Outdoor shade ideas - landscapers explain how to beat a retreat from the sun's glare in style

Choose outdoor shade ideas that range from rustic to regal with expert advice and ideas from top designers

Benjamin Moore blue danube exterior paint
(Image credit: Benjamin Moore)

When summer returns many of us breath a sigh of relief. It's a sign that outdoor living can be enjoyed once more. Long lazy lunches in the garden and al fresco cocktails under the balmy night sky become possible again. 

Of course this depends where in the world you live, but when the sun is at its highest, even those in colder climes will be considering outdoor shade ideas. From pergolas and permanent structures to awnings, canopies and clever planting, the options for creating shade in your backyard are more varied than you may think. 

Taking inspiration from world famous gardens and award-winning landscape designers, see the different styles that you can create in your outdoor space. 

'A pergola in the garden is a lovely feature. Not only does it afford privacy from prying eyes, it also creates shelter and shade and can be planted with an array of scented climbing plants,' says multi award-winning RHS Chelsea Flower Show garden designer Kate Gould. 'In minimal schemes, pergolas can be left unplanted and will add an architectural element to your garden.'

outdoor shade covering an outdoor kitchen made from black tiles

(Image credit: Alamy)

10 OUTDOOR SHADE IDEAS

1. CHOOSE A TIMBER PERGOLA WITH PLANTING

Benjamin Moore blue danube exterior paint

(Image credit: Benjamin Moore)

Sitting under a timber structure covered with climbing plants feels instantly relaxing. It feeds into our innate need for nature and the growing science that supports how beneficial it is to our wellbeing. Although this is something humans have intrinsically known for millennia, with more of us living in cities, it has spawned the trend in biophilic design. So how to choose which plants will be best on covered patios?

'Large-growing, self-clinging Parthenocissus tricuspidata and Hedera varieties (ivy) are a great choice,' says garden designer Kate Gould (opens in new tab). 'Once settled in they will soon clothe walls and boundaries. Parthenocissus tricuspidata is not evergreen but it does turn fiery red in the autumn before dropping its leaves and is worth its place for that alone. 

'Be mindful that any self-clinging plant has tenacious feet, so keep foliage trimmed back.'

2. GO FOR A RETRACTABLE ROOF

pergola over outdoor kitchen

(Image credit: Kitchen Architecture)

There may be times when you welcome the sun on your outdoor kitchen or dining area, particularly in the spring or autumn when it's weaker. If this is the case, a modern metal pergola with a retractable roof is a good choice, as it gives you the option to have it open or closed. 

This will also be handy if where you live is subject to the odd unpredictable rain shower interrupting your al fresco entertaining.

'A semi-permanent structure such as a metal pergola with a retractable roof will help protect an outdoor kitchen or bar area and enable you to use the space throughout the year, even in inclement weather,' says Alex Saint, design manager, Kitchen Architecture (opens in new tab). 'When closed it's fully water tight, so it offers great shelter and shade.'

3. PLACE SHADE AT THE END OF THE YARD

timber pergola

(Image credit: Alamy)

'We design a lot of pergolas but it's not a great idea to put them right up against the house as this can cause a lot of unwanted shade in the winter,' says landscape designer Charlotte Rowe (opens in new tab)

'If situated further down the yard, a structure, a flexible awning or indeed small feature trees can give you the shade you need without affecting the light in your home.'

Selecting a structure made from Corten steel means it will develop a weathered rust like patina. This rich red hue looks gorgeous against lush green foliage and will blend beautifully with any exterior environment - it can be incorporated into your garden wall. It will also withstand the harsh elements throughout the year. 

4. OPT FOR AN ATTRACTIVE AWNING

striped awning

(Image credit: Thomas Sanderson)

The beauty of a motorised awning is that it can be folded away on cloudy days, or on summer evenings when you may welcome the softer sunlight. As it's attached to the wall, it also means you won't lose any valuable patio floor space.

Most are available in a waterproof fabric of your choice too, so it's possible to coordinate colors with your interior scheme.

'Garden awnings and shade sails are useful in small spaces because they are not necessarily permanent and can be deployed only when you need them,' says garden designer Kate Gould. 

'They're usually made from high-tensile materials that are washable, which is essential when they are positioned under trees as pollen and debris can stain. These structures can look really magical at night with candle lanterns lighting them and they always feel more impromptu and intimate than the more solid and dependable pergola.'  

'Awnings also provide indoor benefits to your home,' says James Chilton, product manager at Hillarys (opens in new tab). 'They can keep sunlight away from the windows, cooling the interior of the house, so are ideal for south facing spaces with large expanses of glass.'

Equally, they can protect outdoor furniture from rain, while being rolled back in the sun. Best of both worlds.

5. TAKE INSPIRATION FROM AN ARTIST

Marjorelle gardens

(Image credit: Alamy)

The world famous Marjorelle gardens in Marrakech have been a source of inspiration for outside spaces for decades and still look spectacular today. 

Designed by French artist, Jacques Marjorelle over 90 years ago and restored by fashion royalty Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge in the 80s, part of the garden's enduring appeal is the liberal use of a special shade of cobalt blue. Patented by the artist as Marjorelle bleu, and applied to the buildings and structures, its vivid tones look majestic alongside the towering palms and colorful plants and flowers.  

