Proper shading is a crucial element to creating a pleasing outdoor environment. It is easy to neglect to shade a backyard or patio space, and it is often easier to just grab something quick and functional rather than taking time to find the right shade objects, ones that are beautiful, functional, and that contribute to magical, modern outdoor environments.
For those of us who live in and around cities, on small parcels of land with tiny outdoor spaces, it is crucial to maximize every square inch of land and to supply as much privacy as possible while making the outdoor space feel more expansive than it really is. Considering the outdoor space both horizontally and vertically is key to getting the most out of your outdoor area.
Fortunately, there are many ways to create beautiful, modern, shady environment where you will want to spend all your time without breaking the bank. This guide will give you some ideas. Here we will look at trees and shrubs, sun shade sails, market umbrellas, cantilever umbrellas, awnings, pergolas, gazebos, and porches. A mix of several different options may be the best way to create a stunning outdoor space, and we encourage you to get creative!
Trees, Shrubs, and Hedges
Trees, shrubs, and plants are the top choice for creating shade in a natural environment like a backyard or patio. There is nothing like the sound of leaves blowing in a soft wind, and trees can offer unparalleled beauty and calm. Being out in nature is associated with mental health, lower levels of stress, improved concentration, and better memory, so we strongly suggest starting your backyard shade design using nature where ever possible. In addition, trees are an excellent investment, and carefully planting trees will increase the value of your property over time.
Trees can grow extremely large, so they can offer privacy and shade in ways no man-made shade device can. Deciduous trees have the extra feature of shading the house and yard during the warm months, but after the leaves are shed, they allow more light through to the house in the cold months.
Trees do have some downsides, obviously. If you are renting, using trees and shrubs becomes a bit more difficult, as keeping trees alive in pots can be troublesome, and some landlords may not want you planting trees on their property. Buying large trees is quite costly, and small trees take time to grow and may not accomplish their privacy and shading functions until they are larger. Trees also require maintenance and can become a dangerous hazard if located too close to the house.
Some things to consider when picking out trees:
- Evergreens are good for screening, shading, snow protection, and noise-reduction
- Deciduous trees tend to be more lively, sometimes offering flowers and fall colors, but do not provide year-round screening.
- Arborvitae trees are an excellent place to start when considering a shade screen. American Arborvitae can grow 60′ tall, while Emerald Arborvitae goes to about 15′ and can be trimmed shorter. American Arborvitaes will grow to 15′ wide, but if they are planted in a row and trimmed, they will form a wall. Emerald Arborvitae will grow about 2′ wide in a hedge.
- When spacing small shrubs, try to avoid root-crowding by placing trees at least 1-2′ apart from the center of a tree to the center of the next tree.
- When spacing evergreen trees, you want to leave 6-8′ between trees; for pine and spruce, leave at least 10′ between trees.
- When spacing evergreen shrubs, aim for 3-4′ of separation between trees.
When laying out the location of trees in your backyard or garden, consider the location of the areas you wish to shade, and the solar orientation of the space, so that the tree will grow to shade the right spot at the right time of year. Also, consider the views that will be altered by the addition of the trees — both improved and negatively impacted — and the location of other trees and objects that will inhibit tree growth. One must also consider the location of power lines, underground utilities, and sight lines for vehicles passing by.
Using wooden garden stakes, lay out the location of the trees and shrubs. If you are forming a hedge, begin to trim the edges of the hedge plants 1-2 seasons after planting. To train a group of plants as a hedge, trim the top and sides 1-2 times per year, and aim to take off about half the length of the new growth between trimmings. Hedges should be narrower at the top than at the base, to allow sunlight to reach all the leaves.
Potted plants can be used for shading and screening, but are often unwieldy at sizes needed to accomplish shading and screening. Potted plants tend to be fussier than ground plants, and over time the large hedge and screening plants tend to overgrow pots, so in general, we don’t recommend trying to create screens with potted plants or containers. One exception may be bamboo, which can grow in containers and be large enough to screen. Of course, caution should be used as bamboo can be invasive, so be sure to check the species of bamboo you wish to use, and get a clumping variety (as opposed to a running variety). Keep it in a container, and you should be ok.
Sun shade sails can effortlessly shade a large area of a patio or yard, and they offer a sense of verticality that no other shading option gives. They float in the air above the patio like colorful wings, drawing the eye upward, and supplying a unique environment underneath their canopy.
