LANDSCAPING IN FLORIDA SHADE

Sydney Park Brown

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Figure 1. 
Figure 1. 
Credit: Bart_Kowski/iStock/Thinkstock.com

Trees and the shade they cast provide welcome relief from Florida’s intense sun and heat, but gardening in shade can be challenging.

Lawn grasses in particular are difficult to grow in moderate to deep shade. They typically need at least 6 hours of sun, although certain species and cultivars can adapt to less. Additionally, most vegetables and fruit crops demand extended periods of full sun to produce well.

Shade shifts daily, seasonally, and over time as trees grow. Carefully analyzing where and when shade occurs is a first step. Also, recognizing types of shade is important as some kinds of shade are suitable for growing plants while other types are very problematic.

For example, many shade-tolerant plants prefer the following conditions:

  • Four or fewer hours of full sun, preferably morning or evening
  • Dappled shade all day
  • High, shifting shade (pine shade)

Examples of difficult shade include the following areas:

  • Dense and dark (no sun)
  • In the shadow of buildings
  • Dominated by tree roots
  • Very wet or dry

Sometimes difficult shade can be improved by lifting or thinning the tree canopy or large shrubs so more sun or indirect light can penetrate. Keep in mind that there are right and (very) wrong ways to prune trees. Rely on a professional, such as an ISA Certified Arborist, to do the job. See https://www.treesaregood.org/findanarborist to find an ISA Certified Arborist.

Sometimes the best solution for difficult shade is to forget trying to establish plants in the area; instead convert it to an outdoor garden room enhanced by seating, garden art, mulch, hardscape, a water feature, a birdbath, or other focal points. Where possible, shade-tolerant plants (see below) can be grown in colorful containers where they will not have to compete with tree roots. Leave the leaf litter that falls and allow these areas to be “self-mulching.”

Figure 2. An outdoor garden room with seating, garden art, mulch, hardscape, a water feature, a birdbath, or other focal points is sometimes the best solution for difficult shade.
Figure 2.  An outdoor garden room with seating, garden art, mulch, hardscape, a water feature, a birdbath, or other focal points is sometimes the best solution for difficult shade.
Credit: Ratana21/iStock/Thinkstock.com

Generally speaking, the following types of plants are potentially good candidates for shade:

  • Plants with broad leaves
  • Foliage plants (houseplants) for cold-protected areas of south and central Florida or for use as cold-tender annuals (Table 3)
  • Most ferns
  • Numerous tropical perennials in the Acanthaceae family (Table 2)
  • Woodland native plants

Tables 1, 2, and 3 list some plants that tolerate reduced sunlight. These lists are not exhaustive.

Every plant has cultural needs besides light. Make sure to select plants that are suited to the site (“right plant, right place”).

A few other considerations when growing plants in shade include the following:

  • Areas under tree canopy tend to be warmer, frost-free spots more amenable to cold-tender plants.
  • Digging among the roots of trees and shrubs is difficult, so start with smaller plants that do not need a large planting hole. Water them frequently until they are established.
  • Fertilizer cannot compensate for inadequate light. It is not a substitute for photosynthesis.
  • Shaded lawns should be mowed higher and receive less fertilizer, water, and traffic. See Growing Turfgrass in the Shade (https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ep072).
  • For color in shady areas, use plants that produce light-colored flowers. Dark flowers do not show up as well.
  • Your local UF/IFAS Extension office can verify the reliability of a plant in your county (http://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/find-your-local-office/).

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Chaplin, L. T., and M. M. Brandies. 1998. The Florida Gardener’s Book of Lists. Dallas, TX: Taylor Publishing.

Dehgan, B. 1998. Landscape Plants for Subtropical Climates. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

UF/IFAS. 2010. The Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ Guide to Plant Selection & Landscape Design. https://ffl.ifas.ufl.edu/pdf/FYN_Plant_Selection_Guide_2015.pdf

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

The author wishes to thank Ed Thralls, horticulture agent, UF/IFAS Extension Orange County, for reviewing this publication and Wendy Wilber, coordinator, Florida Master Gardener Program, for her contributions.

TABLES

Table 1. 

Selected shade-tolerant plants for north (N), central (C), and south (S) Florida.

