Shade Trees and Shade-Tolerant Shrubs

Shade Trees and Shade-Tolerant Shrubs

Towering pines, sturdy evergreens and majestic oaks do more than beautify landscapes. Strategically placed, trees of all kinds can provide a cooling effect and reduce home energy use by up to 30 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. “From my experience, southeast exposures seem to be the warmer rooms in the home, so shade trees can help provide filtered light and cooling for them,” says Stephanie Tuite, of Sill, Adcock & Associates,, a land development and surveying firm based in Ellicott City, Md.

Trees offer other environmental benefits, too, reducing air pollution, improving soil and water quality and increasing curb appeal. “Studies have also found that homes with large trees on the property can fetch 10 to 15 percent more than homes without trees,” says Mark Schisler, president of Legacy Landscapes, Inc.,, in Marietta.


Choosing shade trees

To take advantage of energy savings, shade trees must be planted in the right location. “When planting, it is important to think long-term and allow room for canopy and roots to spread,” says Thomas Heaviland, of Heaviland Enterprises, Inc.,, a landscape maintenance company in Vista, Calif. “Be aware of roof lines, power lines, concrete patios and walkways.”

Yard and site conditions are also important to consider when choosing shade trees. “For example, a dogwood or crepe myrtle might provide adequate shade for a small patio, but a red oak or yellowwood might be a better tree to shade a home to the West- or South-facing walls,” says Schisler.

Tuite offers these recommendations for trees that can help shield your home from the sun as well as beautify your landscape:
•    Red maple One of the most versatile trees since they can take just about any location, wet or dry. Although not the showiest of trees, they have a subtle red tone when they bud in the spring and festive red leaves in the fall. They grow quite large, so plant a minimum of 20 feet from the house.
•    Purple-leaf plum A shade tree on the smaller side. In the spring, it has pink flowers and in the fall, red-purple leaves arrive to complement the bark. A fast-growing tree, they can provide shade within about five years.
•    Natchez crepe myrtle A common favorite that grows best in the South. It can reach 20 to 30 feet, flowering from mid-summer to fall with white clusters of flowers and brown fruit, which will persist through the winter.
•    Dogwood Place among larger trees, as they appear in nature. They are easy to maintain and can be planted as close as 10 to 15 feet from the house.

Planting tips

Spring and fall are better times to plant due to cooler temperatures and because less watering is required during establishment. If you plant in the summertime, watering should be done in the early morning or late evening. Watering in mid-day heat can cause leaves to be scorched.
When it comes time to plant a tree, the hole should be dug about twice the size of the root ball or container to give roots room to grow. Place rocks in the bottom of the hole to allow water to drain from the roots—because although trees love water, they do not like to sit in it.

Soil content can impact the success of newly planted trees. Some trees prefer low-pH, acidic soils while others take to higher pH, alkaline soils. For this reason, it is always a good idea to add some topsoil or compost to the soil in areas that contain less suitable soils, like clay or rocky soils.

Care and maintenance

For newly planted trees, watering should be more frequent, keeping the soil moist but not wet. Add mulch around trees to help retain moisture. “Keeping approximately three inches of natural mulch over the root zone of trees is very important, as mulch helps to conserve moisture and insulate the roots from temperature extremes,” says Dixie Speck, president of Solterra Landscape,, in Atlanta.

In moderation, fertilizing is a good way to help trees get established. Over-fertilizing, however, can be more detrimental than not fertilizing at all. Make sure to keep trees trimmed to help prevent branches from drooping or snapping and to control the shape of the tree. Staking can prevent trees from blowing over in heavy wind and train them to grow.

Keep in mind that if you are planting for energy savings or shade, this will happen over time and won’t be instantaneous. It could take a few years to see significant impacts, but the benefit is well worth it. “As for personal experience, I planted a shade tree outside the enclosed porch of my first home—it was an old farmhouse—and after three years’ growth the tree created enough shade that I no longer needed the window AC unit in that room to keep it comfortable,” says Eric King, owner of King Landscaping, LLC,, in Sandy Springs.

Shade-Loving Shrubs

Add these plant species to a landscape with good tree cover
When a tree is planted, a new habitat is created, not only for birds and wildlife, but also for shade-tolerant shrubs that thrive underneath the canopy. Here are some species to consider:

hydrangeas hostas arrowwood-viburnum
Hydrangeas produce striking blooms even if exposed to filtered light and not in deep shade. A lot of varieties will change color depending on the acidity or alkalinity of the soil. Some varieties even provide flowering blooms into the fall. Average size is about five feet in width and height. Hostas are a perennial shrub that do great in the shade and can still maintain their dual-tone leaves. When planted in areas like the South, where winters are less severe, they may not die back for the winter. They can range in size from one foot to five feet, depending on the variety.
Arrowwood viburnum can tolerate partial shade when planted even though it can be found in deep woods naturally. Can be quite showy with its creamy white flowers in the late spring and dark-blue fruit in the late summer. This is a larger shrub, at six to 12 feet.  
Oregon-grape-holly Hummingbird-sage Mondo-grass
Oregon grape holly is a smaller shrub, ranging from three to six feet, that can grow in full shade. It is evergreen and has the typical holly leaves but takes on a purplish tone in the late fall and winter. Always an ornamental addition to the landscape, it has fragrant bright flowers in mid-spring and black grape-like fruit in the summer. Hummingbird sage is a type of salvia that can grow up to two feet tall as it spreads over the ground. Its showy, deep-rose-pink flowers grow on 30-inch flower stalks. It attracts lots of butterflies and pollinators and does very well in the dry shade of oaks.
A heavy shade-loving groundcover like Mondo grass fills in areas fast and also is low maintenance. Its dark-green leaves are 20-40 centimeters long, while its flowers range from white to pale lilac. This hardy plant is an evergreen, thriving even in cold temperatures.

Sources: Adam Ardoin, Landscape Studio,; 
Thomas Heaviland, Heaviland Enterprises, Inc.; Rick Kaldrovics, Outside Landscape Group,; Stephanie Tuite, Sill, Adcock & Associates.




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