Grass Is Not Made for Shade

Lucky for you, there are plenty of flowering plants and ornamental grasses that are — and they save water, too!

As you look at the deep shady area of your yard, you notice the grass has never done well there. And it isn’t getting any better. Whether it’s an area up against your house or a spot where a tree has grown a massive canopy, constant shade is not a friend to grass.

Bermuda grass and zoysia need sun — and lots of it. Expecting these turf grasses to grow in deep shade is like expecting a fish to live out of water. It’s not going to happen.

Lucky for you, there are plenty of flowering plants and grasses that thrive in the shade and save you water in the process!

The first rule of gardening is “plant the right plant in the right place,” but the second rule of garden design is “plant tall in the back, medium in the middle and shorties in front,” just like in family photos!

Let’s explore 20 water-saving, shade-loving plants from small to tall. Bonus: the ones marked with an asterisk are eligible for the WaterSaver Landscape Coupon.  

  1. Monkey grass Ophiopogon japonicus, 6 inches full shade to partial sun/shade, spreads and fills out through runners.
  2. Clover fern Marsilea macropoda, 4-8 inches, partial sun/shade, delicate-looking, clover-like fern, informal groundcover.
  3. *Frogfruit Phyla nodiflora, 6-12 inches, full shade to partial sun/shade, flowering, attracts pollinators.
  4. Purple oxalis Oxalis regnellii, 6-12 inches, partial sun/shade, flowering, evergreen (ever purple).
  5. Thyme Thymus vulgaris, 12-18 inches, full shade to partial sun/shade, flowering, attracts bees and pollinators, edible herb, informal groundcover.
  6. *Inland sea oats Chasmanthium latifolium, 12-24 inches, full shade to partial sun/shade, attracts birds, delicate nodding seed head.
  7. *Asparagus fern Asparagus densiflorus ‘Sprengeri, 18-24 inches, full shade to partial sun/shade, flowering, attracts birds.
  8. *Foxtail fern Asparagus densiflorus ‘Meyersii,’ 18-24 inches, partial sun/shade, branches of needle-like leaves that truly look like a bushy fox’s tail.
  9. Holly fern Cyrtomium falcatum, 1-2 feet, full shade, hardy evergreen.
  10. *Cedar sage Salvia roemeriana, 1-2 feet, full shade to partial sun/shade, flowering, attracts hummingbirds and pollinators.
  11. *Bearded iris Iris germanica, 1-3 feet, full shade to partial sun/shade, flowering (color varies), evergreen.
  12. *Scarlet sage Salvia coccinea, 1-3 feet, full shade to partial sun/shade, flowering, attracts hummingbirds.
  13. Betony Stachys coccinea, 1-3 feet, full shade to partial sun/shade, flowering, attracts hummingbirds and pollinators.
  14. *Shrimp plant Justicia brandegeeana, 2-3 feet, full shade to partial sun/shade, flowering, attracts hummingbirds.
  15. *Giant blue sage Salvia guaranitica, 2-5 feet, partial sun/shade, flowering, attracts hummingbirds.
  16. *Turk’s cap Malvaviscus drummondii, 2-5 feet, full to partial sun/shade, flowering, attracts hummingbirds.
  17. *Split-leaf philodendron Philodendron selloum, 2-5 feet, full shade, big, bold understory specimen, a nice centerpiece in shade under oak trees.
  18. American beautyberry Callicarpa americana, 3-5 feet, full shade to partial sun/shade, attracts birds, bright purple berries.
  19. Eve’s necklace Styphnolobium affine, 15-20 feet, full shade to partial sun/shade, flowering, attracts pollinators.
  20. *Yaupon holly Ilex vomitoria, 10-25 feet, full shade to partial sun/shade, flowering, attracts birds, bright red berries.

Bonus – one climbing vine

  1. Virginia creeper Parthenocissus quinquefolia, 5-50 feet, full shade to partial sun/shade, attracts birds.

Now that you have great plant choices, consider how you’ll complete your new shady spot. You can add a flagstone path, put in a bench or create a small patioscape with pavers. Then add your favorite outdoor chairs and you have an oasis made in the shade!

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A spring persimmon flower, which by mid-summer will bear plump fruit.