Garden Designer’s Roundtable – Shining In The Shade

Customers at the nursery where I work, as well as my own private clients, frequently lament to me about the challenges of frustrating boredom or lack of success they have with their shade conditions. This “woe is me” line of thinking does not linger long around me. I enthusiastically explain how they have bountiful, dazzling design options and plant choices to play with that others with no shade don’t have. Dry shade? No problem! Damp shade, even better! Bring it on, let’s get your garden where you want it to be together.

Fatsia Japonica

Why not take full advantage of this location and all it has to offer? Try new things, break out of your shell. You are not limited to Impatiens or dry barren areas. Now more than ever in the history of gardening, you have the ability to make a wide range of plant choices beyond the every day standard OR the defeatist attitude of  “Nothing will ever grow well there.” I will simply have none of it.

Hosta and Paris in the garden of David Fishman

In my own garden, just like most people, I have several little micro-pocket zones of varying shade conditions. I have had a ball experimenting with different perennials, shrubs, grasses and groundcover. I like to think of myself as a test driver for plants. Then I know what to expect from them and I can speak with authority about the dodgy ones versus the top performers.

Dwarf Hydrangea and Japanese Forest Grass

My fascination with the unending variants that create shade conditions is a deep and wide river of exploration. For me, trial and error is truly the only way to learn what does and does not work. I’ve had my greatest success with some of the craziest combinations. If I had played by “the rules” on the tags or in the books, then I would have not been able to achieve some of my most creative pairings. If we all knew exactly what plants have a tolerance for what circumstance in every spot in the garden, designing and gardening would get very dull, very quickly!

Thalictrum and Actea

Sometimes I want certain sections of the garden to tell a story about how I would like them to be perceived by the person experiencing it. Maybe a bright and playful area of color in bright shade are followed up by a moody, quiet and contemplative space in full, deep shade. I want it all!

Double Flowering Hellebore

Cypress, Heucherella and Begonia

In my line of work as The Personal Garden Coach I’m usually in the clients garden with them to see each condition that they face. At my nursery job I have to learn to ask exactly the right questions to deduce what the customer actually means by “I have this shady spot, where nothing will grow.” I have to be like a detective to discern what they mean by “nothing”, how they define “shady” and what plants they have tried that don’t seem to be working.

“What’s shading the area?”

“Is it damp there, or dry there?”

“How do you water?”

“What plants have you tried so far?”

“Is it AM shade, PM shade, or shaded all day?”

Ultimately, I surmise a draft in my imagination of what the area is that they’re describing and advise some great plant suggestions. I can draw from my own experiences with shade conditions in many gardens that I’ve worked and create an action plan for design success, while tweaking it for their personal tastes or style.

Hosta, Heuchera, Heucherella, Coleus, Yarrow

Without the experience of failures and success in my own shade garden, I don’t think I would be as quick to assess difficult garden situations and turn the challenge around into opportunity for a gardener to create their vision.

Winterhazel, Sambucus, Fern, Molinia, Hosta

I also adore stretching the plants limits with the various fickle conditions that shade can deliver. From the most dark and cool shadowy corner under trees to bright shade where the garden gets glowing light but no direct sun. Both can offer a sense of experience that you can’t get with a full-on sunny location especially if you are an adventurous gardener!

Hydrangea Paniculata, Coleus, Pennisetum, Sage, Euphorbia

I could go on and on about the technical definitions of shade, design ideas and lists of plant selections that would be great for you to try. But, the ultimate bottom line is that you have to honor your vast set of options and try new things. Some may work and others may not. You have a boundless set of resources from plants to books and websites that few before our generation had access to, use them! A great nursery person, experienced friend or blogger can be just the inspiration you need to dive into the shade and conquer it.

Nandina 'Firepower'

Explore more Shade plant blogs of The Garden Designer’s Roundtable by reading more from this month’s guest writer Margaret Roach on her blog “A Way to Garden” and all of the other fabulous writers below.

