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Friday, October 25, 2013

Welcome to the Dark Side: Redesigning the Shade Garden

The beginning of the shade garden before I extended the beds. I extended them another 18 inches or so after this photo was taken.

I stand in the garden and stare. I do this often, all this standing and staring. I pace silently, my eyes scanning the shady beds, irritation rising in my throat like bile. The plants lie jumbled, a dog pile of leaves and stems. Brunnera squeezes past the hellebores for a quick glimpse of the sun, stretching across desiccated hostas and pop up violets to announce itself with a slight yelp.

The area at the base of the river birch is so dry several hosta nearly died.

 The top of this bed is at the bottom of a small hill and is moister than the area at the front. It's hard to tell in these photos, but this area is on a very slight slope.

Shallow and badly designed, I stop photographing this area come summer when spring blossoms no longer hide the mess. Perennials planted nine years ago clog the bed like commuters at rush hour, a blob of green in a narrow bed. The beds need to be extended and new plants added. I stop and mentally scan plant lists I've cataloged over the years. Bone dry shade: the list is short and frustration swells. Epimediums needed to be divided, the brunnera rescued, and the hostas given moister soil. The Solomon's Seal were slowly drowning in a sea of anemone canadensis and I couldn't find the bigroot geraniums or purple euphorbia. I analyze and fret.

This area is moister than the rest of the shade garden and features spigellia, Japanese anemones 'Honorine Jobert', pulmonaria 'Moonshine', as well as thornless blackberries and other perennials.

What if I pick all the wrong plants? What if you don't? What if it all looks craptastic next year? What if it doesn't? This is going to be a ton of work. Yes, it is. Now get your butt out there and get it done.

So I did.

I started by increasing the depth of the beds by about three to four feet and creating a deep curve. The curve helps catch rain and trap it in a drainage basin for the river birch. It also keeps this area moister. I removed all the sod with a shovel, laid it out to dry so the worms would return to the moister soil underneath, and then shook as much soil as possible from the grass before composting the remaining turf. Almost 40 bags of composted leaf mold were used to fill in the new extension. The hardest part of the redesign was finding plants that would thrive in dry shade but also attract pollinators. Plants that attract and support wildlife are marked with an asterisk. 

I've broken down each each area of the garden into different sections based on their light and moisture conditions. The area below receives morning sun and afternoon shade and has moist, well draining soil. Because visualizing how this will all look next spring/summer takes a bit of imagination, I've created collages to highlight the different plants I chose.

With the exception of the dwarf lespedeza, which I've already killed once, and the 'Lodden's Anna' campanula, all of the plants in this area are from other spots in the garden. 

The shade garden merges with my mostly sunny Founding Flowers garden, which was also redesigned. Two David Austin roses were transplanted to the sunny side (not pictured) while a swath of 'Romiley Purple' veronica * and a large patch of stokesia * were divided and added to the moist tip of the partly shaded curve. Variegated 'Ascot Rainbow' euphorbia and no name hostas were added for foliage interest.

Kalimeris is sold as a sun loving perennial but it grows well in bright, dry shade, too. Solomon's Seal purchased on clearance and already dormant has been planted in front of the crape myrtle. The northern  sea oats grass (chasmanthium) has already been cut back.

Because this area is so dry, a soaker will be added to keep the soil moister. The new drainage basin created by the deep curve will also help trap water, although it will quickly be devoured by the ever thirsty river birch. This bed is also full of anemone canadensis. Sedum 'Autumn Joy'* and 'Autumn Charm'* are also sun lovers that thrive in dry partial shade. I forgot to add the sea oats to the collage.

These won't all bloom at the same time. This bed features plants that bloom from late winter (hellebore) to fall (sedum). If you follow each collage from the upper left hand corner (hellebore) to the pink fluffy sedum in the middle, you can trace the bloom schedule of the plants in each bed.

There's no significance in the colored letters. The black letters were hard to see. 

The first plant to bloom in this area will be the Solomon's Seal (far left), followed by the red columbine and Bowman's Root. By mid summer the 'Goldsturm' rudbeckia (middle left) will be lush and colorful. This bed is an odd spot for a baptisia, but it's happy so I'm leaving it alone.

