Made in Shade – Getting Started

Design, Garden Therapy Column, General Philosophy

This winter I am working on designs for the upcoming season and attending seminars and lectures here and there (busy and happy).   A number of my upcoming projects involve shady areas, so I have been thinking about shade gardens a lot.  I also had the pleasure of hearing Ken Druse, one the shade garden gurus, speak at an event put on by the Berkshire Botanical Garden.  He was promoting his book, The New Shade Garden and handed out a list of plants for the shade garden and showed a lot of pretty pictures.  You can view the plant lists on his website and see a lot of pretty pictures without spending $45 and driving to Lenox, MA but I did enjoy it.

I have always liked shade gardens, but they have been growing on me over the years and now I am loving them.  There are many great things about shade gardens.   First of all, they are in the shade and believe me that is a huge blessing when the sun is blaring.   Also, a woodland garden has a sense of peace, softness and tranquility that is hard to achieve in a sun drenched, splashier offering.  Hate weeding?  The you will be happy to discover that if the garden is shady enough it will be a lot easier to keep the weeds beat back.

Another big plus for me, is that I am more comfortable with shade gardens having a looser feel and not having clean edges.   They actually look best to me when they have tossed-off natural appearance.  I love the way many of the wooded areas I experience in the Catskills feel in their totally wild state.  Unlike most sunny areas which are often riddled with or dominated by invasive weedy plants, our shady areas have ferns, trillium, dolls eyes and a whole host of cool plants.  The worst weed in the shade that I can think of is garlic mustard and it doesn’t even have such a bad look and is blessedly easy to pull.   And, then there is the abundance of moss.  I love how the forest floor exhibits all the cool mosses, including the ones that cover the rocks and logs.  When I make a shade garden I like to put in lots of rocks with lichens and moss and I even put in some old fallen limbs and logs (hopefully with moss) to make it look more natural.  It may sound untidy and weird, but give it a try and you will see that it creates a very cool affect.

Creating a shade garden is quite a different story than starting in a sunny area without trees and can be a bit more challenging.  Occasionally we plan a shade garden with the intention of creating the shade or work with an area shaded by buildings or walls, but generally we start with an area shaded by trees.  I refer to this as a woodland garden.  The big difference with a woodland garden is that trees have roots and we do not want to damage them or our garden may not be shady for very long.  Also, while the soil in a wooded area is often rich it is usually not very deep and typically there is a tangle of feeder roots from the trees and other plants.

My basic approach to creating a new garden (in the Catskills) is to remove the sod or weeds with a backhoe (if possible) and bring in additional weed free good soil to amend our clay and rocks.  However, you can’t really do that in a garden in a wooded area and certainly not with heavy machinery.  We can dig as close as we can get to the trees without damaging the roots but we need to respect the drip line (although we can cheat a little and go a closer if we dig shallowly and carefully).

The approach to creating a woodland garden depends largely on the density of the trees and shade.  If the trees are not too dense and some dappled sun gets in, it is an ideal situation to create a beautiful shade garden with a lot of variety in plant material.  It is also easier to prepare the planting areas as the roots will not be as restricting.  In a denser woodland the plant palette is reduced, and planting is more tedious.   After removing the weeds or undesirable plants in the garden area it will probably be necessary to add some soil.   It is not a good idea to put more than 4 to 6 inches of new soil on top of the tree roots and I can hear some gardeners screaming that even 6 inches is too much!   The most important thing is to avoid putting soil against the trunk of the tree covering the bark and/or putting too much soil on top of the working root areas.  That leaves us having to dig carefully between bigger roots to plant and to mostly start with smaller plants that don’t require large holes requiring a lot of root disturbance.   Nature doesn’t plop large plants into the woods; it starts with a seed finding a happy spot, starting small and patiently growing roots out into the existing network to make its home.

Next month I will continue with the joys and challenges of the woodland garden and talk about some of my favorite shade-loving plants.

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