Consider the light where you live and the colors and tones of the planting in your own garden and paint your pergola a vibrant shade.

6. CREATE A COSY COCOON

Coco Wolf project

(Image credit: Coco Wolf)

As much as you'll want shade from the sun on a hot summer afternoon, a garden structure can also be used as a cosy retreat when the temperature drops of an evening. In addition, it could provide protection from the elements in cooler times of the year when you still want to enjoy the outside. 

'The key to creating a comfortable outdoor seating space is to design the space in the same way you would a living room,' says Rebecca Lorimer, owner of design studio Coco Wolf (opens in new tab). 'Think about its purpose, how you want it to make you feel and what the focal point or view will be. 

'For a south facing garden for example, shade creating awnings, structures, parasols and trees are important. Comfort is also key. Fluid, organic shapes in earthy tones paired with exposed wood create a harmonious blend of the cosy indoors and the wild outdoors.'

7. WHITEWASH THE STRUCTURE AND DECKING

Aamir Khandwala project with white painted wood beams covering a verandah

(Image credit: Aamir Khandwala)

In this project by Aamir Khandwala (opens in new tab), the interior designer has created a simple and stylish shaded deck. The white painted pergola and decked flooring perfectly suits the New England timber clad style of the house. It looks fresh and fabulous against the surrounding foliage. Drapes can be added to the sections when the sun is at its hottest. 

'Pergolas are an effective way to provide shade,' says Aamir. 'Mixing materials such as painted surfaces with metallics and rattan creates depth and interest.'

8. COORDINATE COLORS WITH YOUR INTERIOR

pergola on roof terrace

(Image credit: Photography: Joshua Hugh / Project: Hollander Design Landscape Architects)

Outdoor spaces in cities often lack color and character due to the large amount of concrete, brick and glass that surround them. Introducing color through verdant green plants and trees is a wonderful solution that softens a space and brings life to it. However, this can be further enhanced through your exterior design choices.

This project by Hollander Design cleverly echoes colors from the interior to create an outdoor oasis. In addition, the blue pergola on this roof garden mimics the sky above, while the reddish tones of the chairs work well against the brick buildings in view. 

'The design of the terrace was a response to the beautiful interior by Workshop APD and Wildinson Beven Design Ltd, which was all about this sophisticated design with pops of playful color,' says Stephen Eich, Urban Studio Director, Hollander Design Landscape Architects (opens in new tab).

'It was natural to introduce these same gestures on the terrace. We also like powder-coated aluminum structures in the city as they are lightweight, do not rust, and provide a long-lasting durable finish. Materials which require the least amount of effort to maintain are best. This helps too. if you're planning to cover your pergola in vines.'

9. PARTY IN A CHARMING PAVILION

garden pavilion made from white canvas with pink curtains

(Image credit: Raj Tent Club)

A permanent pergola is wonderful but if that doesn't suit your space - or you need extra shade for a summer party - consider a charming canvas pavilion.  

A structure like this not only brings style to your outside space, it could be left up during the school summer holidays providing a fun place for kids to play. As well as somewhere to retreat to for a sundowner at the end of the day.

'A beautifully dressed decorative tent is a practical yet elegant way to create a multi-purpose outdoor living space that can be left up throughout the warmer months,' says Nicky Marks, founder of Raj Tent Club (opens in new tab). 'From a sumptuous, shaded lounging area to a dramatic setting for drinks or dining, you can personalise the look using draped fabrics, garlands, lanterns, tea lights and layers of cushions for comfort. Hang pictures or mirrors from the tent frame, and use indoor furniture, be it vintage or modern, to put your stamp on the space.' 

10. SHELTER UNDER A PRETTY PARASOL

Willow parasol

(Image credit: East London Parasol Company)

The need for shade takes a number of forms and while a permanent structure may suit an outdoor entertaining area, there are times when a pretty parasol will do the job. Like when you just want to kick back with a chilled spritz and a best seller.

Choose an eye-catching design that fits aesthetically with your furniture and foliage to create a striking focal point.  

A heavy base will keep your parasol tethered, but makes it harder to move around, so make sure you find the best spot.

WHAT CAN I USE FOR SHADE ON MY PATIO?

Pergolas are a popular choice, however according to landscape designer, Charlotte Rowe, if situated on your patio, they may cause unwanted shade in your home during the winter. 

This may be less of an issue if you opt for a modern structure with a retractable roof that can be left open, rather than a traditional structure covered with climbing vines, so consider which way your patio faces and how much sun it gets throughout the year. 

Retractable awnings are a great option as you can open them only when required. 

Alternatively, there are numerous temporary shade options. Gazebos, decorative tents, sail shades, umbrellas and parasols are popular choices in the summer. Of course mature trees will provide shade too, as well as climbing vines over garden structures. 

Jacky Parker is a London-based freelance journalist and content creator, specialising in interiors, travel and food. From buying guides and real home case studies to shopping and news pages, she produces a wide range of features for national magazines and SEO content for websites


A long-time contributor to Livingetc, as a member of the team, she regularly reports on the latest trends, speaking to experts and discovering the latest tips. Jacky has also written  for other publications such as Homes and Gardens, Ideal Home, Red, Grand Designs, Sunday Times Style and AD, Country Homes and Interiors and ELLE Decoration.