Made in the Shade: Tips from the Experts

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Margaret Roach at last weekend’s shade gardening workshop, above

LAST WEEKEND, along with a few dozen other garden nerds, I attended a half-day shade gardening workshop in Columbia County, and took 8 pages of notes.

We started at Margaret Roach’s lovely, hilly two-acre spread (she being the garden blogger I most admire, and author of a forthcoming dropout memoir about leaving the city for a more serene life in the sticks — I can relate). Our second stop was Loomis Creek, a nursery known for unusual offerings and stunning display borders. One of Loomis Creek’s owners, Bob Hyland, presented the second half of the workshop, and shared the news that the nursery will be closing for good Columbus Day weekend, when Bob and his partner de-camp for new adventures on the West Coast. Great bargains there in their final close-out; I came away with a car-full.

When asked why we were there, one woman spoke for many: “Because I don’t have any SUN!!!” Despite what I hoped when I first came to my Long Island cottage in May ’09 — south-facing backyard and all that — I have NO full sun anywhere on my half-acre. It varies from part to deep shade throughout, and I’ve been gravitating toward plants that don’t have to struggle. Also, almost all my gardening knowledge to date comes from books. I wanted to see how real gardeners actually handle plants (I may never plant a quart nursery pot again without tearing it into several pieces, as we watched Bob Hyland do with a  pot of ajuga).

Here’s some of what we learned last Saturday, beyond the basics (the basics being ‘plant in multiples of 3,5,7,9; in drifts or waves rather than rows…’):

  • Shade plants grow slowly. That’s why they tend to be more expensive. It takes a nursery 2-3 years to nurture seedlings (hellebores, epimedium) along to salable size.
  • When transplanting/dividing plants in fall, pre-soak the ground. I’d always just sprinkled perfunctorily, but Margaret recommended a few hours a day for a few days in advance. And wait for cool, overcast weather to do the deed, if possible.
  • September is THE time to transplant and divide perennials (in Zone 5, anyway; here in Zone 7, we can probably go into October). October’s the month for planting new trees and shrubs.
  • A lot of woodland (shade) plants have shallow root structures, so their roots freeze easily if you move them too late. They are adapted to live in small pockets of soil between tree roots. “Pocket planting of baby seedlings may be more effective,” said Margaret, than buying larger nursery specimens. “It’s nature way.” That requires patience, not my strong suit.
  • Think “opportunistic” gardening on a shady property — that is, create gardens for beauty in March through May, before deciduous trees leaf out. Identify your seasonal opportunities and make the most of them.
  • An easy kind of shade garden (well, it’s all relative) is creating a “skirt” around deciduous trees, with early bulbs and primulas, trilliums, Jeffersonia, and ‘dolls eyes’ aceta (cimicifuga) — none of which I’ve tried — especially near the house, where you can view them through a window in March and April.
  • The best way to design: “Look out the window.” Especially in winter, that’ll be your most frequent vantage point.
  • Group containers full of high-impact, long-lasting plants, such as ‘citronelle’ heuchera, hostas, begonias, and hakonechloa to welcome visitors into a shade garden.
  • Spanish bluebells are “good for the back 40” – sweeps of ground cover visible from a distance.
  • Note to self: get some petasites! They’re dramatic, huge-leafed, pre-historic-looking things.
  • If you want to special-order annuals from a nursery for next year — if you need a large quantity or want something unusual — do it now.

About cara

I blog for fun here at casaCARA, and write about architecture, interiors, gardens and travel for many national magazines and websites. My recently published posts and articles can be found here: https://casacara.wordpress.com/recent-articles/
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One Response to Made in the Shade: Tips from the Experts

  1. Hamptontoes says:

    I love shade plantings. My ferns love the shade and absolutely thrive. I’m always dividing them to continue to have my fern garden front yard. Love gardening! Sounds like a fun course.

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