Landscapes Made in the Shade


You may have more options than you realize

Shade is a fact of life for lawn care providers and landscapers. Even in new landscapes, shade is a factor to be dealt with, at least on the north side of a home or building. When working with shady sites consider the common Spanish phrase “así es”, which means, “it is what it is”. So embrace shade! There are so many options and good plants to work with.


In addition to the opportunity to incorporate attractive plants, shade in a landscape offers homeowners areas for recreation and relaxation. These sites are usually cooler and are great locations for reading a book or having a picnic with friends without the sun beating down upon you.

To be successful with shady landscapes and lawns, obviously there are some things you have to know. Conduct a site assessment and analysis. The assessment is a simple documentation of the existing conditions. This can be trickier than it sounds; some parts are shady all day, some are sunny all day, and others receive two or three hours of sun and are shady for the rest of the day.

Begin by measuring the number of hours of direct sun that is received in different portions of the site. Note the number of hours of direct sun, heavy shade, etc . For most landscapes, re-visit the site several times during the day to document when and where the sun is received as the day progresses.

The site analysis comes into play as a value judgment is placed on the turf and landscape areas based on this information. Consider drainage and soil type along with number of hours of shade. Shady sites tend to dry out slower than sunny ones, which is important when scheduling minutes of runtime for the irrigation system and choosing specific plant materials.

Right plant, right place

Whether it’s turf or non-turf practice “right plant, right place.” Though characterizations can be made into many categories, the following should suffice in most landscapes:

  • Heavy Shade – eight or more hours of shade during both morning and afternoon, without much strong sunlight penetration.
  • Filtered/Dappled Shade – shade during a majority of the day with light sunlight penetration.
  • Light Shade – shade during three to five hours, usually filtered/dappled, with sunlight during the remainder.

Consider nuances in filtered or dappled shade in terms of when the sun is received. For example, holly and clematis grow healthier in morning sun and afternoon shade. The intensity of the sun in morning and afternoon is what makes the difference. The season of the year also makes a difference. In spring, the sun is lower on the horizon than in mid-summer, creating less intense rays. In late summer, sunlight might actually increase due to the defoliation of trees infected with leaf spot diseases.

The presence of this cluster of trees makes it unlikely that turfgrass will thrive in this small yard. This hardy groundcover is a good alternative and will require less maintenance.

Separate turf from ornamentals

Keep turfgrass separate from ornamentals in the landscape. Generally, turf requires more fertility and water than ornamentals. Create masses of plants based on the number of hours of sun each receives. A good place to start is to lay a piece of tracing paper over the top of the plat or survey of the property and write in the calculated number of hours of sun that each area receives, then designate each area as either turf or ornamentals based on the amount of sunlight. Areas that lie under shade trees are probable sections for ornamentals such as shady perennials and groundcovers, while the voids between them are likely to be better suited for turf or sunny perennials.

Another good reason to separate turf from ornamentals is aesthetic. The shrubs, forbs, perennials and groundcovers are cast against the monochromatic uniform texture of the turf where the mass is the various groupings of ornamentals and the void is the turfgrass. Separating them instead of dotting the ornamentals hither and yon throughout the turf gives them greater visual, causing them to “pop” and yielding more bang for the buck.

Establishing healthy turfgrass on this tiny plot, challenged by a combination of shade, trees roots and (from appearances) lack of irrigation, is going to be a tough challenge. Better to try Plan B, shade-tolerant ornamentals.

Adapted turf species

In most scenarios, turf performs best when it receives half- to all-day sunshine. In the South, warm-season turf species such as centipedes and St. Augustine are the most shade tolerant. Zoysia has some degree of shade tolerance, especially when well-established and the shade level increases gradually as in the case of an initially sunny landscape that changes when the canopy of overhead trees increases. Bermuda is generally regarded as the least shade-tolerant.

Cool-season turf species such as fine fescue and turf-type tall fescue can perform well in light to medium shade. In wet shady areas, rough bluegrass should be considered. The National Turfgrass Evaluation Program (NTEP) is a good source of specific information on how each species and cultivar tends to perform in shady conditions, especially for Kentucky bluegrass.

Adapted ornamentals

Different varieties of turfgrass (and cultivars within varieties) have varying tolerance to shade. Consult NTEP ( results at the turfgrass testing location nearest your region for recommendations.

Shady landscapes are ideal for taking a cue from Mother Nature and incorporating layers of plants into the landscape, using share-adapted plants under larger plants. Small trees can serve the landscape very well when placed under larger specimens. In a natural setting, this is the way that landscapes are created, with understory trees popping up in layers under larger trees. A healthy, sustainable landscape would normally contain large shade or framing trees, medium-sized trees well placed for color and interest, small trees under them for shape, color, texture and form appeal, and ground plane plants such as perennials, groundcovers and shade-adapted turfgrasses. Once the layered landscape is developed, it provides beauty as well as function for comfort and activities.

Fortunately, you have many different groundcovers, perennials and shrubs to choose from. After doing a site assessment and analysis, visit the nearest botanical garden or arboretum for a first-hand, close-up look at specific species. Pay attention to how well they perform under real-life settings. Make both a “can’t miss” list and a “this could work” list.

The problem that many landscape managers find themselves in with using the same plants over and over is that they begin leaning on a short list or plant palette too often out of convenience.

After assessing the landscape site, re-design it to best match conditions with the adaptability and preference of the plant materials. Remember the saying “right plant, right place.” Replace poorly sited plants with those from your “can’t miss” list. These are the foundation for the renovation.

John C. Fech is a horticulturist and certified arborist and extension educator at the University of Nebraska. Contact him at