9 Cool Ideas for Creating Shade

Spending time outside is generally good for you, even if you're just lazily lounging in your own backyard. The sun can also be a little overbearing at times, though, generating intense heat and harmful radiation that chases many people indoors on otherwise beautiful summer days.

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Made in the shade

Photo: Whytock/Shutterstock

We recently explained how to create a map of sunlight and shade patterns, mainly to optimize sun exposure for a garden or flower bed. Yet while sunlight offers obvious benefits for gardeners, a patch of shade can be hot real estate, too, for people as well as plants, pets and wildlife.

A sun map may reveal where shade already falls, cast by big obstructions like trees or buildings, but it's more useful for finding sunlight than avoiding it. That's because shade is often even easier to make than to map: It's as basic as blocking sunbeams to create dimmer, cooler conditions below.

Still, the ease of casting shade belies some aesthetic complexity. If shade is the only goal, you could use any random eyesore to obscure the sun. But for a shady oasis that looks good, lasts a while and doesn't cause new problems, you may want to start by shedding light on your options. To get ideas, check out the photos above for a few tips about throwing shade on summer heat.

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Bark up the right tree

Photo: Will Keightley/Flickr

Trees perform valuable services like limiting floods, controlling erosion, absorbing pollution and generating food. They also provide rejuvenating, mood-improving scenery, and their presence tends to increase property values. One of their simplest benefits, though, is just growing big enough to obscure the sun. Beyond creating outdoor oases for people, some trees grow so tall they shade entire buildings from summer heat, thus reducing the need for air-conditioning.

Newly planted trees will need time before they can cast much shade, but as Derek Markham points out at Treehugger, some grow up more quickly than others. And since "most of us are very impatient," he writes, "one of the most common requirements that people have in choosing varieties is that they be fast-growing shade trees."

Markham lists a few popular examples, including American sycamore, hybrid poplar, northern catalpa, paper birch and red maple. Hybrid poplars are especially speedy trees, according to the Arbor Day Foundation, capable of adding 8 vertical feet per year until they're 40 or 50 feet tall. Red maples can grow by more than 2 feet annually, sometimes rising up to 60 feet above the ground, while American sycamores have been known to stand as tall as 175 feet under ideal conditions.

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Read between the vines

Photo: lornet/Shutterstock

Trees rely on sturdy trunks to support their lofty, light-blocking canopies. But many shorter plants can create shady sanctuaries, too — they just need a little help getting off the ground.

There are lots of ways to do that, from training vines up a simple trellis to helping them colonize a more elaborate arbor or pergola. Of course, a structure like that could also create shade on its own, as could a basic awning, umbrella or curtain. But then you might miss out on valuable biophilia, like the experience of relaxing under a backlit green ceiling of foliage, flowers and fruit.

"On a hot summer day, sitting in the shade of my grape arbor is one of life's greatest pleasures," garden writer Mary-Kate Mackey writes in Fine Gardening magazine. "Sunlight filters through a haze of green leaves, and clusters of enticing fruit dangle above my head."

The cozy haven under a grape arbor is just one of many benefits. You also get homegrown grapes, a nutritious crop that requires little maintenance — aside from annual pruning — and can produce several pounds of fruit per year from a single vine. Research which grapes grow best in your local climate, and if you live in North America, consider native species like fox grapes or muscadines.

If you're not into grapes, a variety of other vines can offer similar perks. (Don't be tempted by invasive plants like English ivy, though). Click through the photos above for more options.

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Be as cool as a cucumber

Photo: Naviya/Shutterstock

Plants known as "cucurbits" can also be rewarding additions to an arbor, pergola or other garden structure. This family of warm-weather herbs contains many popular garden crops — like cucumbers, gourds, melons and squashes — with large leaves that can block lots of light.

Most species are fast-growing vines, but some are better climbers than others. Watermelons, for example, tend to grow as trailing vines on the ground, producing huge fruits that could be especially hard for a climbing vine to support. Yet some melons adapt well to a trellis (with help), and many other cucurbits thrive in vertical habitats, including varieties of cucumbers and squash.

Cucurbits aren't very cold-hardy, though, so their viability depends largely on local climate. And if you're training them onto a trellis or structure, you may need to support the fruits as they hang, like in the photo above. That will help the fruit ripen and help the plant avoid injury, but it's also a safety precaution if you plan to sit under your pergola with heavy gourds dangling overhead.

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Seek peas and quiet

Photo: Andrey Zharkikh/Flickr

Climbing beans and peas are a staple of many home vegetable gardens, often trained up a vertical fence for space-saving cultivation. But if that fence is tall enough — or connects to a semi-covered structure like a pergola — a bean fence can easily become a source of shade.

