We all love the feeling of cool shade on a hot summer day, whether it comes from a dense tree canopy growing above the yard or from our home as it shades different areas throughout the day. Quite a few plants appreciate that cool space. There are many options for adding useful, attractive greenery to your yard that do well in the shade.

Since there are different levels of shade, watch the progress of the sun across your landscape so you can determine the right plants for each location. The shade cast by trees varies with the size and kind of tree. For example, a large mulberry will cast broad and deep shade, while a honeylocust will provide a more dappled and lighter level of shade. The more upright the tree, the narrower the shade profile. Tree canopies that spread broadly offer a more uniform level of shading. Shade from a building can be a bit problematic in that it is very dense where it falls, but that changes over the course of the day.

One of my favorite shade plants is something I hardly ever recommend in Albuquerque: Japanese maple trees. These small trees thrive in all-day dappled shade, although they do take a bit of water. Due to their small size, however, they don’t need that much extra water. These lovely little trees deserve a nice setting where you can see and enjoy them all year round. They may be a good choice for the oasis zone of your xeriscaped landscape. The caveat is that these little trees will not do well in strong sun, so pick your spot with care!

There are a couple of shrubs favored by nurseries that do much better with some shade than in the full-sun situations where they are often found. Both nandina (heavenly bamboo) and India hawthorn will look much better with some relief from scorching sun and suffocating heat. Native barberry (Berberis fendleri to the plant nerds) takes deep shade well, while the native three-leaf sumac and gro low sumac will tolerate moderate shade very nicely.  The latter tends to get taller and leggier in shade than it does in sun, but it’s happy either way and doesn’t need much water. Other locally-common shrubs/sub-shrubs that do well in dappled shade are autumn sage, cliff fendlerbush, and even blue mist spirea.

I’m a real fan of ground covers in shady areas, especially under trees and planted into organic mulch like shredded wood chips. Kinnikinnick (a.k.a bear berry) is a Montana native that too often is placed in full sun and doesn’t like it, but in a shadier spot it really shines. The periwinkles, Vinca major and Vinca minor, also do well in a shadier setting, attractively rambling through the mulch. Dwarf plumbago likes similar conditions to the vincas. Yerba mansa and creeping mahonia are native plants that also do well as ground cover.

Vinca Major

Mints are good in light shade. There are many types, from chocolate mint to spearmint to orange mint. I let them grow and bloom. Since bees of all types and sizes love the blossoms, the mint is a great addition to the landscape from the beneficial insect perspective. Many tiny wasps use mint flowers as adult food, while their offspring are busy parasitizing aphids and caterpillars. One thing to remember is to make room for the mint to spread, which it will happily do.

Related to mints, and likely to spread like mints, is dead nettle. Despite it’s name, it’s a great plant that uses little water and has blooms that attract good small insects. Other good flowering plants for light shade areas include the native columbines, lavender, and catmint.

What about turf grass? Most turf grasses like full sun and will get thin under shade,   however I’ve had great results with creeping red fescue. This Eurasian native needs regular water to do well but can tolerate deep shade.

By establishing irrigation for shade plants, the trees above them also receive water, which is a great way to make sure those trees get water. Some shade plants are available only as seed (red fescue, for example), but most of them can be found as containerized plants at our local nurseries. 

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Author: Joran Viers, Senior Partner at Root to Shoot Urban Forestry, Inc. find him at joran@root2shooturbanforestry.com  Have a question about the article? AskAnExpert@abcwua.org