Twenty-three years ago, the horticultural author and photographer Ken Druse produced a book urging us to go over to the dark side. It was titled “The Natural Shade Garden.”
Its images of lush, dewdropped foliage and woodland blossoms opened our eyes to the fact that the murkier part of our gardens was an asset, not a liability.
He revisits the subject this spring with “The New Shade Garden.” What has changed for Druse? Apart from the need to introduce a new generation of gardeners to the beauty of life in the shadows, he thinks the shade garden is an easier sell than it used to be.
With climate change comes a collective need to retreat from the heat of the sun, not to mention its skin-cancer powers, he argues. “Fortunately,” he writes, “we are no longer talking about suffering with shade or, heaven forbid, getting rid of it by cutting down valuable trees.”
Maybe. I still run into many people who perceive shade as a problem. “I have shade,” they say, in a tone of apology and regret. They are yearning for sweeps of flowering perennials, or a potager or merely a lawn.
And here’s another common situation: Gardens that started out sunny become shady. You can’t plant a privacy screen of large-boned evergreens and not expect them to come between you and the sun. The shade is gradual, yet cumulative.
But I am with Druse on this: The shade garden, done well, is not just an equal of the sun garden, it is the greater perfection. It relies less on flowers and more on shades of green and other leaf colors, on textures and on forms. It is quieter than the flower border and it is more calming. Here, you can find true serenity.
It is important to understand the different roles of plants — as ground covers, framing elements or accents, for example — and it is useful to see that a given area would benefit from removing that weedy black cherry or ailing dogwood. Most of all, in my view, the secret to building a successful shade garden is to allow yourself time and the freedom to make mistakes. As you progress, you will come to know the soil, the drainage and the light conditions, and adjust your plantings accordingly.
The most compliant shade gardens are those with tall, old hardwoods — and not too many of them — so that the woodland floor is graced with a filtered light that permits understory perennials, shrubs and trees to flourish.
Such a place can be hard to find. In general, I find that too many evergreens make for a leaden garden and that many an established shade garden could have a quarter of its lesser trees removed to bring light and air into the garden without changing its sylvan character. The sensitive removal of some lower branches can also enliven the place.
April and May are the most magical times in the shade garden. This is the period when the trees leaf out, and because it takes time for the canopy to develop, the shade grows almost imperceptibly. If it is wet during this period, the leaves tend to grow even bigger.
We may not be plugged in to this accretion, but the plant kingdom is keenly aware of it. The forest floor is full of plants that know they have to grow, reproduce and capture the energy of the sunlight before it vanishes. This is particularly the case with perennials that appear early in the year and then retreat into the earth by high summer. Known as ephemerals, they include the gorgeous Virginia bluebells, mayapples and dicentras.
Other, more lasting plants simply unfurl for the season during this period, and exhibit sculpture seen only at this time. I’m thinking of the horns of the emerging hostas, the strange mauve cones of the variegated Solomon’s seal and the fiddleheads of fern species. This singularly spring phenomenon brings young leaves that are gray (rhododendron), maroon (maple), chartreuse (hyssop) or even bright red (pieris) before they settle down to more subdued hues. Epimediums, valued for their mounds of arrow-shaped foliage, send up a haze of delicate flowers a couple of weeks before the new foliage joins them.
This dynamism is as exhilarating as the autumnal metamorphosis but, as Druse points out, “too few gardeners notice new growth on plants in the garden, and especially the shade garden.”
Needless to say, with various plants bursting into growth below and the trees doing the same from above, the shade garden is genuinely thrilling in the spring. There are so many attractive perennials at home in the shade garden that you can stop smothering the world in mulch and start to cover the ground with such beauties as ferns, hostas, brunneras, hellebores, cranesbill, hakone grass, astilbes, coral bells and foam flowers.
Make a path and set aside a place to sit. Create discrete areas shaped by hydrangeas, boxwood, osmanthus, viburnums, azaleas, hollies and camellias. At a key point, put in a dogwood, redbud or Japanese maple — the possibilities are endless.
If you want inspiration, take a trip out to the National Arboretum (now open every day again, thanks to funding from its friends group). The Azalea Collections may be mobbed, but take some time to stroll through Fern Valley and the Asian Collections.
Here you will find a world that is sensational and soothing at the same time. Quite a feat.