Legumes are generally lighter than cucurbits, and therefore require less support when trained vertically. They're also grown as annuals in most climates, representing less of a long-term investment than grapevines. They could climb an arbor or gazebo, as well as wire or netting — as long as it's sturdy and taut enough not to sag as they grow. Beans and peas don't all grow identically, though, so be sure to anticipate the habits of whichever crop you choose.

For help getting started, check out this guide to growing beans and peas by MNN's Tom Oder.

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Settle under petals

Photo: pr2is/Shutterstock

Fruit vines often produce beautiful blooms as well as food, but if flowers are your focus, you have an even wider array of options. Here are a few colorful climbers that can cover an arbor or pergola:

Climbing roses come in many colors, shapes and growing styles, some of which are better suited to certain climates. Do some research before picking a variety, and if you aren't an experienced rosarian, you may want to brush up on how to grow roses, too.

Honeysuckle is famed for its fragrance as much as the visual beauty of its flowers, and it can quickly wrap itself around a pergola, arbor or almost anything else. About 180 species have been identified, but make sure you choose one that's native to your area.

Clematis is one of the most popular flowering vines, and most of the nearly 300 species are climbers. Their dense mat of leaves is "ideal to shade porches," according to a Clemson Cooperative Extension guide, and "are excellent for use on trellises, fences and walls."

Morning glory refers to a diverse plant family with more than 1,000 species, all of which produce colorful, funnel-shaped flowers. Many are also fast climbers that can tolerate poor, dry soils, making them a popular choice for casting shade from a trellis or pergola.

Wisteria is an iconic ornamental vine, but some species native to China and Japan can be invasive elsewhere. If you're in eastern North America, consider the American wisteria, whose smaller flowers are no less beautiful. It's also faster to establish and more tolerant of cold.

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Get your wires crossed

Photo: JerdStock/Shutterstock

There are many different ways of coaxing vines to cast shade. You could train them onto a pergola using wire, for example, or you could let wire alone provide the support. The best approach will depend largely on the space where you want shade and the type of vines you choose, but wire is often lighter weight and easier to install than a wooden arbor or pergola. And if your shade setup needs to be moved or adjusted, wires can offer more flexibility than a sturdier structure might.

The type of wire matters, however. Too little strength or tension may cause a wire to sag as your plants grow, potentially reducing the useable space underneath. And, as with any trellis, you'll need to space the wires so the vines can colonize them. A taut, coated cable is generally best, although some lightweight vines may do well on something less heavy-duty.

This vine-covered "green screen," for example, was designed to create late-summer shade by the Hideo Kumaki Architect Office in Saitama, Japan. According to the architecture firm, a 10-degree temperature difference was confirmed under the vine-covered netting compared with the sunnier area outside of it. But, as many have noted on Reddit, an alcove this cozy could potentially attract spiders. That may be a deal-breaker for some, although it's also worth noting that encouraging spiders could actually make the alcove more pleasant by limiting mosquitoes and flies.

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Set sail for comfort

Photo: Krista Abel/Shutterstock

It may not foster biophilia quite like a ceiling of flowers and foliage, but non-living shade is still shade — and it can require significantly less effort to set up and maintain. Shade sails are one example, using a piece of fabric suspended overhead by wires, a pergola or some other structure.

Shade sails come in a wide range of shapes, sizes, colors and materials. For ideas, check out some of these sail-shade examples on Pinterest.

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Draw the shades

Photo: Wonderlane/Flickr

Creating shade doesn't necessarily have to involve a big DIY project. You could buy a patio umbrella or install an awning, for example, and still add a few personal touches for extra ambience in your shady oasis. In the photo above, a patio umbrella is supplemented by breathable insect netting, and helps support strings of outdoor lights. Thicker shade curtains could also help reduce sun exposure under your umbrella, but be careful not to block cool summer breezes, too.

For more inspiration, see these ideas about patio umbrellas and shade curtains on Pinterest.

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Mix and match

Photo: Christina Richards/Shutterstock

This list is intended as a starting point, to help you think about different ways to create shady sanctuaries in your yard or garden. There are many ways to do that beyond what's listed here, and the best approach for your space may involve multiple techniques working together.

If you install a pergola, for instance, you could start with a couple patio umbrellas and then hang potted plants from its beams, like in the photo above. If that doesn't cool things down enough, you could train vines up the posts to help fill in gaps. Or, if summer is too far along to wait for beans or bougainvillea to grow, you could just string up a seasonal shade sail or curtain.

However you do it, creating shade can be an important step in spending more quality time outside. And while our indoor habitats may tempt us with comfortably low temperatures on sweltering summer days, walls and air conditioning will never be as cool as the great outdoors.