PlantRegion
Turf
St. Augustinegrass dwarf cultivars (‘Sapphire’, ‘Seville’, ‘Delmar’, and ‘Captiva’)NCS
Zoysiagrass cultivars (e.g., ‘Empire’)NC
CentipedegrassN
Small trees (under 30′)
Devil’s walkingstick (Aralia spinosa)*NC
Dahoon holly (Ilex cassine)*NCS
Dogwood (Cornus florida)*NC
Pond apple (Annona glabra)*S
Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia)*NC
Redbud (Cercis canadensis)*NC
Silverbell (Halesia spp.)*N
Snowbell (Styrax americanus)*NCS
Sparkleberry (Vaccinium arboreum)*NC
Spicewood (Calyptranthes pallens)*S
Swamp dogwood (Cornus foemina)*NCS
Walter’s viburnum (Viburnum obovatum)*NCS
Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria)*NCS
Palms/cycads
Bamboo palm (Chamadorea spp.)CS
Blue-stem/dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor)*NCS
Coontie (Zamia floridana)*NCS
Formosa palm (Arenga engleri)CS
Lady palm (Rhapis excelsa)CS
Needle palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix)*NCS
Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens)*NCS
Shrubs
Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum)*NC
Azalea (Rhododendron cultivars)NC
Aucuba (Aucuba japonica)NC
Anise—Florida (Illicium floridanum)*NCS
Anise—yellow (Illicium parviflorum)NCS
Banana shrub (Magnolia figo)NC
Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)*NCS
Camellia (C. japonica, C. sasanqua)NC
Cleyera (Ternstroemia gymnanthera)NC
Crape jasmine/Pinwheel jasmine (Tabernaemontana divaricata)CS
Dwarf schefflera (Schefflera arboricola)CS
Dwarf Walter’s viburnum (Viburnum obovatum– dwarf cultivars)*NCS
Fatsia (Fatsia japonica)NCS
Firebush (Hamelia patens)*NCS
Florida azalea (Rhododendron austrinum)*N
Gallberry (Ilex glabra)*NCS
Gardenia (Gardenia augusta)NCS
Hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla)NC
Mahonia (Mahonia fortunei)NC
Marlberry (Ardisia escallonioides)*CS
Myrsine (Rapanea punctata)*S
Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia)*NC
Fetterbush (Lyonia lucida)*NCS
Pinxter azalea (Rhododendron canescens)*NC
Pipestem (Agarista populifolia)*NC
Sandankwa viburnum (Viburnum suspensum)NCS
Scorpion tail (Heliotropium angiospermum)*NCS
Simpson’s stopper (Myrcianthes fragrans)*NCS
Snailseed (Cocculus laurifolius)CS
Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia)NC
Strawberry bush (Euonymus americanus)*NC
String lily (Crinum americanum)*NCS
Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus)*NC
Tea olive (Osmanthus fragrans)NC
Umbrella sedge (Cyperus alternifolius)NCS
Virginia willow (Itea virginica)*NC
Walter’s viburnum (Viburnum obovatum)*NC
Wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera)*NCS
Wild coffee (Psychotria nervosa)*CS
Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)*NC
Yesterday, today and tomorrow (Brunsfelsia spp.)NCS
Ornamental Grasses
River oats (Chasmanthium latifolium)*NC
Ferns
Autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrsora)NCS
Chain ferns (Woodwardia spp.)*NCS
Cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea)*NCS
Hart’s tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium)NC
Holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum)NCS
Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’)N
Leather fern (Acrostichum danaeifolium)CS
Leatherleaf fern (Rumohra adiantiformis)CS
Southern shield fern (Thelypteris kunthii)*NCS
Royal fern (Osmunda regalis)*NCS
Southern woods fern (Dryopteris normalis)*NCS
Sword ferns (Nephrolepis biserrata and N. exaltata)*CS
Swamp fern (Blechnum serrulatum)*NCS
Silver-leaf brake fern (Pteris ensiformia ‘Victoriae’)CS
Virginia chain fern (Woodwardia virginica)*NCS
Groundcovers
African hosta (Drimiopsis maculata)NCS
Algerian ivy (Hedera canariensis)CS
Artillery fern (Pilea microphylla)CS
Asiatic jasmine (Trachelospermum asiaticum)NCS
Aztec grass (Ophiopogon intermedius)NCS
Lilyturf (Liriope spp.)NCS
Carpet bugleweed (Ajuga reptans)N
Cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior)NCS
Creeping yew (Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Prostrata’)CS
Florida violets (Viola spp.)NCS
Mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus)NCS
Periwinkle (Vinca minor)CS
Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum)CS
Strawberry begonia (Saxifraga stolonifera)NCS
Swedish ivy (Plectranthus verticillatus)CS
Turtle vine/Bolivian Jew (Callisia repens)CS
* Native Florida plant

Table 2. 

Colorful annuals and perennials.

Common nameScientific name
BegoniasBegonia spp.
BromeliadsAechmea, Bilbergia, and Neoregelia spp.
Blood lilyHaemanthus multiflorus
Blue gingerDichorisandra thyrsiflora
Blue sageEranthemum pulchellum
Butterfly gingersHedychium spp.
CaladiumCaladium x hortulanum
Charmed wineOxalis ‘Charmed Wine’
ColeusSolenostemon scuttellarioides
CrossandraCrossandra infundibuliformis
FirespikeOdontonema strictum
Dancing girl gingerGlobba bulbifera
Ground orchidSpathoglottis spp.
HostasHosta hybrids, such as ‘Sunhosta’, ‘Royal Standard’, ‘Elegans’, ‘Patriot’, and ‘Frances Williams’
ImpatiensImpatiens spp.
JacobiniaJusticia carnea
Jewels of OparTalinum paniculatum ‘Variegata’
Kaffir lilyClivia miniata
Leopard plantFarfugium japonicum
Nun’s orchidPhaius tankervilliae
Ornamental sweet potatoIpomoea batatas
Peacock gingersKaempferia spp.
Persian shieldStrobilanthes dyerianus
Polka dot plantHypoestes phyllostachya
Red flame ivyHemigraphis alternata
SancheziaSanchezia nobilis
Shell gingerAlpinia zerumbet
Toad liliesTricyrtis spp.
Walking irisesNeomarica spp.
Wishbone flowerTorenia fournieri
Yellow shrimp plantPachystachys lutea

Table 3. 

Assorted foliage plants (houseplants) for south Florida and cold-protected areas of central Florida.

Common nameScientific name
Chinese evergreenAglaonema spp.
Amazon lilyEucharis amazonica
AnthuriumAnthurium spp.
AraliaPolyscias spp.
CalatheaCalathea spp.
Ti plantCordyline spp.
DumbcaneDieffenbachia spp.
DracaenaDracaena spp.
False araliaDizygotheca elegantissima
Prayer plantMaranta spp.
Peace lilySpathiphyllum spp.
PhilodendronPhilodendron spp. and hybrids
Snake plantSansevieria
TriostarStromanthe sanguinea ‘Triostar’
ZZ plantZamioculcas zamiifolia

FOOTNOTES

1. This document is ENH1196, one of a series of the Environmental Horticulture Department, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date February 2012. Revised October 2015 and October 2018. Visit the EDIS website at https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.2. Sydney Park Brown, associate professor emerita; UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.

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