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Golden Spur Columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha) hosts a long display of fragrant yellow flowers in late spring. It does best in partial shade, but is quite sun tolerant at higher elevations.

Shade & Partial Shade Plants For Waterwise Gardens

By David Salman, Founder of High Country Gardens

David Salman gardened in the high desert of New Mexico for more than 30 years. This article covers his best recommendations for gardening in the shade, and a list of favorite waterwise shade plants, too.

I've gained a healthy respect for the strength and intensity of our sunshine in the Southwest. A shade-loving plant in too much sun quickly becomes a puff of smoke. So early on, I found it to be very important to define what sun or shade conditions mean to gardeners here, especially to those who've moved from areas with more benign and less sunny climates.

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Defining Shade & Partial Shade 

  • Full sun - all day sunshine or a full afternoon of sun.
  • Part shade - morning sun and afternoon shade after 12 p.m. Or all-day dappled shade under small-leaved trees, such as desert willow (Chilopsis).
  • Full shade - no direct sun during the day because of dense overhead foliage or buildings.

There are different types of shade conditions created by buildings as well as large shrubs and trees. It’s always instructive to study a shady spot by identifying the overhead path of the sun during different parts of the day and during different seasons. (You may be surprised that some shady locations get some fairly strong early morning or late afternoon sun.)

Find out what type of shade conditions you have. Is the area in deep shade, morning sun/afternoon shade or dappled shade? The deeper the shade, the more important it is to choose shade-loving plants that will thrive in the low light.

Factors That Affect Plants & Sun Intensity

  • Geography: The intensity of sunshine varies considerably as one moves across the U.S. This is a huge continent with pronounced regional differences in elevation, heat, humidity, cloud cover, and the resulting intensity of the sun's rays. Full sun conditions in Ohio are radically different than in New Mexico. In Ohio, cloud cover is more consistent. Along with the humid, hazy skies, the strength of the sun's rays are greatly diluted by the time they reach the ground, whereas in the high elevation areas of New Mexico, our 300+ days of cloudless skies and lack of humidity and haze fail to dull the strength of our intense sunshine.
  • Elevation: Elevation generally has a huge effect on the sun's intensity; the higher above sea level, the stronger the sunshine, and the higher the ultra-violet wavelengths. You don't tan at 7,000 ft. elevation; you burn.
  • Hot Summer Weather: When day temperatures begin to regularly exceed 90◦F, many plants will benefit from afternoon shade.
  • Time: Often, shade becomes much more of a factor in the home landscape over time, as trees and large shrubs get bigger; and after 10 or 15 years, sunny areas may eventually be in the shade. Because a landscape is really never finished, this provides an opportunity to replant with shade loving plants and create a new look in your yard. You may need to change out your plants as conditions become more shady.
  • Sunny Winters In Cold Areas of The West: During winter, the sun is lower in the sky, and the angle of the sunlight shifts. This can change a sunny location into a shady location. This is an important consideration for broadleaf evergreen plants in cold climates. Too much sun during Western winters can result in burned foliage. High-intensity sunshine combined with frozen soil prevents the foliage from transpiring (losing moisture through the leaves to cool the plant). So be sure to plant your broadleaf evergreens and evergreen perennials, such as Helianthemum (Rock Rose), in a spot where they are more shaded during the winter.

Shop Waterwise Plants For Shade

Exclusive Pre-Planned Gardens & Collections For Shade

For an easy to grow solution for the shaded areas of your yard, discover our exclusive Pre-Planned Gardens and perennial collections for shade. Pre-Planned Gardens include a garden layout map to make planting simple. 

  • Our Fabulous Foliage and Flowers Pre-Planned Garden features bright pink, yellow, and white flowers bloom from late spring through summer, complemented by pleasing foliage that provides a textural backdrop for season-long interest.
  • Our Serene Shade Pre-Planned Garden uses a mix of perennial groundcovers, taller upright growers, and ornamental grass to create a bright, blooming assortment of perennials to color-up shady areas of your yard.
  • Our Under-A-Tree Pre-Planned Garden has been designed to add color and textural interest to areas under a tree, using a combination of groundcovers and ornamental grass.
  • Our Shady Oasis Container Pre-Planned Garden is perfect for planting a container with blooming perennials that come back year after year. features a combination of colorful, nectar-rich native perennials to brighten your patio, deck, or balcony.
  • Our Dry Shade Groundcover Collection is ideal for a no-mow lawn alternative, featuring four favorite groundcover species that will add layers of color and texture to that challenging dry, shady area of your yard. (Part Shade to Full Shade)
  • Our Columbine Collection is just the solution for adding late spring color to shade or partial shade xeriscapes or rock gardens. The delicate pointed blooms are one of the best hummingbird plants for shady gardens. 

Tips For Planting Beneath Trees

Most trees are deep rooted and suitable for under-planting with shade loving perennials. Some trees may not be a good option as an overhead companion for shade-loving plants.

  • Maples, willows and poplars/cottonwoods have dense, shallow roots which can be too difficult to dig through. Planting under these trees may require constructing a raised bed around the base of the trees with about 8 inches of new soil placed over weed barrier.
  • Walnuts (all types) release chemicals into the soil that act as natural herbicides, thus eliminating competition from plants growing under and around them. Don’t plant under or around them.
  • Large conifers (evergreen trees) are also tough as the shade they cast is very deep and the overhead branches absorbs most if not all the rain and snow that fall on them, creating an extremely dry soil. When planting under big conifers it’s essential that irrigation be used to provide sufficient water for your shade garden plants.

Shaded growing conditions found under these trees and shrubs can be particularly challenging because of root competition and overhead branches that absorb much of the precipitation. This, in turn, creates dry, nutrient-deficient soil conditions that require dry shade-loving plants.

Remember these tips for planting beneath challenging trees and shrubs:

  • It is extremely important when planting under trees and large shrubs, that the planting holes be nice and wide and free of fine fibrous feeder roots. Removing feeder roots from the planting hole is essential so that new transplants can establish their roots with minimal competition
  • Also make the effort to enrich the soil adequately with ample amounts of Yum Yum Mix and a good quality compost mixture.  This will also help the new plants to get off to a great start by providing the nutrients necessary for establishing strong roots.
  • Keep your new transplants well-watered for the first couple of growing seasons to get the perennials well established before the tree/shrub roots move back in.
  • It's very important to fertilize shade gardens regularly in the fall to provide the perennials with adequate nutrients.

The Legacy of David Salman | High Country Gardens founder David Salman was a pioneer of waterwise gardening, a passionate plant explorer, and a charismatic storyteller. His commitment to cultivating a palette of beautiful waterwise plants transformed gardening in the American West. 


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