Margaret Roach : A Way To Garden : Hudson Valley, NY

Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX

Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ

Garden Designers Roundtable: Top 10 “Go-To” Landscape Plants

As always, I’m truly honored to be included as a Contributor to The Garden Designer’s Roundtable for April. This month we decided to take a look at some of our favorite plants. The Top Ten “Go-To” plants for my landscape or container design work are precious to me like children. In reality there’s no possible way that I can realistically keep my choices limited to only ten. That’s like asking a mother which child she loves most or which arm is your favorite. Though I do have my list whittled down for this post, these are my picks for the most reliably hardy performers here in the Northwest USDA Zone 7. These picks also have a wide variety of cultivars to choose from and in many cases possess the multiple personality traits that I require for great plant selections in my design planning.

My choices are in no particular order of favorites that would just be asking for trouble in the ranks. 🙂 Be sure to click on the pictures to enlarge. 

First up is Euphorbia. Almost any and all are welcome to my garden unless they seed SO prolifically that they take all the fun out of life. The particular cultivar above is certainly one of my absolute favorites, Euphorbia Myrsinites or Donkey Tail Spurge. It has personality for season after season of interest, and then some! When used as a ground cover or trailing over the edge of a pot, its frequently the plant that garners the most attention in many of my designs, spring summer, and fall.

Second up is a two-fer bonus. Hardy Geraniums and Nepeta or Catmint. The two go together like Peanut Butter and Jelly. Pictured here are 'Magnificum' for its fantastically large blue flowers that are uber showy. And not to be outdone, the large foliage on my favorite 'Magnificum' gets the most de-lish fall color! Plus, if you whack it back half way through the season, she just says "Bring it on!" And keeps flowering until frost while showing those fall jewel tones. Catmint, 'Walker's Low' is just a no brainer. Silvery foliage that looks great well before it ever blooms, drought tolerant, blooms ALL season until frost and Deer won't eat it! What more could you want?

Third is Sedum. How do I love thee? Let me count the names. Angelina, Voodoo, Chocolate Ball, Neon, Autumn Joy, Autumn Charm, October, Blue Spruce, Vera Jamison, Black Jack, Bertram Anderson, aaaaahhhh. Drought tolerant, tough and forgiving of bad soils. Need I say more? OK, foliage color, winter color, bloom colors, texture...

Fourth is the Hosta. One of the most architecturally perfect plants I know. If the seduction of the foliage and variety of colors and textures were not enough, the flowers of whites and lavender surely would be right? No? How about intoxicating fragrance as a cut flower in a vase? See, got ya!!!

Fifth is Robinia Pseudoacacia 'Frisia'. I desperately wish I had more pictures of this tree that I so dearly adore. This was taken in my last garden a number of years ago just as it was maturing. In the home before that I had three. I really should try to cram one into my "Barbie's Dream Garden" sized home now. The color is stop traffic gold. This picture really doesn't do it proper justice. I was introduced to it many years ago for the first time at the original beloved and now legendary, Heronswood in Kingston Washington. It took my breath away as I came upon it in the forest under a shaft of sunlight. yes, it was THAT stunning!

Sixth is Salvia Officianalis 'Tri-Color'. I think it pretty much speaks on its own behalf here. But, I will say this, drought tolerant, excellent foliage interest, summer blooms, not interesting to deer. I buy more of them every year. Period. 🙂

Seven is the Japanese Maple. I live in Japanese Maple country. The nursery I work for sells hundreds upon hundreds every year. Small ones, short ones, tall ones, fat leaves skinny leaves of red, yellow, green and orange, even coral! our cool and mild weather her in the NW is perfect for them here. My collection is small compared to my friends, not to mention my friends who are collectors! Yowza! This weeping one pictured was my birthday gift to myself a few years ago along with the pot.

This Japanese Maple was an Orphan looking for its third home. It's a very not so Coral, Coral Bark Maple or 'Sango-Kaku'. One of the traits for this cultivar is that as they age they lose the coral on the lower trunk line. This one was quite thoroughly abused before coming home to me. It had a major crack in the bark at the base and I thought for certain it would die in the first year. I consulted with experts who all gave me the same short-term diagnosis of certain death as well. I put an entire yard of gravel under her, along with an entire yard of brand new soil/compost mix, her very own soaker hose and lots of loving alfalfa meal and minerals. She's on year four now and her gash is healing and she's putting on new growth every year! It's a horticultural miracle Charlie Brown!

