Side yards can have confusing shade and sunlight patterns, creating native landscaping challenges. The area may be mostly shady with only a few hours of direct sunlight, which can perplex gardeners and make them wonder whether to plant sun- or shade-loving plants — or both.
The answer depends on how much direct sun you get.
If the side yard has fewer than three hours of direct sunlight (based on midsummer sunlight patterns), select open woodland species of plants such as purple coneflower, downy skullcap, red buckeye and palm sedge.
These plants are native to open woodlands (sometimes called savannas) where trees are widely spaced. These areas are mostly shady with shafts of direct sunlight shining on the ground in the gaps between big trees.
At home, you may be able to increase the amount of direct sunlight by limbing up the lower branches of large shade trees. If removal of tree branches doesn’t provide more direct sunlight, it will increase the amount of indirect (reflected) sunlight that comes into the garden from the sides. This is called high shade and will increase performance, making plants fuller and encouraging more flower and fruit production.
SHADE PICK: Red buckeye trees can stand in areas that see less light during the year.
There are many great plants for open-shade side yards. My favorites include Indian physic; goatsbeard; little-flower alumroot; American spikenard; garden phlox; zigzag spiderwort; Indian pink; round-leaved groundsel; Pennsylvania, cedar and oak sedge; wild geranium; rose turtlehead; purple milkweed; orange coneflower; cardinal flower; cliff goldenrod; purple daisy; and Solomon’s seal. All of these plants are tried-and-true performers for Missouri and are long-lived perennials or sedges.
Consider also adding small understory trees such as hop hornbeam; downy serviceberry; Ozark and common witch hazel; pagoda and flowering dogwood; wild plum; and rusty black haw. These are showy, flowering trees that look great positioned just outside a kitchen or living room window.
Shrubs such as spicebush, wild hydrangea, winterberry holly or beautyberry — and vines such as yellow honeysuckle, passion flower, cross vine and bittersweet — make nice additions to open-shade light conditions often found in side yards and, at times, front and back yards.
Incorporating perennials, sedges, shrubs, small flowering trees and canopy trees makes a balanced and visually attractive landscape design. For more ideas and inspiration, look for the Front Yard Formal (For Shade) sample landscape design at the Grow Native! website.
Horticulturist Scott Woodbury is the curator of the Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit, Mo. He also is an adviser to the Missouri Prairie Foundation’s Grow Native! program.