Successful Shade Gardens

This is an image of a successful shade garden. Often viewed as a constraint for producing sun loving flower gardens, shade conditions in residential gardens offer many benefits as well.

In addition to providing much needed relief from the summer sun in outdoor areas, shade trees reduce summer cooling needs on homes when properly sited in southern or western locations. Deciduous shade trees also allow the winter sun through the open canopy to provide extra heat for residences in the cool season. Shade trees offer valuable food, nesting habitat, and shelter for a wide variety of birds and mammals.

Unfortunately, shade areas are unsuitable for growing sun loving turfgrasses that are common to our region. St. Augustine grass is the most shade-tolerant lawngrass, but still requires at least a half day of sun to perform well. Trees may be thinned of branches to allow extra sunlight into the yard yet must be pruned on a regular basis. A more successful approach to working with shady areas is to incorporate plants that are adapted to low light conditions.

There are varying degrees of shade according to the density and types of trees that are present. Full or dense shade occurs when the trees are broad-leaved, including areas containing Southern magnolia, oaks, maples, and many other hardwood types. Light shade or filtered light occurs when the trees are high branched, have an open canopy, or have fine thin leaves. Pine trees are an example of providing light shade or filtered light. Half shade or part shade occurs when an area receives full sunlight for part of the day and is shaded during the remainder. Areas adjacent houses or other structures that cast shadows for part of the day, or woodland areas adjacent open lawn spaces are examples of partially shaded locations.

Selecting appropriate plants for shade areas depends upon the degree of light available. Dense shade areas require plants that are tolerant of continuous low light conditions. Light shade or half shade areas allow for a broader range of flowering plants. Even full sun loving plants can benefit from light afternoon shade, and as long as they receive six to eight hours of direct sunlight, will continue to bloom or fruit.

Few shade plants will provide a continuous bloom through the seasons as found with many sun loving plants. Impatiens and begonias are shade annuals that provide extended summer color, yet require frequent irrigation. Competition for moisture from the surrounding tree roots must be compensated for these moisture-requiring annuals. Drought tolerant shade annuals, perennials, and shrubs are more successful in low maintenance garden conditions.

Since there are few continuously blooming shade plants, using plants that exhibit other design elements such as texture, form, and foliage color can result in outstandingly beautiful shade gardens. By creating plant combinations that contrast or compliment each other in plant shape, leaf size, and leaf texture, flowers are often unnecessary for interest. Try using plants that exhibit bold leaf colors such as ajuga, variegated hydrangea, or caladiums. Dramatic leaf sizes and textures of plants, as found in mahonia, fatshedera, fatsia, oakleaf hydrangea, and dwarf palmetto, create strong visual interest. Also, ferns, vines, groundcovers, and perennials are effective for variety and seasonal contrast.

The following list contains plants that are well-suited to growing in shaded areas. Ask your local nurseryman about their adaptability and performance in your gardening area.

Common name Botanical name Shade level Height Characteristics
Japanese red maple Acer palmatum Part shade 25' Fall color
Red maple Acer rubrum Part shade 60' Fall color
Devil's walking stick Aralia spinosa Part shade 30' Textured leaf
Ironwood Carpinus caroliniana Part to full 30' Muscular trunk
Dogwood Cornus florida Part shade 30' White spring flower
American beech Fagus grandifolia Part to full 80' Tan winter leaves
Parasol tree Firmiana simplex Part shade 40' Green trunk
Silverbell Halesia diptera Part shade 30' White spring flowers
Southern magnolia Magnolia grandiflora Part to full 80' Summer flowers
Bigleaf magnolia Magnolia macrophylla Part to full 70' White spring blooms
Red oak Quercus falcate Part to full 80' Textured leaf
Live oak Quercus virginiana Part to full 60' Spreading limbs
Bear's Breech Acanthus mollis Part shade 30" Coarse texture leaf
Red buckeye Aesculus pavia Part to full 20' Spring blooms
Beautyberry Callicarpa americana Part to full 8' Purple fall fruit
Sweet shrub Calycanthus floridus Part to full 10' Maroon spring bloom
Camellia Camellia japonica Part shade 20' Winter flowers
Strawberry bush Euonymus americana Part shade 6' Red summer fruit
Fatsia Fatsia japonica Part to full 6' Tropical leaf
Witch hazel Hamamelis virginiana Part shade 25' Winter blooms
Mountain hydrangea Hydrangea arborescen Part to full 5' White summer bloom
Indigo Indigofera kirilowii Part shade 2' Pink spring blooms
Japanese pieris Pieris japonica Part shade 8' White spring flowers
Flame azalea Rhododendron austr. Part shade 12' Yellow spring blooms
Dwarf palmetto Sabal minor Part to full 6' Textured leaf
Pepper vine Ampelopsis arborea Part shade 15' Black fruit
Rattan vine Berchemia scandens Part to full 80' Curling trunk
Climbing hydrangea Decumaria barbara Part to full 30' White spring flower
Fatshedera Fatshedera lizei Part to full 15' Tropical leaf
Creeping fig Ficus pumila Part shade 40' Fine texture leaf
Algerian ivy Hedera canariensis Part shade 10" Coarse texture leaf
Maypop Passiflora incarnate Part shade 15' Summer flowers
Bugle weed Ajuga reptans Part to full 3" Purple leaf
Wild ginger Asarum canadense Part to full 1' Heart shape leaf
Cardamon ginger Amomum compactum Part shade 2' Tropical leaf
Cast iron plant Aspidistra elatior Part to full 3' Tropical leaf
Holly fern Cyrtomium falcatum Part to full 3' Evergreen leaf
Liriope Liriope muscari Part to full 1' Grassy leaf
Royal fern Osmunda regalis Part to full 3' Bold leaf
Autumn fern Dryopteris erythrosora Part to full 2' Copper foliage
Partridgeberry Mitchella repens Part to full 1' Red summer fruit
Mondo grass Ophiopogon japonicus Part to full 5" Fine grassy leaf
White violet Viola odorata Part shade 5" White spring flower
Elephant ear Alocasia macrorrhiza Part shade 6' Large tropical leaf
Christmas berry Ardisia japonica Part to full 1' Red winter fruit
Jack in the pulpit Arisaema triphyllum Part to full 1' Spring blooms
Umbrella plant Cyperus alternifolius Part shade 4' Umbrella leaf
Hosta Hosta spp. Part to full 2' Leaf color
Leopard plant Ligularia tussilaginea Part to full 2' Leaf texture
Mayapple Podophyllum peltatum Part to full 2' Leaf texture
Trillium Trillium spp. Part to full 1' Red spring flower

These factsheets were written by Robert F. Brzuszek, Assistant Extension Professor, The Department of Landscape Architecture, Mississippi State University.        

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