The shade garden

Last summer I got a wild hare to till up an area of ailing grass between our house and a row of enormous black pines and turn it into a shade garden.

Real gardeners will have already seen the flaw in this plan: the black pines. In the time since I have also discovered that the dirt back there is useless–I mean, even grass wouldn’t grow well. But by the time I knew this I already had a lot of lovely plants, so I’m going ahead full steam. I am going to make a shade garden happen.

This summer we wanted to install septic service to our workshop/guest cottage, a 1200 square foot building that is currently without water service. We had an engineer come out in April and he determined that a septic line would have to be trenched right through my nascent shade garden. Bollocks.

So I moved everything out of it, and that’s why I’m just now getting around to planting it up. The pipe has been installed, and inspected, and covered up, and the garden is well and truly mine again (and this time, the soil has been well turned up and aerated, at least.)

A tour of the area


The shade garden is approached by a few steps up from our driveway and gravel parking area. It is continuous with what I call the “terrace garden” or “driveway garden.” It’s planted up with a few things right now, but I plan to turn it into a grass garden next summer.


Here we are at the top of the steps. On the other side of the fence are the black pines. In the corner is the sole remaining laurel–the terrace garden used to be full of them, but they were overgrown and unhealthy, so we removed all but this one.


And here we are looking down the length of the shade garden from the same vantage point. This end of the garden is the “shady end.” A narrow bar of direct sunlight moves across it in the afternoon; other than that, it’s full shade.


And here is the length of the shade garden viewed from the other end, which I call the “sunny end.” This end receives several hours of direct sunlight. True shade plants suffer here.

And finally, here is a plot of the area:


I intend to put a circular patio in the middle of it, secondly because it will be nice to have a place for some chairs, but primarily because I need a safe place to drag the hose through for watering. The area is enormous–47′ feet long, if memory serves?–so this is necessary. For the time being the patio and paths will just be weed barrier tacked down by border edging, but in the future I will lay pavers.

So, now for the planting.

The Border

I’ve had most things heeled in in the border under the pines. It is dry there because the pines stop moisture from falling and their roots suck up what does fall. The soil is also ferociously ericacious–it consists of the pines’ fallen and composted needles, which makes it acidic and low-nutrition. There are precious few plants that will cope with it. Even natives like bunchberry and deer ferns struggle. The three plants that do fine in it, I’ve found, are


So that’s what I’m leaving in the border. I have about a gazillion hostas to work with; a few nice specimens (I like blues, greens, and whites; my favorites are Blue Ivory and Lakeside Paisley Print) but mostly sieboldiana and Patriot, which my local superstore sells as bagged roots in the spring. I will fill in the whole back of the border with these and front it with my few specimens of brunnera and as many pulmonaria as I can propagate.

Pulmonaria is a great plant, by the way. The foliage always looks good, the springtime flowers are striking, and it propagates by root cuttings, which means you get more of them by moving the ones you have once a year. The plant will quickly establish wherever you put it, and new plants will spring up in the hole you left behind.

At the very shady end of it I also have a Japanese aralia established and seemingly happy, so I will leave it, and two bleeding heart “Alba”s which have already died back for the season, so I don’t know where they are and can’t move them. C’est la vie.

The Sunny End

This end has something very close to full sun. Maybe not six hours a day, but several. I have three miniature box which I’ll plant along the edge and hope to eventually trim into box balls. I have a collection of heuchera which will go here, too, and scads of columbine “Barlow” mix. Other than that, I have to consider. This is not the inspired end of the garden, though the columbines will be lovely in spring.

Columbines are an excellent garden flower, by the way. If they’re happy–which it seems to me they are so long as they have good organic matter to get their roots into–their flowering spikes will be tall, almost at eye-level, so you can’t miss them. Once the flowers fade you trim the spikes off and you’re left with bushy greenery, about knee-high, that lasts all summer. They’re really useful for filling out planting schemes and easy to grow from seed. Highly recommended.

The Shady End

This is the inspired end. A lot of plants I have Special Feelings about go here. Among them:

-podophyllum Spotty Dotty, two specimens right now, maybe more later
-red lady ferns
-deer ferns
-several varieties of purple clover
-shamrocks in green, purple, and Iron Cross
-variegated wild ginger
-trilliums and jack-in-the-pulpits
-black snakeroot, which I’ve never been able to make happy before, fingers crossed
-rodgersia Bronze Peacock


I planted bulbs in the shade garden last autumn and they performed dismally. Because I’m amending the soil now I hope they’ll do better. If they don’t, I’ll give up on bulbs in this area. Among the ones I’m trying are:

-muscari in pastel colors
-snake’s-head fritillaries, which didn’t grow AT ALL last year
-leucojum or Giant Snowflake

Soil Amendment

This is the crucial thing. The soil that’s there is rocky and, now at the end of summer, dusty. As I plant I’m working in a 1 cubic foot bag of manure/compost blend for every trio of plants. In the spring I’ll add blood fish and bone meal, then a really heavy bark mulch. In the autumn I’ll put on more manure/compost. If I keep up this regimen, I hope to eventually have decent soil in this area.

The climate here in the Puget Sound region is somewhat difficult, by the way. The ground rarely freezes in winter and there’s no sustained extreme heat in the summer, but we’re very wet in the winter and very dry in the summer. We average 44″ of precipitation per year, about 90% of which happens in 50% of the year. In the summer we regularly go 90 days with less than a quarter inch of precipitation, often much less, sometimes none at all. This means that plants which want to drown and rot will do it in the winter, while plants that don’t want to dry out ever need constant tending in the summer.

We’ll see where it goes. We’ll see.


2 thoughts on “The shade garden

    • I’ve since learned that they’re notoriously difficult trees, and trees are bad news to begin with. Hostas can cope, though.

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