“Nothing will grow under the trees in my front yard!” Sound familiar? Blessed with a climate and soils conducive to vigorous growth of trees, shade is a common factor for most East
Texans. Rather than looking at shade as a liability, use it as an asset to enhance your landscape.
Most shade complaints stem from the fact that grass will not grow well in dense shade. All turfgrasses perform best in full sun. St. Augustine is the most shade tolerant grass, while Centipede and Zoysia tolerate partial shade. But some trees cast such heavy shade that no grass will thrive in that dark environment. This is particularly true for areas under evergreen trees such as live oak, pine and magnolia. Even deciduous trees with large leaves can have such dense canopies that little sunlight penetrates to the ground.
Be thankful, however, for the cooling benefit your trees provide. Without it, your electric bill would be substantially higher and it would be much more unpleasant to venture outside in the heat of summer.
There are many plants that are adapted to shady sites. If you are struggling, trying to grow a lawn under a grove of trees, consider a different approach by adding variety and style to your lot with plants that thrive in the shade.
Green will be the basic color you will have to work with in developing a shade garden since most flowering plants do best in partial or full sun. But, that doesn’t mean your garden needs to be dull! Varying leaf textures, from the refined and delicate look of ferns, to the bold, broad leaves of elephant ears and Aspidistra or cast iron plant, help make an ordinary garden bed look special.
And there is more than one shade of green. Variegated leaves contribute cream, yellow or white to the basic green color palate. Plus, there is a good selection of shade-loving plants for adding color through beautiful blooms.
Don’t feel compelled to go wall-to-wall with plants. Large areas can be covered with an attractive mulch, punctuated with plantings of shrubs, perennials, and groundcovers, giving the site a unique character and look.
Here is a small sampling of plants worthy of consideration to get you started and give you an idea of what is available. Visit your local nursery for more ideas on developing an ideal retreat from the summertime heat.
Hellebores are choice plants for shady spots. The most commonly available is Helleborus orientalis, or Helleborus x hybridus, commonly known as Lenten rose. Their evergreen stiff, dark-green leaves, parted into 5 to 7 leaflets, hold court most of the year. But late winter, their unusual blooms appear, continuing through spring. Flower colors are muted, ranging from plum and rose colored to lighter pink, greenish or white, often with speckles of purple. If you don’t mulch too heavily near the plants, many seedlings will appear to increase your collection of these easy to grow perennials, eventually creating large drifts of these tough and interesting plants.
Hostas or Plantain Lilies make a bold statement in the shade garden with their large, richly colored leaves. Hostas are herbaceous perennials, disappearing in late fall or winter to return from the same roots the following spring. Hostas grow 8 to 24 inches tall in large clumps with tall spikes of flowers in summer. There are many varieties with varying leaf colors and shapes. Provide them with rich soil and even soil moisture. ‘Christmas Tree’, ‘Guacamole’, ‘Sugar and Cream’, ‘So Sweet’, ‘Blue Cadet’, ‘Royal Standard’, ‘Lancifolia’,and ‘Honeybells’ are just a few of the varieties have that perform well in our area.
Farfugium (formerly Ligularia) are great perennials for shady spots. All have large, round, glossy leaves, growing from low clumps about 2 feet tall and wide. The most popular and commonly available variety is called the Leopard Plant or ‘Aureomaculatum’, with large, bright yellow spots scattered about the thick leaves. ‘Gigantea’ with bright green glossy leaves the size of a large dinner plate makes a stunning focal point.
Liriope is a grass-like perennial that grows in dense, low clumps in full shade or partial sun and bear lilac colored flowers followed by black fruit. There are several varieties, including giant and variegated liriope. Clumps may look ragged after a rough winter and can be cut to the ground just prior to emergence of new growth in spring. Plant them closely for a groundcover effect. The variegated variety ‘Silver Dragon’ is not a clump-forming variety, but vigorously spreads underground to fill in an area.
A close relative is monkey or mondo grass (Ophiopogon) that forms dense clumps that spread by underground stems. The foliage of common mondo grass is dark green, and there is a variety with almost black leaves. Dwarf mondo grass is a very low growing variety, suitable for growing between the cracks in stepping-stones or a low border planting. Several homes on the Master Gardener tour last week featured large areas of mondo.
Ferns are classic plants for shade. There are many good types to select from – native and exotic, evergreen or deciduous. Most ferns prefer a moist environment and are perfect for the woodland garden. Their light, airy texture provides an excellent contrast to the broader leaves of most plants. Some common types include holly fern, tassel fern, Christmas fern, painted fern, royal fern, lady fern, sensitive fern, wood or river fern and autumn fern.
Asian jasmine, a vigorous, evergreen vining groundcover, is very tolerant of shade. Beware that it can scramble up tree trunks and into shrubs, so some annual maintenance will be required.
Annuals. For a splash of color, try some of the following annuals, perennials and bulbs: impatiens, New Guinea impatiens, torennia (wishbone flower), begonias, caladiums, columbine, coleus, phlox, violets, spring-blooming bulbs such as narcissus, and fall-blooming bulbs like the red spider lily (Lycoris) and oxblood lily.
Shrubs. Cast iron plant (Aspidistra), gold dust plant (Aucuba), fatsia, Japanese plum yew, boxwood, and mahonia are a few of the more common shrubs that tolerate or need shade. Azaleas are popular choices for shade, but bloom heavier with bright filtered light or on a sunny eastern exposure.