Lifescapes International

Branching Out: Crafting Perfect Shade with Trees

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We are naturally drawn to the outdoors, eagerly anticipating the warmer weather and our ability to live, shop and move about in the fresh air. Immersing ourselves in nature both calms and invigorates us as we go about our daily lives. This is why so many choose to live in communities with expansive exterior amenities, shop in outdoor shopping centers, and travel to resort hotels.

But what if you want less exposure to the sun or the temperatures have risen so high that you need shade? That is when a thoughtful landscape design becomes crucial, ensuring that outdoor environments are enjoyable year-round for extended stays and repeat visits.

So, how do we achieve this? Is it simply a matter of planting more trees? While adding more trees is beneficial—especially in urban areas combating concrete heat islands—it’s not without considerations. The placement, quantity, and types of trees must be carefully chosen to effectively provide shade without creating unintended challenges for the environment or usability.

A prime example of that is urban and outdoor shopping districts, where the idea of trees and shade intersects with the need for clear visibility of retailer signage. The line of site is critical to both the shopper and the individual retailers, but so is the need to create a comfortable setting that encourages visitors to linger, spend, and come back again.

Initially, we opt for fewer, larger trees that anchor the environment and give it a sense of history.

Strategically arranged to frame storefronts in elevation, the placement of trees can be scattered to guide shoppers, inviting them to weave through and discover open areas that transform into plazas or park-like settings with versatile lawns. Building into this framework, we use smaller trees and water amenities to create intimate garden spaces and seating areas. These offer more opportunities to find secluded spots away from the sun and crowds. Ultimately, the result is an urban oasis where shoppers can leisurely stroll through a sun-dappled environment, moving seamlessly from one shaded area to another, always within reach of a place to relax.

Regardless of placement, it is crucial to choose the right types of trees for year-round usability. The first consideration is deciduous trees versus non-deciduous – do they lose their leaves or not? Many climates need a good amount of shade during the summer, but as the weather gets colder, that very shelter from the sun makes things darker and accentuates the cold. Deciduous trees are wonderful because they offer shade during hot summer months yet allow warming sunlight through when they shed their leaves in colder seasons. However, the openness they create should be considered when planning the overall tree selection. A landscape dominated solely by deciduous trees can appear stark in winter. That’s why our designs always incorporate evergreens or non-deciduous trees. This ensures that any time of year you encounter a space, there is always a consistent green visual presence and structure in the scene.

Mixed-use and multifamily residential developments face similar challenges, but for different reasons. We aim to create dynamic gardens with diverse destinations and shaded retreats while preserving sightlines to maintain openness. Trees can frame views and provide some visual protection from those looking inward, but their quantity and placement must balance the amount of light entering homes or offices. To achieve this, we strategically position larger shade trees further from building facades to offer shelter within the garden without compromising internal views and natural light. Closer to the buildings, we incorporate palms (when thematically and regionally appropriate) or open, upright, lacy trees to complement facades in scale while flanking windows and balconies.

Another environment where we must deal with shade is pool areas. Guests usually prefer unfettered access to the sun and clear sightlines of the pool, but dense trees and buildings can obstruct sunlight and views. This ends up limiting the area’s flexibility of use over the course of a day. But it’s those same sun-seeking guests who also want to conveniently escape the sun when it becomes too hot, or they feel over-exposed.

Where regionally appropriate, Canary Island and ‘Medjool’ Date Palms are the best choices to line the edges of pools. Interspersed in the seating, their canopies can reach 20’-25’ in diameter, providing dappled shade that moves throughout the day so that seating underneath isn’t an all-or-nothing sun experience. While their trunks can be great hosts for area lighting and speakers, their tall, narrow frame also offers an open feeling with incredible cross-visibility. In locations where palms aren’t possible, larger canopy trees can offer shade and maintain visibility, head clearance, and provide adequate shelter.

One last issue with the types of trees we use for shade, and their locations, is the amount of maintenance they require. While all trees drop leaves and create litter, some do so more than others. For example, palms drop very little, and many deciduous trees tend to shed their leaves slowly as temperatures drop, making them manageable.

However, others, like Jacaranda or Pepper trees, continuously drop leaves, seed pods, or excessive amounts of flowers, becoming a maintenance nightmare if used in the wrong location. These trees can deter people from patronizing a restaurant if they must pick debris out of their drinks while dining on the terrace. They can also inconvenience residents dealing with leaves or sap on their cars, facility managers who must constantly clear leaves out of pool filters or even pose a hazard to pedestrians who could slip on fallen flower petals coating the pavement. Therefore, understanding the habits of a potential shade tree is crucial for a successful design.

While it may seem like a simple solution to add a bunch of trees to a design for shade from the heat, many other factors must be considered. Drawing on our extensive experience across various sectors and regions, we ensure that our designs create wonderful outdoor environments for the warmer months while also being successful throughout the rest of the year.

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