Vine Plants As Shade Cover: Creating Shade With Vining Plants

Vine Plants As Shade Cover: Creating Shade With Vining Plants

By: Darcy Larum, Landscape Designer

Trees are not the only plants that can be used to shade hot, sunny areas in the summer. Structures like pergolas, arbors, and green tunnels have been used for centuries to hold up vines that create shade. Vines trained up trellises and as espaliers create living walls that shade and cool from the hot, summer sun. Read more to learn about using vine plants as shade cover.

Creating Shade with Vining Plants

When using vines for shade, it’s important to first decide what kind of structure you will be using for the vine to grow upon. Vines, like climbing hydrangea and wisteria, can become woody and heavy and will need the strong support of a pergola or arbor. Annual and perennial vines, such as morning glory, black-eyed susan vine, and clematis, can be grown up smaller, weaker supports like bamboo or willow whip green tunnels.

It is also important to know a vine’s growing habit to match the correct vine with the support it needs. Vines grow up things usually either by twining around a structure or attaching to the structure by aerial roots. Vines with aerial roots can easily climb up bricks, masonry, and wood. Twining vines usually need to be trained on trellises or as espaliers to grow up solid walls.

The terms pergola and arbor are often used interchangeably, though they are different things. Originally, the term arbor was used to define an archway created by living trees, but in modern days we call that a green tunnel. Green tunnel is a term used to describe a walkway shaded by living trees trained in an arching habit, or tunnels made from willow whips or bamboo that vines are grown upon. An arbor is usually used to describe a small structure built for vines to climb over an entryway.

Pergolas are structures built to shade walkways or sitting areas and are built with strong vertical posts, usually made of wood, bricks, or concrete pillars; these vertical beams support an open, airy roof created from crossbeams spaced evenly apart. Sometimes, pergolas are built to extend out from a house or building to shade a patio or deck. Pergolas are also used over walkways between buildings or terraces.

Vine Plants as Shade Cover

There are many vines to pick from when creating shade with vining plants. Annual and perennial vines can quickly cover a lightweight structure, creating blossom covered shade. For instance, a friend of mine creates an inexpensive shade covering for her deck by running twine from the deck posts to the roof of her house and planting morning glory every spring to climb up the deck and twine. Good choices for these include:

  • Morning glory
  • Sweet pea
  • Black-eyed susan vine
  • Hops
  • Clematis

Woody vines can create shade on heavy-duty structures, for many years. Choose from any of the following:

  • Climbing hydrangea
  • Wisteria
  • Honeysuckle vine
  • Climbing roses
  • Grapevine
  • Trumpet vine

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Read more about Ornamental Vines General Care

Best Vines to Grow on Pergolas and Arbors

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Now that you've built a pergola over your patio or an arbor in your garden, it's time to select the perfect vines to climb and decorate your overhead structure. In addition to providing shade, vines emphasize the shape of a pergola or arbor, whether it's arched, flat, or some other configuration. Living, growing greenery can also soften a structure.

Know that these vines are easy to grow, like full sun, and are drought tolerant once they are established. A bonus: some produce pretty, colorful flowers and a nice fragrance.


Rockapulco® Appleblossom double impatiens. Photo by: Proven Winners

Everyone’s favorite bedding plant, impatiens (Impatiens walleriana) can be used for mass planting in the landscape, or quick color spots for your planters and window boxes, and you can be assured of plenty of compliments—and blooms. Double-flowered varieties such as Rockapulco® Appleblossom (pictured) have the appearance of exquisite miniature roses.

For brighter areas, consider the New Guinea impatiens (Impatiens hawkeri) such as Infinity® Salmon. These have larger flowers and bolder leaves. New Guinea impatiens generally do best with afternoon shade in hotter climates but can tolerate full sun where temperatures are more moderate. Seek advice from your local nursery to make the best selection for your area.

Height/Spread: 10 to 20 inches tall and 1 to 2 feet wide

Glory Lemon Rieger begonia. Photo By: Proven Winners

Think of shade-loving flowers, and begonias are likely to be high on your list. There are so many different types to choose from: the frilly, double blooms of Nonstop® begonias, the compact Rieger begonias, the more tubular flower forms and elongated foliage of Begonia bolivienisis and its hybrids, and more. All begonias combine well with other shade-loving plants or can look spectacular as a solo planting.

Compact wax leaf begonias have been popular for decades as bedding annuals, while newer varieties have improved form and sun tolerance. Also with a waxy leaf, Dragon wing begonias are superb short trailers or mounders, useful both for the landscape or in baskets and planters.

