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From Our Gardens: Shade gardening

From Our Gardens: Shade gardening

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Nothing’s better than to greet spring with new foliage and flowers coming out everywhere in a shady garden or to enjoy its cooling shade in mid-summer.

I won’t try to describe the various types of shade, but everyone’s property has some. Even with no trees, there is shade cast by walls, fences and the north side of your house, all of which will vary with the season.

There are hundreds of plants that thrive in nearly every shady condition. With good soil prep, planting and maintenance, you can create your own paradise.

There’s no such thing as perfection, and no garden is ever quite finished. When I started my mostly-shaded garden 45 years ago, I said, “Give me 10 years, and I’ll have it like I want it.” I’m still saying that.

All gardens are in a state of flux. Plants die or look ugly for various reasons: Too much shade, too much moisture, not enough moisture, root competition, deer, voles and other things all take a toll. Older gardens begin to have too much shade, and a lot of time is spent pruning out dead wood, limbing up and reshaping trees and shrubs, or even taking out a tree.

We learn a lot by trial and error. It’s frustrating to cut off a “dead” branch and then find new growth at the end. Look twice, cut once.

Originally, I had several trees removed, leaving mostly nice oaks and dogwoods. This was to get more sunlight in to be able to create some lawn around my house and an area for a vegetable garden.

I do like my grass, but it struggles in the shadier areas, some of which have been returned to beds for plants that were just waiting for a spot. The perimeter of my yard remained more wooded.

My first project outside of the lawn was to create pathways through the shadier areas — nice, long, curving five-foot-wide paths wide enough for two people to walk side by side. Then I added some narrow intersecting paths about two feet wide for access to future planting areas. I covered the wider paths with fresh wood chips, and on the narrower paths, I used quarry siftings (grit).

This wasn’t done all at once, it evolved over a long time on an acre or more. Both paths need to be refreshed every two or three years. I throw the old rotted chips over into the plant beds.

With an abundance of oak leaves, grass clippings, kitchen waste, vegetable garden waste and sticks and leaves from pruning, I simply make compost piles in the areas between the paths. After a year, I spread them out and dig them in one shovel at a time, occasionally removing some tree roots and adding some top soil, compost or any organic material like soil conditioner or fine bark, some gravel and some dolomitic lime.

The result was perhaps 10 inches or so above the path level. Sometimes I use a small tiller to incorporate it all, keeping the tiller, mulch and amendments a few inches from any tree trunk. The gravel makes the beds firmer to step on, creates better drainage and discourages voles. I would use PermaTill-VoleBloc instead, but that gets expensive when you do large areas. I just use it now to put around hostas, voles’ favorite food.

Any new bed will settle after a few weeks. I may move on and come back to it later for planting.

My favorite shady-area plant is rhododendron, which can be difficult to grow and bloom well. It needs more sunlight during the summer than do azaleas or camellias in order to set flower buds for the next season. Those three — and many other plants — need fairly acidic soil. After testing the pH of your soil, you may have to modify those areas by adding aluminum sulfate. I also love Japanese maples, and they do well here.

One of the biggest gardening mistakes is to plant things too close to each other. Knowing what size plants may become, I space them accordingly and plant smaller things between, especially our native wildflowers. I put ground-cover plants, such as vinca, sweet woodruff and our native pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens), but I never plant English ivy. Grass-like Carex and Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa) add color. Don’t forget ferns. For interest, I may add a big rock here and there. Vary leaf color and texture and vary plant heights and shapes to create a natural-looking view.

Keep new plants well watered, especially the first year. Mulch plant beds well. I use chopped up leaves from the yard and/or aged wood chips.

Often in late fall, I will rake or blow the leaves out of beds into the paths or grass, mow over them, then blow them back in (Nell Lewis always did this in her wildflower garden). Sometimes I will run an old mower directly into a bed. Chopped leaves don’t blow away, and they break down faster than full-sized ones, and adding old wood chips on top helps create good organic soil.

It’s a job, but more than anything, it’s a labor of love. You learn from other gardeners what is inspirational or bizarre, and then you do your own thing.

Graham Ray, a retired dentist, avid gardener and curator of the dwarf conifer collection at the Arboretum. He also helped create the hosta garden, volunteers on the public gardens committee of Greensboro Beautiful and mentors other gardeners.

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