs for Shade

Reese has some favorite shrubs too. “There’s a breeding revolution for reblooming hydrangeas with disease-free foliage,” she says. “They are breeding these for more intense colors, too.” They come in everything from dark pink to chartreuse to white. She also likes unusual forms of fatsia such as the following:

  • Spider web
  • Paper bush, or Edgeworthia
  • Plum leaf azalea, or Rhododendron prunifolium

To take care of all these shady plants’ green leaves, Reese suggests imitating nature’s natural mulch with leafy duff (debris) by adding light layers of organic material.

“Supply extra water to compensate for competition with roots, and if you are determined to grow turfgrass under trees, be sure to select shade-tolerant grass species and do some judicious pruning to allow as much sunlight as possible,” she adds.

Get Expert, Local Advice

She also says to talk with your local Extension service or well-established gardening center. They will know what can grow locally and thrive better in shady areas.

Use shade plants that contribute texture, form, and foliage color: These can add to curb appeal in shady spots, according to the Mississippi State University Extension Service. In dense shade areas, plant only those items tolerant of continuous low-light conditions. A light- or part-shade area can grow a bigger range of flowering plants.

You may find that your choice isn’t always the right one: “I preach that you shouldn’t go by the ‘right plant, right place’ mantra,” Reese explains. “It’s not about getting it perfect. Change it up from time to time. If something doesn’t bloom or it gets bigger than it was supposed to, that’s OK. It’s a garden. Do something different next time.”


How Can I Prepare to Garden Under Trees?

Reese suggests if you are going to be gardening under trees, pull out the loppers before you pick plants or lay mulch. She suggests pruning — or “limbing-up” a tree — to allow penetration of early and late sunlight to promote growth and flowering.

“Very few things will prosper in deep shade. Some things are perfect with just a few hours of sunlight,” she says. You can do the following to limb-up your tree:

● By raising the height of the trunk before you get to the first limbs, you can get some more morning light. 

● To easily find some semi-shady areas, you can remove a single limb or just a very few limbs in the wrong spots.

Can I Grow Vegetables in the Shade?

Sure, but you’ve got to choose the right ones. Some crops, such as leafy vegetables (lettuce, collards, cabbage), do better in shade than root vegetables such as beets, carrots, and radishes. However, cucumbers, peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes do not do as well in the shade. Other crops produce in shade, but their yield won’t be as large.

How do I Finish off my Shade Garden?

You can complete the look of your shade garden in many ways. You can use a large pot as a focal point. Or how about a birdbath, a water feature, or a trellis? A rock garden might work as well. You can also place pavers on the outside or lay down mulch within the bed. Whatever your imagination can dream up can work in your garden.

Get Help Making Your Shade Garden

If you are unsure how to DIY that shady spot in your yard, you can call on a landscaping professional to get some help with design ideas. They’ll know all the shade-loving plants for your climate, as well as ways to prepare the soil for shade plants’ needs.

These professionals can even do the work for you, allowing you to relax in the shade in your hammock all the much sooner.

Additional source: PennState Extension

Main Image Creidt: Tanya Impeartrice / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Lee Nelson

Lee Nelson

Lee Nelson, an experienced freelance writer and former award-winning newspaper reporter, writes for National Association of Realtors and many state Realtor magazines. She lives in Illinois with her high school sweetheart and loves cooking, swimming, traveling and spending time with her grandchildren.