Eight is the Hydrangea Paniculata. My goal is to have as many of these in all varieties as I can fit into my tiny landscape. This defines the perfect Tri-Fecta plant for me to a T. OK, your challenge, read this all in one breath: It's easy-going from sun to part shade, it has lovely foliage that never wavers with disease issues. It has a huge number of flower styles, sizes and colors to choose from. It blooms forever (almost) AND it gets tremendous fall color all while holding those magnificent blooms into winter. -Phew, that exhausted me. :-)Pictured here: 'Quick-Fire' and 'Angel Blush' before the blush.

Heuchera is number nine, but not in my heart. These plants are a small addictive issue that I am trying to come to terms with every year. But then, dang it if they don't introduce a new one that I HAVE to have!!! Pictured here is 'Velvet Night' and 'Caramel'.My latest obsession is 'Rave On', appropriate eh? She flowered for over 5 straight months last year! Usually you don't really get them for their spectacular blooms but for the striking foliage and texture. But, 'Rave On' had me at her waving little cherry colored bells. I think I have to lay down now.

Number ten is Leucothoe, my beloved shrub that I can't live without. Pronounced 'Lew-co-the-way', it comes in a few cultivars, but I mostly use 'Rainbow', pictured above. These shots show it in both its fall color going into winter with the truck driver chick of Coleus 'Big Red Judy' and to the right in spring coming out of its winter color into it's lighter marbled shades to come of cream's and greens. It's softly arching growth habit and fragrant flowers in spring are bonus points for this glorious plant that takes shade to part sun and plays nicely with others. 🙂 I have heard recently that some have deer trouble with it, but the deer have never once bothered it here in my yard. Maybe they're too well fed by the time they get here?

Number eleven, yes 11, is Ilex Crenata 'Golden Helleri'. This is one of my newest friends as of last year, I am fully invested in obsession after it utterly sailed through our really rough early winter last season. In our gray climate this gold is a stand out above all else- 'nuff said. 🙂

Number twelve is the Euonymous family. This one pictured (Euonymous Fortunei 'Emerald Gaeity') is in my garden and she's putting on quite the show of her winter colors here even though I took this last week! this tells how cold it's been here lately. The whole family has been a useful addition to the landscape though I have amended my feelings about some of the larger shrub varieties that have performed weakly in the last few years of winters. But, if given just the right spot, THIS is what CAN happen. 🙂

Lucky number thirteen is Physocarpus 'Ninebark'- that MUST bode well right? This one is 'Diablo', but I also have 'Coppertina' and 'Center Glow' which are equally great if not better. The blooms, the seed heads, the foliage, the drought tolerance, the soil tolerance, it's simply an easy to please plant that delivers every year! Pretty peely bark and with proper pruning technique it can be an elegant screening plant too.

Be sure to read the other posts from talented designers from across the globe who contributed to the Garden Designer’s Roundtable this month! Here’s links to make it easy:

What a HUGE honor for us here in the GDRT Gang- Don’t miss this months’ super special guest poster, none other than Nancy Ondra

Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA

Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA

Ivette Soler : The Germinatrix : Los Angeles, CA

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

Laura Livengood Schaub : Interleafings : San Jose, CA

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In the Garden : Los Altos, CA

Rochelle Greayer : Studio G : Boston, MA

Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay, CA

Also don’t forget to check us out on Facebook too! 

Cabernet and Chocolate Anyone? Sumptuous Bright Shade Border

What makes you stop dead in your tracks in the garden? This little bed did it for me!  The rich Cabernet tones and choice chocolate foliage in this very small space are layered together with silvers, blues and golds to make a tapestry effect for close up viewing near a gate entry.

This garden is on the North East corner in a very cool and moist area.  The soil was burmed up slightly to accommodate less than ideal drainage and give some scale and dimension to this low spot. Sambucus ‘Black Beauty’ is gaining some size here as one of the anchor plants, along with Rhododendron ‘PJM Improved’.

Winter Hazel, Ghost Fern, Hosta, Muhlenia, Hardy Fuchsia and Carex complete this combination. If you look closely, you may see the ‘Kangaroo Apple’ peeking its head up and getting ready to bust out in a purple flower show for summer soon!

Leave me a comment and tell me what combinations stop you cold, so that you can’t help but stand and stare. Wine and chocolate- yum!