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What Plants Grow Well in Shade in California

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As implausible as the notion may seem, not all of California basks in glorious sunshine year-round. Significant patches of land in the Golden State lie under dense canopies of tree limbs and foliage and receive minimal daily sunshine. Similarly, a lot of gardens and yards see little to no direct sunlight throughout much of the year. Fortunately, there are many plants that grow well in shade in California.

Many native California plants are well-adapted to growing and thriving in shade. In fact, there are over 500 such varieties of local vegetation including:

  • Perennials, like Blue Waterfall and Biokovo Geranium
  • Shrubs, including Evergreen Currant and Sweetbox
  • Grasses, such as California Fescue

California’s mild climate and abundant sunshine make for ideal conditions that open up the entire gardening playbook. However, not all outdoor areas in the Golden State receive natural sunlight and such spaces require a bit of forethought and planning. But with hundreds of viable options, shade gardening can transform an outdoor space, including its dark outer reaches. Here’s how.

What Plants Grow Well in Shade in California?

There are a number of circumstances that can result in a garden or yard being devoid of sunshine. For instance, the presence of tall trees with large canopies of branches and foliage (native California oak trees are a perfect example) can act as a very effective barrier against sunlight, allowing but a few rays to filter through to the ground below.

But as far as landscaping that is situated on private property, the lack of sunshine is typically the result of man-made conditions, such as:

  • Structures like houses, buildings, and walls, obstructing sunlight
  • Placement of gazebos, pergolas, and awnings that are specifically designed to create shady areas
  • Recreational equipment like play structures, trampolines, and sport-related paraphernalia that are semi-permanent
  • Large features serving ornamental or decorative purposes

Whatever the cause or reason for a lack of sunshine, affected areas need not be barren or devoid of plant life. On the contrary, there are a number of viable vegetation options, most of which are native to California and therefore perfectly suitable for growing in shaded areas. In fact, according to the California Native Plant Society, there are over 500 native plants that do well in shade. Here’s a sampling:

California Perennials that Grow Well in Shade

Because they live for more than two years, perennials are popular with gardeners. For shady areas, perennial plants are a great choice as once established, they require minimal maintenance, grow hardy root systems, and many are drought resistant as well. 

Here are some popular perennials worth considering for shady areas in your California garden:

Blue Waterfall (Campanula poscharskyana) – this perennial will add a great splash of color to any shady area with its bright blue bell-shaped flowers

Velvet Elvis (Plectranthus) – another brightly bloomed plant, this Swedish Ivy features purple flowers and sturdy purple-green foliage

Biokovo Geranium (Geranium x cantabrigiense) – with its delicate pink and white blooms and  foliage that changes colors with the seasons, this Geranium is not only well-suited for the dark recesses of your yard, it is also reputedly deer and gopher-resistant as well

Variegated Rock Campion (Silene uniflora) – this is another hardy perennial that despite its dainty white flowers and multi-colored leaves, is a rugged, low-maintenance plant that thrives in shady areas

These are but a few highlighted California perennials that grow well in shade. With dozens of other options, perennials are a very safe bet for sunlight-deprived areas of any garden.

California Shrubs that Grow Well in Shade

Shrubs are ideal for outdoor areas where the planting of trees may not be suitable. With their woody appearance and medium stature, these plants can lend a rustic, natural look to any landscape. Best of all for gardens with dark recesses, many shrubs are well-suited for shady areas, including these great choices:

  • Evergreen Currant (Ribes vibernafolium) – this native California shrub is short in stature but can cover an area up to eight feet wide making it a good option for filling up empty spaces in the shade
  • Japanese Pieris (Perris japonica) – growing as high as 12’ tall and up to 10’ wide, this plant provides dense vegetation with colorful blooms and dark green foliage
  • Sweetbox (Sarcococca) – this evergreen shrub with long pointy leaves seems to do better the darker the area that it is planted, although its highly fragrant flowers warrant planting it closer to frequently trafficked areas

For low-maintenance planting options in dark, shady areas, native California shrubs are a great choice for savvy gardeners who want the most bang for their gardening bucks.

Other California Plants that Grow Well in Shade

Aside from perennials and shrubs, there are a number of other suitable plants for shade gardening, which goes to show that just because an area of your garden or yard is lacking in sunlight does not mean that the options for planting there are limited as well. Here are a few examples that demonstrate the wide-open possibilities:

  • Grasses – with low water requirements and natural hardiness, grasses like Basket Rush (Juncus textilis), Berkeley Sedge (Carex tumulicola), and California Fescue (Festuca californica) are great options for planting in shady areas
  • Vines and ground coverings – low lying plants like vines and ground coverings are great options for shady areas and include the likes of California Grapes (Vitis californica), the Carmel Sur Manzanita (Arctostaphylos edmundsii), and the highly fragrant Star Jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides)

With such broad categories of shade-friendly plants, it is easy to see how there are hundreds of native California species to choose from for shade gardening projects. As yet another possibility, certain types of ferns like the Southern Sword Fern (Nephrolepsis cordifolia) are robust shade-growers and add a lush, tropical vibe to your outdoor space.

What You Need to Know About Shade Plants in California

As with many endeavors in life, knowledge is the key to success. Contrary to popular opinion, master gardeners are not blessed with the elusive gardening gene or born with a green thumb, their expertise is the result of diligent research and a good amount of elbow grease. When it comes to shade gardening, there are a few key things you need to know. First, we shed some light on shade itself.

There are Different Types of Shade for Plants

No matter what part of California your garden is situated in, there are nuances of shade that are important factors to consider when selecting shade plants.

One way to look at shade is by assessing how much direct sunlight a particular area receives throughout the day. In the case of ground that sits beneath a thick canopy of tree branches and leaves, or underneath a large awning or umbrella, this would be close to zero and would impact the types of shade plants that are suitable for planting there.

But an area that sits adjacent to a structure (e.g., a house or a fence), may receive limited sunshine during a particular time of day as the sun treks from east to west across the sky. There is also a difference between an area that is completely shielded from above versus an area that despite receiving little to no direct sunshine, is still exposed to open sky and therefore abundant natural light.

Shade-Friendliness is Only One Factor to Consider

Successfully establishing shade plants in shady areas is far more than just digging up the soil, plopping them in, watering them, and hoping for the best outcome. As with any type of vegetation, there are multiple factors that are involved and each must be considered in conjunction with, and not to the exclusion of, the others. These important factors include:

  • Amount of shade – full shade or partial shade
  • Temperature – frequency of >100°F or <32°F temperatures at the site
  • Elevation – above or below 5,000’ elevation
  • Soil composition – clay, sand, silt, and other types
  • Drainage quality – good (absorption into the soil within 10-15 minutes) or poor (drainage is too slow or too fast)

By incorporating a well-researched approach that takes into account the type and intensity of shade along with other factors, planting shade plants in your California garden turn should out to be a successful project.

Conclusion

The incredible diversity of native California plants that grow well in shade allows areas of a backyard once thought to be too dark to sustain vegetation to be dynamic outdoor displays of thriving plant life.

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Jena Slocum Co-Founder

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