Shade adds tranquility to a garden

It’s a common lament: “My garden is shady and boring. All I can grow are hostas!”
I beg to differ. I delight in shady garden spaces — cool, tranquil places for people, and home for plenty of interesting plants.
Dick and I love to retreat, cup of tea in hand, to a favorite garden bench under the trees, a private outdoor room complete with leafy ceiling, richly patterned carpet and a view to the sunny border beyond.
While shady corners may not have the color and sizzle of a sun-drenched perennial bed, it is surely the contrast between these complementary spaces that creates a balanced whole. Think of it as the “yin and yang” of the garden. And, to be complete, a garden needs some of each.
Since most of us are familiar with the yang of an exuberant sunny border, let’s take a look at creating some counterbalancing yin in a cool shady space.
Firstly, to have shade you need trees. Trees also create structure in our gardens, and it behooves us to make the most of them.
With a little thoughtful pruning, you can transform any tree into a living sculpture. Begin by “pruning it up”: remove the lowest branches so that you can walk around unimpeded. This will also let more light reach the plants below. Now prune off any branches that clutter the tree’s interior, so that those remaining have space to develop fully. Make your cuts right back to the main trunk or, in the case of multi-stemmed trees and shrubs, at ground level, being careful not to leave short stubs that encourage disease.
As an example of creating structure with trees, about 15 years ago I planted a trio of shadblow serviceberries, (Amelanchier canadensis), to frame the corner behind our woodshed. Shadblow serviceberries are small, multi-stemmed trees that mature at about 12 feet in diameter, so together my three plants created a nice shady bed, approximately 24 feet by 24 feet, on the ground.
Shadblow serviceberries have a lot of branches that, left unchecked, will grow into in a tangled mess. So I selected the half-dozen strongest stems and removed the rest. I have been rewarded with three delightful vase-shaped trees that add structure and personality to this shady corner.
To create eye-level interest in your shady corner you can also grow shade-tolerant shrubs in the vicinity of, but not right under, large trees like maples.
I am extremely partial to the “Northern Lights” azaleas — Bright Lights, White Lights, Lilac Lights, etc. — bred from the “Roseshell azalea” that I find growing wild on our local Mount Moosalamoo. My personal favorite is White Lights, which has beautiful creamy-white flowers tinged with pale pink, and blooms in my garden around Memorial Day.
This is followed by a succession of fragrant “summer-flowering” azaleas, bred from our native swamp azalea, starting with Weston’s Innocence in early June, followed by Pink & Sweet, Parade and finally Lemon Drop in early August.
Ninebarks are another type of shrub that can add structure to a shady corner. While the native ninebark (Physocarpus opufolius) is a large but rather boring shrub, plant breeders have produced a number of attractive cultivars of varying sizes with either bronze or yellow leaves. A few years back, to light up a shady corner of my garden throughout the season, I planted a pair of the golden-yellow Physocarpus “Lemon Candy.” These shrubs grow just four feet high and wide — a perfect size for a smaller garden — and you can buy them at Rocky Dale Nurseries in Bristol.
A compelling spatial plan
Recently I passed a group of in-town houses, each with a long narrow straight bed of hostas hugging the north walls. Not too exciting!
But, with a little imagination, any one of these beds could be reshaped to create an interesting ground plan. A little widening along the length and a gently curving arc around the corner of the house would make all the difference. This corner spot in turn would make the perfect spot for a small, shade-tolerant tree like our native pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia).
So, as you contemplate those shady areas around your house, sketch up different ground plans until you find something that will truly contribute to the overall picture, rather than just taking up space. Perhaps you can incorporate a bench as an invitation to stay awhile. You will be surprised what a difference a few shape changes can make!
Seasonal dynamics
There are three seasons in a shade garden: spring flowers, summer tapestries and winter skeletons.
In spring, the sun reaches down to the ground through the leafless trees, and the shady corners of my garden are a riot of early flowers. These spring beauties — bloodroot, squills, daffodils, twinleaf, Virginia bluebells, lungwort, forget-me-nots, woodland phlox, bleeding heart, globeflower, blue poppies, lady’s slipper and many more — epitomize the excitement of the new year in the garden. This is a fleeting time to be enjoyed while it lasts.
But in summer the shade garden has an entirely different personality. Now the leaves are the star attractions, a display that lasts and lasts, right until frost.
Many shade-loving plants have large leaves — all the better to collect the light — offering a huge variety of shapes and textures for the artistic gardener to play mix-and-match. There are even wonderful color variations to stir your imagination; not all greens are the same and not all leaves are green.
Here are some suggestions for creating beautiful tapestries of leaves:
Beyond green: Heuchera, Ligularia dentate.
Lacy textures: Ferns, Astilbe, goatsbeard.
Arrowheads: Epimedium.
Broad, crinkled surfaces: lady’s mantle, Rodgresia, Darmera and, yes, many beautiful varieties of Hosta, too.
The final season is, of course, winter, when your trees and shrubs really stand out, especially in the snow. So, as you prune, give thought to how they will look in winter when your efforts will show off to best advantage.
Last but not least, use a favorite decoration to create an evocative highlight.
As we have seen, for much of the year, the predominant color in the shade garden is green, making it the perfect backdrop for an eye-catcher such as a small pool or an elegant pot.
The result will be serene, tranquil, and very yin.
Judith Irven and Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a Vermont Certified Horticulturist and teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. You can subscribe to her blog about her Vermont gardening life at Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see more of his photographs at www.northcountryimpressions.

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