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Made in the Shade

by Keith C. Hansen, Extension Horticulturist

"Nothing will grow under the trees in my yard!" Sound familiar? Blessed with a climate and soils conducive to vigorous growth of trees, shade is 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 will 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, like oaks, can have such dense canopies that little sunlight penetrates to the ground.

Rather than curse the shade, be thankful 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 class 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 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 add 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.

Not all shade is equal. Plant selection for shade is based on the degree of absence of sunlight. Full or deep shade occurs under low branching trees, trees with large leaves and evergreen trees. The north side of buildings and fences can also have deep shade, especially if a tree is nearby. Open or filtered shade can be found under tall, high-branching trees with small leaves or near walls and fences without overhead branches. Some areas may receive shade only half of the day, such as the edge of a wooded area or the west or east side of a house or fence. Select your plants based on the type of shade you have.

Here is a sampling of plants worthy of consideration to give you an idea of what is available. Many in the following list can be classified as ground covers which can be used as a lawn replacement. Visit your local nursery for more ideas on developing an ideal retreat from the summertime heat.

English Ivy may be one of the best evergreen ground covers for the shaded location. It thrives in deep shade, and once established, will cover a large area with a thick carpet of deep green. There are several varieties available with varying leaf shapes. English Ivy will grow up tree trunks, but can be kept under control with an annual trimming. Asian jasmine will also make a nice cover in light to moderate shade.

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 only to return from the same roots the following spring, more robust than the year before. Hostas grow 8 to 18 inches tall in large clumps and sport tall spikes of flowers in summer. There are many varieties with varying leaf colors and shapes. 'Sugar and Cream', 'So Sweet', 'Blue Cadet', 'Royal Standard', and 'Blue Angel' are a few of the outstanding varieties in our hosta variety trial at the Tyler Rose Garden.

Periwinkle is a vining ground cover which does great in full or partial, open shade. It bears sky- blue flowers and is a very vigorous grower, covering large areas in a short time. Variegated periwinkle really brightens up dark corners.

Liriope is a grass-like perennial that grows in dense, low clumps in full shade or partial sun and bear lilac colored flowers which are followed by black fruit. There are several varieties, including giant and variegated liriope. The liriope bordering the beds in the Camellia Garden area in the Tyler Rose Garden are in full bloom right now and very pretty.

A close relative is monkey or mondo grass (Ophiopogon) which 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.

Ferns are classic plants for shade. There are many species of ferns to select from - both native and exotic. Most ferns prefer a moist environment and are perfect for the woodland garden. Their light, airy texture provides an excellent contrast to the broad leaves of most plants. Some common types include holly fern, painted fern, royal fern, lady fern, sensitive fern, wood or river fern and autumn fern.

Here's a few other shrubs and ground covers that would prefer a shady location in your yard: acuba, aspidistra, camellia, holly (many species), Florida anise (Illicium floridanum), Oregon grapeholly (Mahonia), leatherleaf mahonia, Japanese fatsia, fatshedera, wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei), ajuga, variegated Japanese sedge (Carex), inland sea oats (best suited for naturalizing as it readily reseeds), and azaleas.

For a splash of color, try some of the following annuals, perennials and bulbs: impatiens, New Guinea impatiens, begonias, caladiums, Chinese ground orchid (Bletilla), columbine, achimenes ('Purple King'), firespike (Odontonema strictum), coleus, phlox, violets and spring-blooming bulbs such as narcissus.