Made in the Shade: Tips from the Experts


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.

GARDEN VOYEUR: Lushness on 1/8 Acre

1-frontMARY-LIZ CAMPBELL’S cottage-style house in Rye, N.Y., sits on a challenging site: wedge-shaped, steeply sloping, and not quite one-eighth of an acre.

A professional landscape designer, she has surrounded the house with exuberant perennial beds, shade gardens, a peaceful dining patio, attractive storage sheds, and garden ornaments reflecting time spent in the Far East.

When she bought the house 12 years ago, there was nothing but a few sad foundation plantings. Her first order of business was to screen views of the neighbors’ houses with fencing, trees and shrubs. From the first, she knew she didn’t want a lot of grass. “I wanted privacy all around — that drove the design.”

The pictures below illustrate a walk around the perimeter of the house, starting with the sunny beds next to the front door, descending to a stepping-stone path that runs along one side of the house, then onto the swath of lawn in the shady backyard, overlooked by the dining patio, and finally up through terraced planting beds to the gravel path and stone steps that lead back up to the front of the property.

The photos of the shady areas were taken in June, the rest in August, when there’s lots of floral color. Mary-Liz likes hot colors. Her favorite combination is chartreuse and burgundy: smoke tree with  flowering plum, or limelight hydrangea next to mellow yellow spirea.

At the bottom of the post, more notes on how Mary-Liz achieved her colorful, creative results.

We start at the sunny area next to the front door, where a square boxwood hedge, a concrete urn and ornament, and architectonic plants like big-leafed hostas and ornamental grasses provide structure…



Looking down into the property from the street…


Below, Mary-Liz on the stepping-stone path along one side of the house…24-side-path


Here’s the lawn and the shady backyard as it looks in June…


The lattice-fenced dining patio at the rear of the house overlooks the backyard…


Abundant container plantings on the patio, and a custom garden shed whose roof shingles match those on the house…


The concrete ball is a water feature…


Left and below, color from perennials in August…491


A serene Buddha, and an arbor, below, as we start to ascend on the other side of the lawn…24


A gravel path and more shade plantings lead back up to the front of the property.



In the very first season she owned the house, Mary-Liz did the following:

  • Took down eight existing trees, including three dead hemlocks; retained a locust and a spruce, as well as a dual-stem mulberry for screening, which she prunes back once a year to control its size
  • Moved inconvenient original parking from top of property near street to a gravel court in front of the house
  • Fenced and planted property for screening from the street and privacy around the perimeter, using broad-leaved evergreens, spring-flowering shrubs, tall rhodies, hollies, willow wood viburnums and double file viburnums
  • Built a garden shed on the back patio with a cupola and stained glass window (both found at tag sales)
  • Built lattice around existing concrete slab terrace at rear of house, and added a pergola on top for privacy from neighbors above

The following season, she recalls, “I started fooling around in the garden and nothing would grow. The soil was shallow and plants couldn’t anchor themselves” – so she brought in 18 yards of top soil.

“Then I went to Italy and decided the only way I could make this lot work was to terrace it” – so she found masons and, over the next couple of years, as finances permitted, built stone terraces for garden beds, then planted shrubs and perennials in the newly terraced areas.

Since then, the garden has evolved with changing conditions. There’s less and less sun, mostly because of the mulberry.

Mary-Liz swears she doesn’t spend a load of time gardening. “It’s not a high-maintenance garden. I have a lot of shrubs. But I’m always thinking what I’m going to do next – I’d like to put in a pond. Gardens are never finished.”