Shade Tree Gardens

By Jan Pipher

Freelance Writer

Nothing is more pleasurable than gardening in Texas shade. While the lantana and okra are out baking in the sun, a tranquil canopy of dappled light and cooler temperatures makes puttering around in your summer garden a delight. While we all appreciate a little shade, many people think of it as very limiting in regard to plant materials. You may be slightly weary of the old shade standbys, impatiens and begonias, and it’s true, that you won’t be growing any flashy zinnias or colorful crapemyrtles, but the good news is there are many interesting choices for shade.

Dry/wet shade?

Shade plants are often characterized by whether they like dry shade or wet shade, which might be translated: shade with little or no supplemental water or wet, mossy soil shade. Many sun-loving plants like oxeye daisy (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum), rudbeckia (Rudbeckia hirta), and gaura, in their vigor to put out seed, will settle for a shadier habitat, but most natives are pretty selective about how much water they do or don’t get. Whether in the form of rain fall (sprinklers) and/or moisture-holding clay soil that keeps their “feet” wet. Dry shade plants include many familiar plants, shrimp plant (Justica brandegeana); columbines (Aquilegia spp); Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus arboreus), blue mist (Eupatorium coelestinum) – a butterfly attractor – and it’s cousin, the fragrant fall blooming, Eupatorium havanese; and salvias – including the rugged but beautiful tropical sage (Salvia coccinea) and cedar sage (S. roemeriana). Sub-tropicals and marginals (bog plants), as well as natives make up the wet shade category. A sample of this mix is ferns, hostas, old-fashioned purple phlox, Lobelia cardinalis, spider lilies (Hymenocallis spp), elephant ears (Colocasia spp), violets, indestructible cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior), coral bells (Heuchera spp), gingers, firespike (Odontonema stricture) and winter-blooming Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis).


Soil ph

Of course, the soil alkalinity or acidity as one travels from west to east in Texas is another deciding factor in what plants will grow in your shade. Old favorites for shade like azaleas and gardenias are nothing but trouble in alkaline areas. Know your soil pH and check the requirements of potential plants before you begin planting.

Deep/light shade

The age-old shade question is “how much?” Is your shade from a building, a very dense shade with no light at all? Or is it tree shade, with dappled sunlight filtering through? Is your shade in the morning only? In the Texas heat, this isn’t even considered shade because heat offsets the sun/shade requirement for many shade plants. Given the right soil, any so-called sun plant will grow in morning sun/afternoon shade and/or in all-day, light-dappled shade. Once you’ve determined how much light you’ve got, you can choose the appropriate shade plants. You could try dividing up your landscape into mini-gardens, according to the amount of shade in each area.


Suppose you want to grow a few herbs for cooking. Root beer plant and mints (Mentha spp) will grow in your dense shade, while lavender-flowering Mexican oregano (Poliomintha longiflora), Texas tarragon (Tagetes lucida), rosemary, and sprawling Greek oregano (Origanum spp) will grow in dappled light. Where your shade is from deciduous trees or the low angle of winter light might reach, you can grow all the cool season herbs, Italian parsley, dill, cilantro, fennel, and chamomile and have lettuce, spinach, arugula, and chard as well. If you have a sunnier area within your light shade, you can even try basil which often enjoys a respite from the intense sun of full summer.


Under-story shrubs and trees are those that require a shade covering. Flowering dogwood, Mexican plum, cashmere bouquet (Clerodendrum bungei), oak leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), camellia, American beauty berry (Callicarpa americana), yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria), rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus), nandina, silver leafed eleagnus and abelia all add interest and seasonal bloom beneath a canopy of tall trees.

Trees that provide shade in the summer but lose their leaves in the fall also make possible the planting of spring flowering shrubs, like forsythia, flowering almond (Prunus tribola), English dogwood, spirea, flowering quince (Chaenomeles spp), Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens), and Lady Banks roses (Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’), which will all bloom before the yard turns shady. In the same vein, all the cool season bloomers – pansies (Viola hybrids), dianthus, snapdragons (Antirrhinum spp), old-fashioned poppies (Papavar spp), larkspur (Consolida ambigua), Drummond phlox, Louisiana phlox (Phlox divaricata), prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa), thrift (Armeria spp), cyclamen and English daisies (Bellis perennis) will make a carpet of spring color.


Adding splashes of color to your cool green shade can be done in a number of ways. Competing for nutrients and water with tree roots often leaves smaller plants on the short end of things, so placing your blooming plants – impatiens, balsam, begonias, torenias, red valerian (Centranthus rubber) and bacopa – in containers can save water and give you better show in such locations. These same plants in combination with ferns, ivies, caladiums and vinca also make beautiful hanging baskets, creating a lush tropical look. Where blooms are few or out of season, plants with colored foliage have a true niche. Purple heart (Setcreasea) and variegated vinca are both easy to root and work well in borders for pathways and beds.

The handsome leaves of Persian shield (Strobianthes), red dragon (Persicaria), coleus and caladiums make many-hued groupings in pots or in the ground. Red Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) and variegated golden aucuba are two more understory plants for color.


Bulbs are a good choice for shade gardening especially if you have winter and early spring light. You can grow beautiful alliums, daffodils (Narcissus spp), grape hyacinth (Muscari spp), paperwhites, tulips, crocus, summer snow flakes (Leucojum aestivum) and star of Bethlehem (Campanula isophylla). In the summer, crinums, spider lilies and tuberous-rooted butterfly ginger (Hedychium spp) will bloom in partial shade filling the air with their wonderful scent.


If you have an area that needs a camouflaging vine, trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) will do the trick in short order and bloom besides. Another shade vine with flowers similar to trumpet vine but not quite as invasive is old-fashioned cross vine (Bignonia capreolata), which is also evergreen in the South. For a more delicate shade vine, angel wing jasmine with its early summer, sweetly scented flowers is a top choice. Purple-stemmed Malabar spinach is edible as well as decorative and an annual to boot. Of course there’s also Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) and ivies (Hedera spp) (including poison ivy which seems to sneak uninvited into all shady landscapes, so watch out) for green climbing cover. Strawberry begonia, Asian jasmine (Trachelospermum asiaticum), lamium, lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis) in the colder parts of the state, creeping plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoide) and native horse-herb (Calyptocarpus vialis) are good ground cover choices.

So, for shade, you can have a tropical garden with aralia and ferns, a scented garden with four-o’clocks (Mirabilis jalapa) and ginger, a native garden with inland sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) and rock rose (Pavonia lasiopetala), a water garden with horse tail rush (Equisetum hyemale) and elephant ears (Colocasia antiquorum); an exotic look with angel trumpets (Brugmansia) and firespike, a formal look, a cottage garden look – whatever you want to make it and with lots and lots of plants to choose from.

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