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

Florida is aptly named the Sunshine State. Unsurprisingly, many Florida gardeners are more comfortable landscaping in full-sun environments than in shady areas. Gardening in the shade may be a challenge, but the solution is the same as it is everywhere else in your landscape — we need the right plant in the right place.

Read on to understand your shade, lighten your landscape, and review our lists of shade-tolerant plants.

Understanding Your Shade

The first step in turning your dark corners into shady oases is to get to know your lighting. The shadows of trees shift as the sun moves but they also change as the trees mature. To understand your shade, you’ll need to observe the changes in the light an area receives over the course of the day. Take careful notes. For example, 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. Shade comes in different densities, and the denser it is the lower the light at ground level. The densest shade conditions may be too dark even for plants marketed as “shade tolerant” or “low-light”. Shade tolerant plants do well in the following conditions:

  • Fewer than four hours of full sun (preferable during the cooler hours of the day)
  • Shifting shade from taller trees, like pines
  • Partial, mottled shade all day long

Most plants, no matter how shade tolerant, will struggle in the following conditions:

  • Shade from canopies so dense that you cannot see the sun from ground-level
  • Shade created by the shadow of buildings or fences
  • Wet, dry, or heavily-rooted areas
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

It’s worth taking into account that densely-planted, shade areas share more than just their low light levels. They tend to have microclimates that keep the air and soil warmer than less densely panted areas. They also tend to be thick with roots. For these reasons smaller plants, requiring small, shallow holes, are easier to establish without harming the existing roots. Species that prefer warmer climates are a good choice as well.

Finally, there is no substitute for a lack of light. All plants need sunlight. If a plant needs more light than it receives in a space, it will grow tall and leggy with sparse foliage. Fertilizer cannot fix this problem. The plant should be moved to a sunnier location and replaced with a plant that needs less light. Lawns in the shade should be fertilized less as well.

Sometimes shade can be too dense for the landscape a gardener wants to install. This is especially true in the shade created by buildings and fences. In these cases installing “the right plant in the right place” may mean adding no plants at all. Instead, consider hardscaping and adding seating, art, or another garden standby that doesn’t require sunlight to be enjoyed.

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 landscape. Credit: Tyler Jones, UF/IFAS

Bringing Light and Color to Shady Areas

If you decide to thin the canopy to let in more light, be sure to read more about pruning and maintaining trees before you begin. 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 add light and color, use bright, light-colored, or patterned foliage plants and flowers. to a shady areas, use plants that produce light-colored or variegated foliage or bright flowers. Firespike, ti plant, beautyberrybegoniasgingerscaladiumsorchids, 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. 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