In the moistest part of the shade garden, broad leafed mountain mint * and 'Goldsturm' rudbeckia * - which thrives in moist, bright partial shade - were planted with a cluster of native Bowman's Root, Japanese anemone 'Max Vogel' and 'Honorine Jobert', 'Laura' geraniums pratense *, spigelia marylandica *, and native red columbine*. Pulmonaria 'Dark Vader' and 'Moonshine' were added to brighten the shady beds. I removed the plant that was growing between the mountain mint and the baptisia and will let the mountain mint fill the area.

This area is moist enough to keep the Japanese anemones happy but too dry to allow them to become aggressive. Short pink 'Serenade' hybrid anemones (non-aggressive) and 'Pink Octopus' campanula were added to the front border. It's possible the red and yellow columbine might clash with the pink and blue flowers of the pulmonaria. But it's also possible that I might not mind.

The first to bloom in this bed are the epimediums (upper left), followed by the columbine and Bowman's Root. The last to bloom are the pink 'Max Vogel' and white 'Honorine Jobert' Japanese anemones. 

This bed is at the bottom of a hill and is the moistest spot in my shade garden. However, because of the two crape myrtles, the soil is well drained. Epimediums can take very dry soil but after years of fighting for moisture with the river birch, I thought I'd give them a break by planting them in moister soil. There was much cheering and applause.

This collage also shows the bloom time of the plants, starting with the yellow epimediums in the upper left hand corner. These are followed by Golden Alexanders*, 'Chester Thornless' blackberries*, pulmonaria 'Moonshine', salvia koyamae, and spigelia marylandica*. The 'Chocolate' eupatorium* and Big No Name hosta aren't pictured.

The almost finished redesigned shade garden
I just need to add soaker hoses and mulch and I'll be completely done.

Shivering in my thin garden pants, I finally stand, my knee pads thick with compost, and begin to pace. I follow the new curve but don't analyze or fret. I just smile.

Most of the native and hard-to-find plants were purchased at Lazy S's Farm Nursery. The 'Max Vogel' anemones came from Bluestone Perennials. Everything else came from my local nurseries.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Everything That's Right

'Rozanne' geraniums that have bloomed since spring

'Sheffield Pink' mums that I look forward to all year

Well behaved 'Honorine Jobert' Japanese anemones

Golden Alexander (Zizia aptera) seedlings for a friend

Almost being done with my shade garden redesign

Favorite music and a bright blue sky 

Friday, October 11, 2013

Mischief Managed

I should have known when she handed me the bag and laughed that I was in for a surprise. "These are easy to grow", she offered. "I have them everywhere," she warned. I did not take the hint, too enthralled with my sack of green to listen carefully. Pretty flowers that would grow in dry shade. My heart pounded and my stomach clenched. I was in love.

Anemone canadensis grows effortlessly in dry shade near the southeastern native, Bowman's Root (Gillenia trifolata).

I dug a hole, stuck them in, and they grew. They thrived. They bloomed. They took over and I am no longer in love. As a matter of fact, they drive me crazy. They devour other plants like horticultural hippos, suffocating them with their insistent growth then blooming like fools to advertise their slaughter. I rip them out by handfuls but the stems merely break off at the surface as their roots remain securely fastened to the soil.

 Euphorbia, epimediums, bigroot geraniums, Solomon Seal, brunnera, and a fern have all battled these beautiful beasts and only a few emerged as victors. "Out!" I shout as my shovel sinks deep into the dry earth, but the anemone roots are indistinguishable from all the other roots and the war is over before it's begun.

The anemones' motto

I stand, arms folded, and stare at the garden. Fresh compost fills the newly extended bed, plants clumped neatly in the rich black loam, not an anemone in sight. I wonder where they will pop up first, their white cupped flowers beautiful in the dappled shade. Maybe I still love them a little.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Small Victories, Minor Mysteries, and Risks of Questionable Size

Small Victories

Sometimes the heart just wants what it wants.  My garden is full of purchases made with logic and reason but occasionally gut burning desire takes over and I come home from the nursery with a plant or three purchased on a whim. This approach usually works well with annuals, but perennials? Not so much.

