Monday, April 14, 2014

Is Your Garden Made in the Shade?

by Susan Sylvia

I promised I wouldn't say anything about the inhuman length and fierceness of this past winter, and how perfectly sublime it is just to see last season's dead grass in my yard. And I would be too embarrassed to mention how spotting the little nubbins of crocus and iris reticulata poking up through the remaining snow in my garden yesterday made me jump up and down like a six-year-old with a new puppy.

Since I'm not commenting on any of that, let's talk gardening.

Gardeners always dislike owning up to gardens that are like an opening scene of Plants Behaving Badly. Whether a plant has a proclivity for 1) covert underground infiltration of its unsuspecting neighbors, 2) startlingly promiscuous self-sowing, or 3) the kind of disdain for its environment that leads to an early demise, no gardener wants to waste time and money trying to encourage everyone in the garden to get along.

Gardening professionals know this about us, so for years we've been plied with lists of "reliable plants for the garden." There is plenty of information out there about shade-tolerant plants, and elsewhere recommendations for cold-tolerant plants. Unfortunately, we end up with an overwhelming, annoying glut of non-specific information from many different sources, when all one really needs is a good idea for a plant to fill the hole left by the poorly chosen specimen of last season (may it rest in peace).

This problem is never more evident than to the New England gardener. Many gardens in these parts feature expanses of unwelcome shade, because yards are so often carved out of the abundant forests in the region, and remain surrounded by tall trees. Add to this New England's four seasons to contend with—June, July, August, and Winter—and these challenges all dogpile on top of the basic reliability that we look for in a good garden plant.

It's a tall order to find plants that have all the qualities we want. Sort of like finding the right man.

Where the qualities of hardiness, shade tolerance, and reliability collide, we find The Shady Lady's Guide to Northeast Gardening, the horticultural equivalent of In it, author Amy Ziffer hones down all the excess generic gardening hoopla, weeding out plants that will be nothing but trouble around here, and leaving us with a selection of great plants that will actually work in the New England garden.

Ziffer, a Master Gardener and professional garden designer affectionately known as the Shady Lady, runs her own gardening business in Connecticut and lectures all over the Northeast on the subject. This puts her in the perfect position to vet a comprehensive, reliable go-to list for the average Northeast gardener who doesn't want to take the trouble.

Nodding mandarin (Disporum maculatum) © Amy Ziffer

A number of years ago, I installed a large deep-shade garden for a close friend, and I wish I had had this book—the plants Ziffer profiles would have been far better than some of the choices I made at the time, creating a garden that incited many skirmishes between warring factions and scads of random suicides. (By the way, don't plant the carniverously invasive Aegopodium Podagraria [goutweed] near anything, especially not small children.)

When I chose plants for that garden, Cimicifuga, Hosta, Aruncus (Goat's Beard), and Lungwort formed the framework, and Lamium and Lamiastrum Galeobdolon were the only good options that I knew of for the dry shade under those really inconvenient pine trees at the edge of the yard. These mainstay plants are, indeed, included in Ziffer's guide. But she goes way beyond that, recommending plants that I would never, otherwise, have the courage to try.

She begins by presenting a good-sized list of plants that can be used to create a backbone for your shade garden, both for deep shade and light shade—plants that she has worked with a lot and knows perform well. We see names like Kirengeshoma (Yellow Waxbells), Stylophorum diphyllum (Celandine Poppy), and Sarcococca hookeriana (Sweet Box), none of which I'd ever paid attention to before, possibly because I couldn't pronounce the darn names and didn't want to embarrass myself in front of my local nursery professional.

We learn about culture, light requirements, form, size, bloom time and all the other get-to-know-yous for each plant. And she very kindly lets us know if a plant may have a teensy bad habit or two that can be forgiven. Armed with this thorough information, I can say that I would now feel confident marching right down to the nursery and giving some of these new plants a try.

Marginal fern (Dryopteris marginalis) © Amy Ziffer
From this basic backbone, Ziffer makes recommendations for "accent plants," bulbs, spring plants that go dormant in summer, plants for neutralizing, and even some native ferns that will actually behave in the garden and can be left in place for years. And—get this—she has unearthed an ornamental grass that will do well in light shade!

Ziffer loads her book with handy features, including index markers at the edge of each plant's page with its USDA zone, so you can flip through the book and stop at the plants that won't give up the ghost during their first winter in your garden. She lists her best picks for groundcovers, native plants, choices for moist areas and rock garden, and plants that will do well in either shade or sun.

All this great info-at-a-glance is good for my inner-adolescent needing instant gratification—without the fluff!

I'm adding this one to the shelf in the shed.

Follow the Shady Lady, Amy Ziffer, on Facebook and find out where she'll be speaking around New England this spring and summer.

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