Landscaping in the Shade

A shady spot with an old concrete bench under an oak tree

With the right landscaping, even dark corners can become cool and inviting oases. Credit: Sally Lanigan, UF/IFAS

Shade provides welcome relief from Florida's intense sun and heat, but gardening in shade can be challenging. Many landscape plants demand extended periods of full sun to perform well. Read on to understand your shade, lighten your landscape, and review our lists of shade-tolerant plants.

Understanding Your Shade

Shade shifts daily, seasonally, and over time as trees grow. Carefully analyzing where and when shade occurs in your landscape is an important first step. Does a spot get sun from 8 a.m. to noon? That's four hours of direct sunlight and likely a number of hours of partial shade afterwards.

Noticing the type of shade is important, too, as some kinds of shade are suitable for growing plants while other types are very problematic. For example, many shade-tolerant plants prefer the following conditions:

  • Four or fewer hours of full sun, preferably morning or evening
  • Dappled shade all day
  • High, shifting shade (pine shade)

Examples of difficult shade include the following areas:

  • Dense and dark (no sun)
  • In the shadow of buildings
  • Dominated by tree roots
  • Very wet or dry

A few other considerations when growing plants in shade include the following:

A yellowish-green fern backlit by sunlight

Some shade is so dense that even shade-tolerant plants will struggle to thrive. Credit: Tyler Jones, UF/IFAS

  • Areas under tree canopy tend to be warmer and more amenable to cold-tender plants.
  • Digging among the roots of trees and shrubs is difficult, so use smaller plants that don't need a large planting hole. Water them frequently until they're established.
  • Fertilizer cannot compensate for inadequate light. It is not a substitute for photosynthesis.
  • Shaded lawns should be mowed higher and receive less fertilizer, water, and traffic.

Sometimes the best solution for difficult shade is to convert it to an outdoor garden room enhanced by seating, garden art, mulch, hardscape, colorful containers, a water feature, a birdbath, or other focal points.

Bringing Light and Color to Shady Areas

Sometimes difficult shade can be improved by lifting or thinning the tree canopy or large shrubs so more sun or indirect light can penetrate. Keep in mind that there are right and (very) wrong ways to prune trees. Rely on a professional, such as an ISA Certified Arborist, to do the job.

Colorful caladiums and other shade loving foliage plants in a bed against a gray wall of a home

Ferns, gingers, caladiums and more bring color to this shady corner of the andscape. Credit: Tyler Jones, UF/IFAS

There are other ways to lighten up shady areas, though. While we can always count on cast iron plant to perform well in deep shade, its dark foliage doesn't do much to brighten up a dark corner. To bring light and color to shady areas, use plants that produce light-colored or variegated foliage or bright flowers. Firespike, ti plant, beautyberry, begonias, gingers, caladiums, orchids, and bromeliads can all bring light and color to a dark corner of the yard. Even choosing a lighter-colored mulch can help.

Plants that Perform Well in the Shade

Below we've listed more plants that do well in shady landscape, but these lists are not exhaustive. Every plant has cultural needs besides light. Make sure to select plants that are suited to your particular landscape. Your county Extension office can help you choose the right plant for your area's climate and soil characteristics.

Perennials for the Shade

Some shade loving plants also love the sun, so if your shade shifts, look for plants that adapt, like flax lily. Many shady areas are also dry, so use drought tolerant shade lovers like devil's backbone. Perennials with white or brightly colored flowers or variegated leaves, such as jewels of opar, will really stand out. Other shade-loving perennials include ferns, crossandra, and gingers, but many more are available; see the UF/IFAS publication "Landscaping in Florida Shade" for a more comprehensive list.

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Close view of a cluster of tall narrow yellow bromeliads with a lone red one in their midst

Bromeliads come in all shapes, sizes, colors and patterns.
Credit: by Eric Zamora

Groundcovers for Shade

Most varieties of lawngrass won’t thrive in shade, so you’re better off planting a groundcover that’s easy to grow in low-light conditions. Liriope muscari, often called lilyturf or border grass, offer thin grass-like leaves and attractive flowers. Asiatic jasmine is a fast-spreading, densely growing groundcover that will thrive in sun or shade. Remember that unlike turf, groundcovers won’t tolerate foot traffic and don't appreciate mowing, so you’ll need to plan for walkways or paths. Read our article, Groundcovers for Shade, for more options.

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UF/IFAS Publications