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Wednesday - June 12, 2013

From: Austin, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Planting, Soils, Herbs/Forbs, Shrubs, Trees
Title: Garden instructions from Austin
Answered by: Barbara Medford


I'm a beginning gardener putting in some new landscaping in my front yard in north central Austin, TX. The yard faces almost due east, so it gets full sun until early afternoon, when the house's shadow begins to creep across it. The areas closest to the house are shaded by 2 pm and the entire garden is shaded by 5 pm. To complicate things, part of the new garden is shaded by a large ash tree. The areas directly behind and behind and a little north of the tree get close to full shade even in the morning, while the middle part of the garden in in dappled shade until it's completely shadowed by the house later in the afternoon. Of course, these shady areas get full sun for more than half the day in the winter while the ash and a nearby red oak are bare. I'm looking for evergreen plants that can handle quite a bit of shade in the summer, but a good half day or more of sun in the winter. Ideally, I'd like a good-sized evergreen shrub up against the fence (the shadiest spot in the summer), something that will grow 4-6' tall. Abelia and Japanese Aralia have been suggested to me, but from what I've read, I'm afraid the Abelia may require too much sun and I've read of people having difficulty with Aralia (also, it's non-native). In front of the bush, I'd like some smaller plants (preferably evergreen perennials) with which to fill in the part shady/part sunny area. I'm considering things like cast iron plants, white and lavender trailing lantana, and Texas dwarf palmetto for the shadier areas, penstemon sage and pink skullcap for slightly sunnier areas, and red yucca for the area not shaded by tree. Do these seem like reasonable choices? Anything else you'd recommend instead of or in addition to these plants? I'm especially in need of help selecting the right shrub to plant against the fence. Thank you so much for your help!


To be honest, this is too long a question for us to answer adequately. However, we do like new gardeners so we are going to make some suggestions for reading, some ways to plan your area and how to search for plants that are right for your situation.

1. Your first problem is shade and tree roots. Begin by mapping the sunny and shady areas of your garden. Check for several days and in different areas. Our way of quantifying sun and shade is: "Sun" is 6 hours or more of sun a day, "part shade" is 2 to 6 hours of sun and "shade" is 2 hours or less of sun. Also remember that most tree roots are very close to the surface and will defend their turf. If your trees are valuable to you, don't mess with their roots. Be aware that the underground part of woody plants (the roots) extend out from two to three times the circumeference of the crown of the tree.

2. Your next problem is how to handle the areas under all that shade. Here are two previous Mr. Smarty Plants answers that say some of the same things and have links to other information:

From El Paso, TX

From Austin, TX

3. Don't insist on evergreen. There are a few shrubs and trees that are evergreen, but shade tolerant, very few. We will teach you how to use our Native Plant Database to find appropriate plants. If you add "evergreen" to your requirements, you will get few or no plants on your list.

Next, read these How-To Articles;

A Guide to Native Plant Gardening

Caring for Your New Native Plants

Now, we are going to introduce you to our Native Plant Database. To use as a model, we will search for the evergreen, 4-6 ft. shrub for shade that you mentioned for your fence. Scroll down the home page of the database and, using the Combination Search, select on Texas for the state, "shrub" for Habit, "dry" for Soil Moisture,  "shade" for Light Requirements, "evergreen" for Duration and 3-6 ft. for Height. We will check each plant we suggest with the USDA Plant Profile  (link at bottom of plant webpage) to make sure the plant grows naturally in or near Travis County. This is to try to find plants that work in your climate, soil and rainfall. You can  make subsequent searches on other Habits. After that you will know how to use our database and will be able to make searches on your own.

When we ran that search, we got one result: Sabal minor (Dwarf palmetto), which you had asked for. Here is the USDA Plant Profile for that plant, showing that it does indeed live in Travis County. We are going to cheat a little bit and give you the link to another shrub that fits those characteristics: Ilex vomitoria (Yaupon). USDA Plant Profile.

Now, we are going to give you a test, and give you links to the specific plants you mentioned in your question. The ones that are native, you can follow the link and read our webpage on that plant to see if it matches your specifications. The ones that are not native we will link you to information on that, as we recommend only plants native not only to North America but to the area in which those plants evolved.

Abelia - native to eastern Asia

Fatsiia japonica (Japanese aralia) - native to, well, Japan (Missouri Botanical Garden)

Aspidistra elatoir (cast iron plant) - native to Japan (Floridata)

Lantana - 4 native to Texas: Lantana achyranthifolia (Brushland shrubverbena), Lantana urticoides (Texas lantana), Lantana canescens (Hammock shrubverbena), Lantana velutina (Velvet shrubverbena). Pictures from our Image Gallery below, none that are blue.

Salvia pentstemonoides (Big red sage)

Pink skullcap - There are 15 members of the Scutellaria genus native to Texas; none are pink. There is a Scuttellaria suffrutescens called Pink skullcap, but it is not in our Native Plant Database.

Hesperaloe parviflora (Red yucca)

This concludes 2 semesters of Home Landscaping. Any further informaton you need you should be able to get from followng links and also using the Native Plant Database.


From the Image Gallery

Texas lantana
Lantana urticoides

Brushland shrubverbena
Lantana achyranthifolia

Hammock shrubverbena
Lantana canescens

Velvet shrubverbena
Lantana velutina

Big red sage
Salvia pentstemonoides

Red yucca
Hesperaloe parviflora

Dwarf palmetto
Sabal minor

Ilex vomitoria

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