Be careful not to overwater as begonias can be susceptible to mildew.

Height/Spread: Varies considerably with species.

Nonstop® begonias to try: Nonstop series
Rieger begonias to try: Glory Lemon, Solenia Apricot
Boliviensis begonias and hybrids to try: Summerwings Vanilla, Bossa Nova Pure White
Dragon wing begonias to try: Dragon Wing series
Wax leaf begonias to try: Surefire® series

Endless™ Illumination bush violet. Photo by: Proven Winners

Gaining recognition at last and offering an alternative to impatiens, browallia has flowers in shades of periwinkle blue, white or violet set on compact, mounding plants. Since this does not need deadheading and blooms throughout the season, it offers the shade gardener another easy-care addition for baskets and planters.

Height/Spread: 12 to 16 inches tall and 10 to 14 inches wide

Laguna® Compact Blue with Eye lobelia. Photo by: Proven Winners

Victorian gardens really put lobelia (Lobelia erinus) on the gardening map with their patriotic displays, combining dark blue lobelia with red geraniums and white alyssum. Today’s varieties withstand the mid-summer heat and sun much better than their older cousins yet still perform well in partial shade.

Varieties are available that remain compact or have a short trailing habit ideal for container edges, and bloom in shades of white, blue or lavender.

Lobelia is deer resistant and does not need deadheading.

Height/Spread: 6 to 12 inches tall and 10 to 24 inches wide depending on variety

Compact lobelias to try: Laguna® Compact Blue with Eye
Trailing lobelias to try: Laguna® White, Techno® Dark Blue

Catalina® Pink wishbone flower. Photo by: Proven Winners

Once you try wishbone flower (Torenia fournieri and hybrids), you will always include them in your shade containers. The multi-colored, snapdragon-type flowers are prolific in partial shade and combine well with other annuals. They are best placed at the edge of a container or basket as these are considered short trailers, making them especially well-suited to containers where long trailing stems are not desirable.

The variety Catalina® Midnight Blue is especially effective in combination with orange Bonfire begonia.

Wishbone flower is deer resistant and heat tolerant. It is also considered low maintenance, so deadheading isn't necessary.

Height/Spread: 8 to 16 inches tall and 8 to 10 inches wide

Wishbone flowers to try: Catalina® series

Woodland tobacco. Photo by: Gurcharan Singh

Fragrant, deer-resistant, and surprisingly drought tolerant, woodland tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris) is a show-stopping annual that often self-sows. Its 4-5’ tall stems support clusters of tubular white flowers that are favored by hummingbirds. While these annuals can be grown in full sun, intense heat can cause the large leaves to wilt. Bright, dappled shade such as under deciduous trees or at least some protection from hot afternoon sun offers the ideal conditions.

In average, moisture-retentive soil these rarely need supplemental water once roots have become well established. Woodland tobacco will often self-sow and the seedlings can be transplanted if desired while still small.

Height/Spread: 4 to 6 feet tall, 2 to 3 feet wide

Try: Only the Lonely

'Lena' trailing fuchsia. Photo by: Proven Winners

Whether you prefer single or double blooms, a trailing, upright, or compact habit, pastel shades or rich jewel tones, there is sure to be a fuchsia that is perfect for your design. There are even a few with attractive variegated foliage, such as Firecracker.

Be careful not to allow the plants to dry out and remove the seed pod that resembles a glossy purple cherry after the petals fall to encourage more flowers. Otherwise these are easy care annuals that will reward you with bountiful blooms in the shade while hummingbirds will enjoy the tubular bells of any color.

Fuchsias are frost-tender perennials, but are most often grown as annuals.

Height/Spread: 4 to 30 inches tall and 10 to 30 inches wide depending upon variety

Trailing fuchsias to try: 'Swingtime', 'Lena', Autumnale
Upright fuchsias to try: Firecracker, 'Dollar Princess', Windchimes®, Shadow Dancers® Betty


Proven Accents® Pink Chablis®. Photo by Proven Winners.

Deadnettle (Lamium) is an easy care, reliable groundcover that’s grown for its attractive multi-seasonal foliage and spring-blooming flowers of pink, white, or lavender. The light-colored silver, white, yellow, or variegated foliage is effective for brightening deeply shaded areas. This deciduous or semi-evergreen perennial thrives in a wide range of conditions, though it does best with partial to full shade and well-amended soil. This creeping groundcover fills in quickly and can grow in difficult sites such as under trees or in dry shade, providing a carpet of color throughout the growing season. Grow on a slope, in larger areas in need of quick-growing vegetation, at the front of a mixed border, or in containers.


