Focusing on Foliage in the Shade Garden
Our yard is predominately shade, with a couple of sunny areas, so overall I consider it a shade garden.
Color is secondary in my shade garden, with the primary focus being on foliage. For a brief period in spring, there are spots of bright color from flowering bulbs such as daffodils and tulips followed by large swaths of colorful Azalea and Rhododendron blooms. All summer long, the annual Impatient flowers scattered throughout the yard provide bright spots of color.
Most of the interest in our shade garden is foliage. Looking out any window of our home at any time of the year, there is foliage to rest the eyes on. It is a bit sparse in winter with only evergreen trees and bushes with leaves, but in summer it is lush with foliage from the high reaching canopy of shade trees down to small ground hugging plants. There is foliage of various sizes and shapes. For color, there are many shades of green, variegated leaves, and different shades of red.
Foliage in the shade garden began as a process of layering plants from the top down, meaning starting with the existing trees and adding plants from larger to smaller under the trees. I used this method of planting in the sunny areas too.
There were already old growth trees on the lot when we bought our home. The lawn was a paltry scattering of grass clumps in hard clay which struggled to grow under the trees. There was no topsoil in the yard, except next to the front of the house, due to erosion. Where the grass struggled to grow under the trees, I planted Rhododendrons between the trees first. Next came many Azalea bushes. Mulch was spread around all of the bushes.
Mulching accomplished several things other than aesthetics: it kept the soil moist, the soil temperature more even so it is not too hot in summer and does not freeze in winter, keeps the weeds under control (sadly does not prevent them), prevents erosion and provides a habitat for small creatures such as lizards and snakes. Now that there is a nice layer of humus under the bushes and trees, I usually only spread wood chips along the edges and on paths, leaving the leaves to act as a natural cover.
After a few year the bushes started filling in the areas under the trees and I was able to concentrate on the smaller plants such as Hostas along the edges of the shade areas and along paths. The smaller plants invite a person to examine the garden a little closer and many of them provide spots of color to create other focal points. Some are lovely just for the foliage such as Snow on the Mountain which makes a great blanket of texture. Then there are small flowering shade plants such as are: Hostas which bloom white and lavender, Bleeding Hearts with their rows of pink and white hearts, Solomon Seal which has shy little white with green accents flowers hiding under their leaves, Blood Root not only has wonderfully shaped leaves, but has delightful white blooms in spring and lemon scented geraniums with petite pale pink blooms. For winter blooms, there is Hellebores’ bright green nodding blooms. (See an earlier post for picture of Hellebores blooms at night.) There are many more shade loving small plants.
There are other bushes with interesting foliage that inhabit the shade or semi-shade in our yard. There Illicium Floridanum bushes which are actually Florida native plants. They have a leaf similar in size and shape to a Rhododendron, but with a pointed tip and the leaves are a slightly paler and more yellow green. They have a small, but very interesting deep red flower. The variety of Spirea bush that grows at the base of the Burning Bushes have small yellow green leaves on long arching thin branches and is covered with lovely clusters of tiny flowers in summer. The leaves of the deciduous Burning Bushes turn bright red in fall before falling off and leaving the stiff upright branches visible for winter interest. Although not considered bushes, but are small enough to be, are the cut leaf Japanese Maple Tree with its bright green leaves and the weeping Witch Hazel.
The plants are layered visually in the sense that the trees are the tallest surrounded by the bushes and finally the smaller plants in front of the bushes. The view from the tops of the trees down to the ground is layers of foliage.
With so much foliage, the garden would be monotonous if all the leaves were the same size or the same shape or the same color. By consciously selecting plants and arranging them to show off their foliage, it makes the garden more interesting. This is done by placing plants together with foliage of contrasting sizes, shapes and colors. Of course some of the plants have been placed by birds dropping their seeds or by them spreading beyond where I originally intended, and often with interesting results. If you want an interesting garden in the winter, be conscious of what is evergreen. Not all plants need to be evergreen for them to add interest. For example, the Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick bush (Contorted Filbert) is more interesting in the winter without foliage when its twisting branches are visible against a backdrop of snow or grey winter sky.
Having plants of various foliage types deliberately planted to showcase their foliage will make for a rewarding garden, one that is interesting to explore year-round.