Although a plant at the garden store may be labeled for shade, its important to understand that there are two kinds of shade. This segment gives tips on which plants work best when competing with tree roots, or shade from your home.

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All Shade is Not Equal

It’s very important for homeowners to understand that they have two kinds of shade. All shade is not created equal in their yard. They may have shade on the north side of the house from a physical structure – a fence or a garage. Or, they may have shade under a very large, giant shade tree – where the sun can’t penetrate all the way underneath.

What we find, is that the same plant, planted here will grow two to three times larger in this low light than it will under a shade tree – even though the amount of light is exactly the same (or the amount of shade). The reason for that is that houses don’t have roots, and trees do. That may sound very simplistic, but if you stop to think that trees have a giant root system that out competes any flower, for both water and nutrients. And, the tree gets all the sunlight that it wants.

On the other hand, the flowers are dealing with reduced sunlight. It all adds up to a double or triple whammy – so the plants struggle. As you can see from these impatiens, that without the root competition, they’ll get very large and just bloom magnificently. This is quite the color show.

Most plants are labeled sun or shade. But you really need to know if it’s shade with or without root competition. Because different plants do better in either location. Impatiens or most of our coleus, with the colored leaves, prefer not to have the root competition. They’ll do well, but they’ll do better if they don’t have to compete with the roots.

Plants like hostas grow in the shade well, and we rely on the color of the leaves for interest. They’ll take the root competition from a shade tree. So we typically recommend plants like hostas, some ferns, coral-bells, and eucharis for tree root competion. And, we’re relying on colored foliage. However, flowering plants really should be in shade without the root competition.

This feature story prepared with Alan Stevens, Kansas State University Research and Extension, Retired, Horticulture. For more information, visit your local county extension office or visit our website at

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