3 inches to 2 feet tall, 3 feet wide or greater


Plants to Try:

Proven Accents® Pink Chablis®, ‘White Nancy’, ‘Golden Anniversary’, ‘Beacon Silver’, ‘Chequers’.

‘Cutting Edge’ foamflower. Photo by Proven Winners.

Foamflower (Tiarella), a classic woodland plant indigenous to North America, makes a welcome addition to any native garden. The delicate habit of this dainty semi-evergreen perennial belies its toughness and reliability. Grown for its frothy flowers that bloom over an exceptionally long time, the heart-shaped, lobed leaves in various patterns provide color year-round in milder regions. Foamflower tolerates deep shade, but performs best with dappled light that simulates their native woodland habitat. Plant in containers, rock gardens, or massed as a groundcover. Combine with other spring bloomers such as violets, Siberian bugloss (Brunnera), creeping phlox, and bleeding heart.


8 to 12 inches tall, 1 to 2 feet wide


Plants to Try:

‘Cutting Edge’, ‘Crow Feather’, ‘Jeepers Creepers’, ‘Neon Lights’, ‘Pink Skyrocket’.

‘Bertram Anderson’ lungwort. Photo by Janet Loughrey.

One of the most welcome sights in spring is the delightful flowers and foliage of lungwort (Pulmonaria). Among the earliest perennials to bloom, the showy flowers—in shades of blue, pink, coral, and white—emerge simultaneously with the attractive green, spotted or silver foliage that grows ever larger as the season progresses. This woodland favorite prefers rich soil and regular moisture, performing well even in boggy sites. Combine with bleeding heart, hosta and spring-flowering bulbs for an uplifting display after the long, cold winter.


6 to 12 inches tall, 1 to 2 feet wide


Plants to Try:

‘Dark Vader’, ‘Raspberry Splash’, ‘Bertram Anderson’, ‘Sissinghurst White’.

‘Bridal Veil’ astilbe. Photo by Sylvain Marineau / Millette Photomedia.

Astilbe is a favorite of gardeners for its showy flower plumes that appear in summer after many other woodland plants are finished blooming. The flowers of this deciduous perennial occur in hues of violet, pink, white and red, blooming above the delicate ferny foliage, making this a real standout in the woodland garden. Astilbe prefers rich soil that stays constantly moist, and blooms best with part-day sun. Mass as a ground cover in a woodland garden or shade border, or plant in containers. Combine with ferns, coral bells and hostas.


1 to 4 feet tall and wide


Plants to Try:

‘Sprite’, ‘Visions’, ‘Bridal Veil’, ‘Ostrich Plume’.

Invincibelle Wee White® smooth hydrangea. Photo by Proven Winners.

Hydrangea is one of the most revered garden plants, an old-fashioned favorite that blooms in summer and fall. This deciduous shrub comes in a wide range of species and forms, from the most popular mopheads (H. macrophylla) to hardy peegees (H. paniculata). Most prefer regular water and rich amended soil, though oakleaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia) is drought-tolerant in some areas once established. Flowers are blue, white, purple, pink or red, with some having variable color according to soil pH. Plant in a mixed border, as a stand-alone accent, or as screening along a property border. Smaller specimens can be planted in containers. Hydrangeas do prefer more bright shade than deep shade.


2 to 20 feet tall, 5 to 10 feet wide


Plants to Try:

Common foxglove. Photo by Janet Loughrey.

Foxglove (Digitalis) is a classic cottage-style favorite, grown for its statuesque spires of bell-shaped flowers that bloom in late spring and summer. The most common garden forms are biennial (D. purpurea), producing flowers in their second year. These self-sow readily for years of subsequent bloom, making them useful to fill in gaps. Other perennial species are a good choice for a mixed border. Foxgloves prefer rich, moist soil and bloom best when receiving at least part-day sun. Plant along a slope or naturalize in a woodland setting, cottage-style garden, or wildflower meadow.


3 to 8 feet tall, 1 to 3 feet wide


Plants to Try:

Common foxglove (D. purpurea), strawberry foxglove (D. xmertonensis), rusty foxglove (D. ferruginea), sunset foxglove (D. obscura).

Japanese primrose. Photo by Janet Loughrey.

A sure sign of spring, primrose (Primula) is a welcome sight after a long, cold winter. The best known variety, English primrose (P. vulgaris), appears in garden centers in early spring with cheerful hues of blue, pink, red, yellow and orange. There are dozens of other garden-worthy species, all of which perform best in cooler climates. Primroses prefer rich, well-draining soil, regular water and partial sun to deep shade, though alpine types can tolerate more light and dryer conditions. They combine well with many other woodland plants, including ferns, hosta, iris and bleeding heart. Naturalize in a woodland setting, plant at the front of a mixed border, or in containers.