I've lost count of how many times I've killed centranthus, commonly known as Jupiter's Beard or red valerian. A lover of hot, fast draining spots, it grows wild in the rocky soil of California. Visits home would fuel my desire to stuff my garden with its glaucas leaves and coral pink flowers, despite my abundance of clumpy clay soil. Driven by the conviction that I could manipulate my garden to grow what I wanted as opposed to what it wanted, I amended the soil, plopped in the plants, and waited. They died, a slow taunting death that reminded me I was not in control.

But a trip to England this summer and a picture of a massive patch of Jupiter's Beard growing in a friends Virginia garden rekindled my desire to try again. Outside of London, I whizzed past chunks of centranthus growing in rocky outcrops along the side of road embankments as I sat folded into the back of a friends 2 1/2 person Peugeot. While I should have been admiring the English countryside, all I could think of was the audacity of those damn plants to grow in a rock pile but die in my wonderfully amended soil. If they wanted a rock pile, I'd give them a rock pile.

The large flower heads are made up of lots of tiny tubular flowers, making Jupiter's Beard attractive to pollinators.

I moved this heavy urn from the top step to the bottom without killing myself. The urn is surrounded by plants waiting to be planted as part of my fall redesign. I'm waiting for rain so I can work the soil and an end to the government shutdown, which has furloughed my husband, so I can buy compost.

Except I didn't have a rock pile so I made one. I moved a mostly miserable 'Karley Rose' pennisetum out of this urn to a sunnier spot, stuffed the depleted soil with 10 cups of pea gravel, and planted a single centrathus. It grew. It flowered. I'm happy.

At last!

Minor Mysteries 

I've decided I'm not much of a vegetable gardener. With the exception of tomatoes, I choose my vegetables based on how much I enjoy eating them and the attractiveness of their foliage. I grew 'Sweet Chocolate' peppers in a pot surrounded by annuals and perennials, and imagined the purple-brown peppers as sweet accents to my garden design. Except I didn't grow a single purpleish brown pepper. What grew instead were red, heart shaped peppers that tasted like a pimento and don't match anything from the website where I purchased the seeds. But I've decided that's just fine. They're tasty. They're mysterious. I'm happy.

Mystery peppers

Risks of Questionable Size

I am a calculated risk taker. Gamble away hard earned money on dice or cards? Oh, sweet Mother of God, no way. Start a garden club and invite total strangers to your house? Sure, no problem. So when I decided to move a 'Major Wheeler' honeysuckle out of a pot - because honeysuckle doesn't want to grow in a pot - and into the soil at the base of a massive trumpet creeper, it seemed like a good idea. I still think it's a good idea.

This is what my trumpet creeper looks like today. I'll prune out any weird branches this winter. My neighbors and I love this vine. It gives us both privacy, flowers, and hummingbirds.

Ignore the mess at the bottom of the photo. I transplanted some sunshine starved blue mist flower seedlings into the spot in front of the honeysuckle vine. Despite their drama, they're doing just fine. I pruned the honeysuckle severely to remove any side branches and it's putting out new growth. I may prune a few more of  its branches to keep it from becoming a beast.

'Major Wheeler' honeysuckle
The variegated 'Harlequin' honeysuckle  pictured to the left was moved to a shadier spot.


This picture of the trumpet creeper was taken in early June. The rain garden has been extended significantly and the surrounding beds enlarged. I am in the process of redesigning most of this bed. By the end of summer, the bed was seriously cramped, a few plants had died from all the rain in June and July, and several plants needed either more shade or more sun.

The trumpet creeper loses its leaves at the first hint of cool weather, leaving a Medusa shaped mess hulking over my fence. The honeysuckle, in theory and after regular pruning, will grow through its branches and continue to provide interest and privacy until winter hits. I'm hoping the smaller flared flowers of  'Major Wheeler' will contrast pleasantly with the the trumpet creeper. It's transplanted. It's growing. I'm happy.