Shade sails come in a variety of shapes, though generally they are offered in triangular and square configurations. Using multiple shade sails at different angles, different heights, or different color configurations can make for a breathtaking outdoor area.
Shade sails are a bit more complicated to install than some of the other options on this page, due to the fact that they must be attached to some physical objects in order to hold them in place. The objects you intend to tie to must be strong enough to hold the sails in adverse environmental conditions. You may want to hire professionals to install the sail for you, and to assess the exact circumstances of your needs.
However, if you want to go down the DIY route, check out our guide to securing a shade sail here.
Reference: Arizona Shade Sails, Inc.
Patio or Market Umbrellas
Patio umbrellas, also known as market umbrellas, are one of the best shading tools available. They are simple, attractive, and when used in multiples with varying colors (or a unifying theme) can be stunning. They are generally inexpensive and can offer shade in the heat, and protection from the rain on mildly wet days.
When trying to shade a table, we recommend that you try to keep 2′ of umbrella overhang on each side of the table. So if you have a 6′ wide round table, you would target umbrellas that are 10′ wide. This will keep those seated below the table in a reasonable amount of shade during the hottest part of the day.
For a detailed look at several of the best patio umbrellas available today, click here.
Cantilever umbrellas (also known as offset umbrellas) function similar to market, or patio umbrellas, but instead of having the pole in the center of the umbrella, the pole is off to the side and angled. The canvas is hung from the pole and is suspended in the air. The shape of a cantilever umbrella is very dramatic and modern, and the lack of a pole through the middle of a table keeps patio tables open and easier to decorate.
Offset umbrellas are generally more expensive than patio umbrellas, and they are certainly more finicky when it comes to properly supporting and weighting them to ensure that they don’t fall over. For more information on how that is done, check out our DIY-friendly guide here.
For more information on cantilever umbrellas, and a look at several of the best options available, click here.
Besides having a funny name, lots of people think of gazebos as those fussy old-timey looking white wooden structures, straight out of a Jane Austin novel, placed haphazardly in the backyard, or a canvas and metal box that would fit more appropriately in a campsite than in a modern backyard or patio area.
Neither of those styles is ideal for a modern patio space, and while there are many gazebos available in those styles, there are other, more contemporary options for gazebos available, and we recommend you take a look at what’s available. For example, we love this modernist gazebo made by Abba Patio shown here.
Awnings are another shade style that is most often associated with Victorian houses, featuring faded, ripped, striped fabric, and again, not at all modern. However, that is not the case anymore, with many companies now building retractable mechanical awnings, which offer a large number of features other shade techniques do not. The mechanical arms make them very easily adjustable and can shade different amounts depending on the time of day and the type of shade needed. They are also very easy to operate, generally featuring a hand crank or push button switch that moves them in and out as needed.
However, they are relatively expensive and may require professional electricians to properly wire if they are powered. The awning shown here, made by Advancing, is not powered and is adjusted using a hand crank, which does require more effort than pushing a button, but greatly simplifies install.
Custom built porches are among the best shade options available and probably offer the most advantage in home resale. They can be breathtaking, and can create outdoor spaces that no other shade technique can create — they create true outdoor rooms. Of course, they are by far the most complicated to install, requiring builders, possibly architects, possibly excavation machinery, and significant cost.
Still, porches offer great benefits, both to the exterior environment and the interior environment. When a porch is properly situated, the porch roof can shade the house interior from harsh sun in the summer, when the sun is high, and allow light into the space in the winter, when the sun stays low. And of course, the use of the outdoor space makes all the work of designing and building a lovely porch worth it!
Pergolas are a cris-crossed set of wooden timbers, placed atop a grid of wooden columns. These timbers create an open roof, and in the appropriate climates are commonly finished by covering with grape vines, leaves, roses, or other foliage to create a living canopy. They are an interesting shade option, and depending on if foliage is added, or if a canvas is placed on the top of the canopy, can supply a good deal of shade and offer a cool respite from the summer sun.
Pergolas come in a variety of products, from custom built units to simple pergola kits. These pergola kits are often relatively inexpensive compared to custom units, and generally are available in a narrower size range than custom units. Still, they go up pretty easily and can look great. Check out our metal pergola kits guide here, and our vinyl pergola kit guide here.