Landscaping for Shade

In the heat of the summer, finding respite in a hammock under a shady spot is bliss.

But trying to find shade-loving plants, flowers, shrubs and even groundcovers to beautify your front yard and backyard can turn your mood dark. Those same beautiful, full-grown trees block the sun’s nurturing rays and severely restrict your landscaping choices.

You don’t have to despair. A garden design in the shade is possible along with flowering shrubs, perennials and annuals. You can find a myriad of the right plants and design ideas whether you do it DIY or find a company to help you out.

“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, she says that there are a lot more choices and variations than there ever used to be including more gold and variegated plants to add a little pizzazz and vibrancy.

“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 plants or bushes, it’s a good idea to scope out the different areas of your lawn.

  • Full sun means you get six or more hours of direct sunlight each day, says the Penn State Extension. Those hours don’t need to be consecutive: It could mean 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.
  • Shade, in gardening terms, totals fewer than two hours of sun.
  • 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 areas get, just devote a day to going outside every hour starting at 7 a.m., with a sketch of your yard in hand. Mark which sections receive sun or shade on a simple diagram. Remember that different times of the year, the angle of the sun is different. For instance, southern exposures will get more sun in the summer months. The results will provide a foundation for your garden ideas and landscape design.

How to Start a Shade Garden

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 what they call “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.

So, by raising the height of the trunk before you get to the first limbs, it gives you some morning light. Or you can remove a single limb in the wrong spot.

Don’t go too far in cleaning up. Trees create their own organic matter and recycle nutrients into your yard, she adds. If you just blow the leaves away and try to plant turf over the bare ground, you are forcing grass into growing in a situation where it isn’t natural.

“So, just garden that area,” she says.

Best Shade-Tolerant Plants, Best Perennial Flowers

Blue hosta
Blue hosta, a shade-tolerant plant for USDA hardiness zones 3-8.

Some of the most popular plants for shady areas include perennials, Reese adds. They save you time and money since the flower each year. Some of these include columbine, ferns, bleeding heart and hostas, to name a few. They have been useful in adding color to these areas.

Shade-Loving Groundcovers

Penn State lists some of the favorite groundcovers as wild ginger, astilbe, plumbago, sweet woodruff, Lenten rose, coral bells, crested iris and stonecrop. But Reese warns people from 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 they don’t spread like wildfire. Never plant English Ivy or Vinca.

Shade-Loving Annual Plants

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

They may live for only one growing season, but annuals can provide a blast of color and softness to shady backyards and flower boxes in the front. It also is easier to plant these annuals because you won’t be blasted with the hot sun as you prepare pots and beds, and all the work such as fertilizing and watering during the growing season is done in the shade. Penn State says some of the most popular annuals for shady areas are begonias, periwinkle, dahlia, sweet alyssum, coleus, petunias and impatiens.

Shade-Loving Shrubs, Shrub-Like Plants

Reese has some favorites, including a variety of hydrangeas. “There’s a breeding revolution for reblooming hydrangeas with disease-free foliage,” she says. “Who wants to spray all the time. 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 spider web, the paper bush edgeworthia and the plumleaf azalea called the rhododendron prunifolium.

To take care of all these shady plants, Reese suggests imitating nature’s natural mulch with leafy duff 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 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 people. They will know what locally can grow and thrive better in shady areas. Reese also emphasizes that it’s fine to place flowerpots amid a shady garden to add a focal point.

Using shade plants that contribute texture, form and foliage color can add to that 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. If you have a light-shade or half-shade area, it can grow a bigger range of flowering plants.

“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 got bigger than it was supposed to, that’s OK. It’s a garden. Do something different next time.”

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.