Thursday, 20 October 2011



Nearly every garden has a corner or border in deep shade, or ground under trees that presents a problem of just what to do with it. Its attractiveness and success can depend on your level of gardening knowledge or research. Today the internet can just about solve every garden problem once you learn how to search with text, images or even video.
There is no need to have a dull corner just because the area is shaded. A wee bit of research will reveal a host of plants suitable for all kinds of shade, flowering all year round, or having bright or interesting foliage. The shaded border provides a good challenge to test our gardening skills.
My first experience of tackling a shady problem was back in the early seventies when I bought my first house in a village called Bromyard in Herefordshire. It had an eighteen foot tall thorn hedge down one side separating our garden from the farmers freshly ploughed field and also spoiling my view of the Malvern hills. Being a lot younger then with more brawn than brain, the hedge was quickly dug out and I acquired a nice pile of potassium rich woodash. How was I to know that forty sheep were to escape from another field and wandering around the grassy field headland soon found my garden. I had not yet erected a fence. Early one quiet Sunday morning they all piled in just as the wife was trying to hang up her washing. I can still hear her screams. I think I got a bigger fright than the sheep. We were both fresh from the city (St. Mary’s) and did not know much about country life.
Next to the hedge was a forty foot oak tree casting shade over a large section of garden and I did not really know what to put under it. I had a strong spade, a sharp saw and any amount of horticultural energy so that tree was destined to follow the hedge. However the sheep episode made me think again, so the tree was spared and I had to apply my training to select suitable plants for this dry shaded area.
That summer we got a long hot spell and I spent many a pleasant hour in the shade of my oak tree.

Dry shade and wet shade

That area was a dry shaded area especially once the tree developed its canopy and the foliage absorbed any soil moisture available. Also the canopy tends to direct falling rain to its perimeter so the ground around the trunk is often quite dry. Some improvements can be made by removing some lower branches from the trees and adding compost or used growbags to the soil and cultivating it in lightly. A bark mulch will also help to retain some moisture.
Shaded areas can also be wet if there is no sunshine getting in to dry up the ground, or the garden is at the bottom of a slope or subject to poor drainage. Improvements can be made again with compost, or putting in some drains provided you have somewhere to take the water.  Each situation will demand a different range of plants. Plant selection will also need to consider exposure to frost, wind, drainage and type of soil as well as density of the shade.

Types of plants for shady borders

Some plants are happy in deep shade while others need some dappled sunshine, and many bulbous plants such as snowdrops, chionodoxa and anemone blanda get full sunshine in late winter and spring under the canopy of deciduous trees then die down and go dormant when the canopy closes over. This contrasts with Cyclamen hederifolium which flowers in late summer and autumn under trees then produces its leaves in autumn to enjoy the light when the trees are losing their leaves.
Variegated shrubs such as Euonymus fortune and Lonicera Baggesons Gold can really brighten up a shady border, but as the variegation reduces the plants green chlorophyll and ability to grow they are better in partial shade.
Many evergreens from holly, laurels and dwarf conifers to skimmia will grow happily in the shade.

Dry shade

Euonymus, mahonia, lonicera Baggesons Gold, most cotoneasters and epimediums will all thrive, and for ground cover some sedums and the variegated Lamium White Nancy is very eye catching. Japanese maples like dappled shade.

Wet Shade

Provided the ground is not a bog choose from a wide range of cornus, kerria, cotoneasters and skimmia, and as long as the moist ground drains ok choose some of the flowering camelias, rhododendrons, azaleas and pieris. For ground cover try trilliums, variegated ivy, hostas, bergenias, colombines and astilbe. Bamboo and New Zealand flax are also quite striking in form.
Some shade loving plants such as the Himalayan blue poppy like a moist but free draining soil.

Dundee Botanical Gardens

Many examples of shade loving plants and all with labels to identify them, in both dry and moist soil can be seen in Dundee Botanical Gardens, and if you visit the gardens you can also pop in to see my art exhibition running from today, Tuesday 19th October to Monday 31st October.
As a special treat on my opening day I will be offering a free glass of my new Saskatoon wine produced from this years berries. Although less than three months old it is very pleasant. It will improve after one year, and be a lot better after two, but will really be fantastic after three, if any bottles reach that stage. I think this may be the first Saskatoon wine produced in the UK.


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