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.

A Year in Springs, and How My Garden Does Grow!

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My front beds have gone from bare to ongepotchket (‘Slapped together without form, excessively decorated,’ according to one Yiddish dictionary) in a month. No, not true, but I see how easily it could happen…I can’t stop planting!

EXACTLY ONE YEAR AGO, I had just moved to my new home in Springs (East Hampton), N.Y. I had no heat. No refrigerator. No driveway — just a sea of mud. And a backyard that was impenetrable, due to overgrown wisteria and weeds, with a fallen-down shed in the middle of it. I was cold, scared, and lonely; I didn’t know many people in the area. The weather was foul, and I prayed for a bit of sunshine to put a more comforting spin on things.

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Greener than brown…

These days, I’m warm and toasty, with a fully functioning kitchen, a new roof, and a yard that’s at least partly under control. To be sure, there’s a ways to go: I still need a new bathroom, a deck, and a paint job. But I love living here. It’s home. I have wonderful new friends and neighbors. I no longer choke on the word “Hamptons.” I’ve even caught myself saying “up-island,” as in “Whenever I go up-island, I stop at IKEA [Costco, Home Depot…]” (Up-island is a term we East Enders use to refer to parts of Long Island closer to…what’s the name of that city again? Right, New York.)

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Still rock-hunting for those edges…only the best will do.

Today, in fact, I went up-island, to visit my cousin Barbara and pick up her birthday present to me: five big bags of compost — a most welcome gift. Yes, it was teeming, but that didn’t stop us from dividing some of her astilbe, epimedium, and liriope, which I hauled back in my trusty Honda. Tomorrow I’ll plant it, rain or shine. My front-yard beds have gone from bare to practically stuffed in about a month.

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Moving on to containers…

A very satisfying day. While the Long Island Expressway is still soul-numbing (I listened to a new Anne Tyler book, Noah’s Compass, on CD — also somewhat numbing), I didn’t mind the rain. As a civilian, I would have preferred pleasanter weather. But as a gardener, I’m thrilled that Nature is doing the watering.

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New favorite: an old concrete birdbath planted with sedum and scaevola, an annual.