3 inches to 4 feet tall, 4 inches to 3 feet wide


Plants to Try:

Japanese primrose (P. japonica), candelabra primrose (P. beesiana), drumstick primrose (P. denticulata), cowslip (P. veris).

Infinity® Pink Frost New Guinea impatiens. Photo by Proven Winners.

A top choice of gardeners for shade bedding plants are impatiens (Impatiens walleriana), valued for their nonstop bloom from late spring through frost. These tropical annuals come in a wide array of colors and are fast-growing, quickly filling in large areas. Impatiens prefer rich, well-draining soil, regular water, and are relatively low maintenance, requiring no deadheading. In recent years, downy mildew has become a greater problem, so other disease-resistant forms such as New Guinea impatiens and SunPatiens® offer a viable substitute. Breeders are working to develop other mildew-resistant forms, which will soon become available to home gardeners. Mass in beds, plant at the front of a border, or in containers.


1 to 3 feet tall and wide


Plants to Try:

‘Gold Heart’ old-fashioned bleeding heart. Photo by Proven Winners.

Few shade flowers rival the romance and intrigue of bleeding heart (Lamprocapnos syn. Dicentra spectabilis). The white, pink, or red heart-shaped flowers are borne on arching stems above fern-like leaves. The most commonly grown variety of this deciduous perennial is L. spectabilis (syn. Dicentra spectabilis), a spring ephemeral that dies back in summer. Plant these alongside hosta or other bold-leafed plants that will grow up and cover the dying foliage. Bleeding heart grows best in rich, well-draining soil with regular moisture. For longer-lasting plants, the foliage and flowers of fringed bleeding heart (D. eximia) or western bleeding heart (D. formosa) will last into fall with regular watering. Grow in a woodland setting with other shade lovers, or in a container as a dramatic focal point.


6 inches to 3 feet tall, 1 to 3 feet wide


Plants to Try:

Hellebore hybrid. Photo by Janet Loughrey.

Hellebores (Helleborus) are coveted by avid gardeners for their exceptionally long bloom time, cup-shaped flowers and attractive evergreen foliage. Christmas rose (H. niger) is the first to bloom, beginning in December in milder regions, hence its name. Thanks to recent breeding breakthroughs, the most commonly grown species (H. xhybridus)—which blooms from late winter into spring—comes in a dizzying array of colors and patterns. These tough plants prefer rich, well-draining soil, tolerate varying light conditions, and are virtually carefree once established. Naturalize in a woodland setting, plant in front of a mixed border, or in containers. Combine with anemone, hosta, trillium and daffodils.


1 to 4 feet tall, 1 to 3 feet wide.


Plants to Try:

Stinking hellebore (H. foetidus), Corsican hellebore (H. argutifolius), Winter Jewels®, ‘Pink Frost’.

Vines for Shade

Tall trees and buildings can create shade. Planting a shady location requires plants adapted to growing without direct sunlight and tolerant of shade.

Shade-tolerant vines can be used on the north side of buildings they can also be grown on arbors, trellises, and fences under tall trees.

Many shade-tolerant vines are native to woodland regions where they have adapted to growing under the canopy of trees. These vines will do best in dappled shade, but most can grow in a full day of shade.

Choosing Vines for Shade

When choosing a vine for a shady location, answer the following: (1) will the vine grow and thrive in your region, growing zone? (2) what height and spread does the vine have? (3) will the vine self adhere to a trellis or surface–does it have tendrils or holdfasts, or will it require tying in place? (4) is the vine evergreen or deciduous if it’s deciduous when will it lose its foliage? (5) does the vine flower?

Climbing hydrangea

Prune Your Vines in Fall

After your vines have covered your arbor and produced fruit in late summer or fall, it helps next year’s crop if you prune your grape vines correctly. Allow long canes to continue covering your arbor, which will include more “buds” on each cane--this method of growing grape vines will result in slightly less fruit quality but will accomplish the goal of shading the area under your arbor. Always prune off small lateral canes and those that appear dead, diseased or broken. Because grape vines grow so long each year, you can prune your vines down to the main trunk, which is standard. You won’t have shade during the winter, but that can be a good thing if you enjoy outdoor living year-round--sitting under your arbor on a sunny winter day will be warmer than if you allowed your vines to cover the arbor.

Watch the video: How To Select Climbing Plants