Don’t Stress About Shade

There’s absolutely no reason to despair about a garden with heavy shade. You have a multitude of options when it comes to plants. Just think perennials.

Too. Much. Shade. It’s one of the most common grumbles I hear via the Garden Geek Question Forum. Sometimes it’s about growing grass with minimal sunlight. But most often the frustration lies with the inability to grow specific plants in the shade

Believe it or not, you have lots of options. The best of which is to replace the failing grass with perennials.

You see, grass can grow with at least six hours of direct sunlight. This may only happen in winter when the trees lose their leaves. So if your landscape doesn’t get at least six hours of direct sunlight throughout the year, forget about natural turf. Notice I said “natural” turf. More on that later…

Back to perennials, I’ve conveniently separated your choices into evergreen and color categories

Evergreen Perennials

Ivy: the classic look of English or Algerian ivy immediately comes to mind. Few pests and little maintenance.

Asiatic jasminethe ca-do everything, everywhere groundcover. The best feature about Asiatic jasmine is that it looks just like live oak sprouts. Call it sprout camouflage.

Monkey or mondo grasslow growing dark green tufts that give the appearance of grass without the water and maintenance. It comes in standard and dwarf, the first being more vigorous than the latter.

Liriopeevergreen clumps of green to blue foliage with annual purple flowers. Many folks think of Liriope as monkey grass’s big brother.

Holly fern: in the shadiest of places, this small shrub will thrive. Most excellent as a groundcover/shrub beneath live oaks and pecans. Once established, no water or maintenance needed.

Sago palmthe “greatest palm that is not a palm” shrub for the shaded garden. Once established, never needs fertilizer or maintenance.

Color Perennials

Ajugaalthough a problem with deer, this low growing, purple flowered ground cover is fantastic in shady courtyards and backyards.

Leadwortalso known as dwarf plumbago, leadwort works as a groundcover or an individual bed plant.

Oxalis: generally thought of as a weed, one cousin, specifically Oxalis regnellii purpurea, is extremely attractive and has dark pink foliage with light pink flowers.

Cedar and scarlet sagealthough Salvias are generally considered as full sun perennials, these two red species grow well in the shade and flower throughout the year.

Persian shield: purple leaves and purple flowers are a must see in the shade garden.

Shrimp plantyour choice of salmon or lemon-colored flowers. I found the salmon flowered selection to be more durable than the citrus shade.

Turk’s cap: this hibiscus relative now comes in a native, tropical and pink flower selections. To look attractive, Turk’s cap must be shorn twice a year.

Firespikecome September, this shrub produces a vibrant, bright red flower spike that’s quite the show stopper.

Hoja Santaknown as the “root beer” plant, hojo santa can be used as a medicinal, culinary or aesthetic plant. Mesoamericans used the plant both in medicine and cuisine. May be quickly identified in the landscape with its large heart-shaped fuzzy leaves and white “pipe cleaner” flower spikes.

Spider lily: the queen of the shade perennials with its large regal leaves and delicate white or pink flowers. May melt to the ground with the occasional freeze, but always bounces back with new growth.

American beautyberrythis shrub is quite indiscriminate throughout the year, but by September its large purple fruit attracts both human and animal interest.

As promised, here are my thoughts on synthetic turf. Simply put, synthetic turf offers absolutely no environmental benefits. However, in deep, deep shaded landscapes, synthetic turf does provide a water permeable, erosion proof, aesthetically pleasing alternative that stays green year-round. And the modern versions have realistic grass blades and color. For further thoughts, visit my earlier article on synthetic turf.

There’s absolutely no reason for you to despair about a garden with heavy shade. You have a multitude of options from plants to patios, and we didn’t even touch on patios, so go — embrace the shade. Come July, you’ll thank me.

Picture of Mark Peterson
Mark Peterson
Mark A. Peterson was a conservation project coordinator for San Antonio Water System before retiring. With over 30 years of experience as an urban forester and arborist, Mark is probably the only person you know who actually prunes trees for fun. When not expounding on the benefits of trees and limited lawns, you're likely to find him hiking San Antonio's wilderness parks or expounding on the virtues of geography and history to his friends.
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