Garden ideas for yards with patchy sunlight

blooming rhododendrons at the edge of a lawn
Jamie Hooper/Shutterstock

If you dream of strolling through your own large flower garden but think your yard is too shady, think again. It’s true that sunlight is one of the basic elements that all plants need to survive. It’s also true that shade from trees and buildings means less sunlight for plants. But by observing your yard and choosing the right kinds of plants, your goal may be within reach.

Find the sun

Keep in mind that the sun does not stand still. Sunlight angles change as the sun tracks across the sky during the course of the day and throughout the seasons due to the Earth’s tilt. If your yard has patchy sunlight, pay close attention to those sunny patches. Add up the total hours of direct sunlight that each patch receives throughout the day during the growing season. Some spaces may receive more direct sunlight than you think.

The effect of sunlight on plants is cumulative. A spot that gets three hours of sunlight in the early morning and three hours in the afternoon should be counted as getting six hours of direct sunlight. That spot may be suitable for a full-sun plant.

Plants are labeled according to their suitability for sun exposure. A good rule of thumb is that areas with zero to three hours of direct sunlight is suitable for shade plants. Three to six hours of sun is good for plants labeled partial sun or partial shade. More than six hours of direct sunlight is ideal for full-sun plants.

Choose plants that thrive in less light

There are numerous annual and perennial flowers, as well as vegetables and herbs, that are thrifty when it comes to sunlight.

Annual flowers provide a steady profusion of blooms throughout the growing season. Because they complete their life cycle in a single season, annuals are best used to highlight the landscape in strategically placed beds along walkways or near entrances. Low to medium light annual flowers include Impatiens, begonia, torenia, bacopa, and fuchsia. Coleus and caladium provide colorful foliage for an accent to annual flowers in the shade.

Perennial flowers bloom during a short portion of the growing season. Unlike annuals, these plants grow back from the root year after year. They are suitable for mass plantings and focal points throughout the landscape. For the most powerful impact, plant a mix of perennials that bloom at different times of the growing season. Each different species shines during its limited bloom time before fading into the background when another species begins to bloom. Some of the most popular flowering perennials for low to moderate sunlight include hosta, astilbe, polygonatum, aconitum, epimedium, hellebore, tiarella, and many more.

If you’re into edibles, there are numerous veggies and herbs that tolerate lower-light conditions, as well. Leafy greens of all kinds, including lettuce, kale, and spinach grow just fine in dappled light, as are most root veggies like carrots, beets, onions, and sweet potatoes. All of the most popular culinary herbs can tolerate filtered outdoor light, so don’t be afraid to try basil, cilantro, oregano, chives, parsley, sage, and others. Be sure to allow the full amount of air (and light) space between plants, as noted on seed packets and plant labels.

Shady lawn bordered with perennials
Joanne Dale/Shutterstock

Look for lawn replacements

Lawn grass does not love shade. Grasses recede as tree canopies expand. Areas in the shadows of buildings easily become problematic patches of bare soil. Shade-tolerant grasses require at least three hours of direct sunlight or dappled sunlight throughout the day. If grass won’t grow, there are other options. Low-growing, evergreen ground covers like dwarf ophiopogon, ajuga, mazus, and sagina perform well in low light and tolerate a little foot traffic. In high-traffic areas, use stepping stones, gravel, or wood chips to create pathways.

Prune large trees

Sometimes, it is appropriate to prune the canopy of a large tree in order to let in more sunlight. Topping large trees is unsightly and counterproductive as it stimulates dense growth at the branch tips, ultimately creating deeper shade and a top-heavy, unstable branch structure. Technical pruning, on the other hand, is a way to thin the canopy in order to allow air and sunlight penetration while maintaining the structural integrity of the tree. If your garden includes mature shade trees with dense canopies, consult a certified arborist for professional advice on how best to care for them.

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