AgCenter: Right plants can enhance shady areas


LSU AgCenter horticulturist

Gardeners often gripe about how difficult it is to grow plants in shady areas of their landscapes — although trouble occurs mostly when sun-loving plants are planted in the shade.

Gardening in the shade can and should be just as enjoyable and successful as gardening in the sun. When the proper plants are selected for shady areas, the results can be beautiful and enduring.

Shady areas often are created by trees as they grow larger over the years. So at some point, the original landscape will have to be modified to deal with the reduced-light conditions. For inspiration, take a drive around older neighborhoods with mature trees. You’ll see how beautifully areas under and around large trees can be landscaped using a variety of ground covers, annuals, perennials, shrubs and even small trees.

The most important thing to remember when creating a landscaped area under a tree is to respect the root system of the tree itself. Avoid severing any tree roots that are larger than two fingers in diameter.

When you’re ready to plant, use a gardening fork rather than a shovel or spade to loosen the soil under the tree because the fork will damage fewer roots. Then work in a few inches of organic matter – such as compost or finely ground pine bark.

If you need to bring in extra soil to create the bed, select a high-quality topsoil or garden soil, and use no more than 2 to 4 inches. Piling several inches of soil around the base of the tree trunk can lead to decay. That means you’ll need to pull the soil back slightly when you’re adding it. In addition, if you intend to add fill over an area that will cover a large part of the tree’s root system (which extends out well beyond the reach of the branches), do not apply soil more than 2 inches deep.

Once the area is prepared, you could simply plant a ground cover. Ground covers recommended for shade in Louisiana include the popular monkey grass, liriope and Asian jasmine. All are reliable, easy to grow and fast spreading.

Another point to remember is that ground covers will hide exposed roots that often make it difficult to mow under some trees. Remember that you can just mulch these areas if you do not want to add plants.

You don’t just have to stick with ground covers, however. Indeed, gardening in a shady area provides chances to grow a wide variety of beautiful plants. Gardens in shady areas also are often easier to maintain because you’ll generally have fewer weed problems. And it’s more pleasant to work there during summer heat.

Shrubs to consider for shade include hollies, azaleas, nandinas, cleyera, ligustrum, aucuba, fatsia, mahonia, pittosporum, hydrangea, red buckeye, sasanqua, camellia and many others.

Even some small trees like partial shade, such as parsley hawthorn, silver bell, dogwood, Japanese maple, redbud, fringe tree, Japanese yew, cherry laurel and yaupon.

And you can plant many hardy ferns into the shady areas of your landscape. The different species range in size from under a foot to as much as 3 feet tall. The leaves of ferns are called fronds and provide the primary ornamental feature of the plants. The fronds generally are finely divided and delicate in appearance, so they contrast beautifully with coarser-textured shade plants such as hostas, aspidistra, fatsia, gingers and aucuba.

For colorful bedding plants, try impatiens, coleus, wax begonia, pentas, salvias, caladium and torenia in summer. We have large areas at the LSU AgCenter’s Hammond Research Station where we evaluate bedding plants in shady situations.

Begonias are great for shade and include large-leafed varieties (such as the Whopper and Big series), the Louisiana Super Plant BabyWing series, bronze-foliaged varieties in the Cocktail series and more.

Older coleus varieties do well in shade, and the newer sun type coleus do as well – so all coleus can be successful in a shady landscape setting. Torenia, also called wishbone flower, is a good alternative to impatiens and other traditional shade-gardening flowers if you’re looking for something new.

Shady areas in a landscape stay cooler in the summer, so don’t let the hot weather of the past two weeks stop your landscaping efforts. If you have a shady area, consider turning it into a beautiful garden with shade-loving plants. And it’s not too late to plant them throughout the summer.

You can see more about work being done in landscape horticulture by viewing the LSU AgCenter’s Hammond Research Station website at Also, like us on Facebook by going to and typing Hammond Research Station in the search box. We have an abundant amount of landscape information to offer both home gardeners and industry professionals.

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