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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.