Toronto Star column – published June 29, 2013
A cool mist rises from the land early in the morning as the lower temperature of the soil meets the higher temperature of the air. It is early morning and there is a golden moment this time of year at about 5:30 a.m. The birds know the importance of it: that is why they are announcing the arrival of a new day, waking up the entire neighbourhood in the process.
With summer officially here, all of us employ our ‘shelter seeking’ skills in an attempt to find shade and lower temperatures. It was just over a month ago that Toronto announced their first ‘heat alert’ of the season. As you sip a cold one under the shade of a tree, I would like to encourage you to observe what is happening on the ground around you. All too often I have heard it said by someone or other that they can’t garden because, after all, they only have shade in their yard.
I am here to change that and lend you a helping hand. There is no reason why you cannot have a great looking garden while living with shade. In fact, shady gardeners will tell you that they have the opportunity to spend more time in their yard and garden than their sunny counterparts. The shady gardener does not have to trouble themselves with cover-ups and sunscreen as the garden itself provides all of the protection they need.
Where to start
A well-treed lot begs for a woodland garden, if you ask me. A walk in the woods will demonstrate the effects of a natural carpet of green. Where trilliums stood proudly 6 weeks ago, other ground huggers have taken over. In an ideal world the cooling effects of a woodland garden can be replicated in your yard. Here is how.
1. Soil prep. As with all successful planting, there is no point in planting in second-rate soil. The floor of a mature deciduous forest is dense with a rich, humusy foundation that provides sustenance and water retention. When you haul in soil for the planting of your woodland garden, do not spread the usual triple mix, but look for a compost-rich mix that is weed-free. I recommend well decomposed cattle, sheep, or horse manure that has cured for at least 2 years. Like a good ham, the curing process is essential for the best results. Add about 30% sharp sand by volume to open it up and allow moisture to move thorough it efficiently.
2. Use lots of it. The new soil can be spread on the existing soil about 8 or 10 cm thick, but do not to put soil up against the trunk of existing trees. Leave the natural ‘flare’ exposed, where the trunk meets the ground.
3. Use nursery grown plants. When you are shopping for plants for your new woodland garden be sure to ask your supplier if they have been grown in a nursery. If they have been ‘harvested’ from the wild don’t touch them with a 2 metre planting stick.
4. Start small. No need to buy the expensive 3 or 5 gallon plants. The small ones cost much less money and will grow in and knit together at alarming speed.
What to grow?
Canadian Ginger [Asarum canadense]. A great ground cover that produces a broad, rounded leaf with a natural gloss that makes it attractive all season long. Hardy to zone 2; grows to 15 cm tall.
Japanese Spurge [Pachysandra]. I had a woodland garden at our last house and we also had a dog. After much experimenting, I discovered that pachysandra was the perfect fit for both the deep shade and the dog. It is an evergreen, therefore it looks good year round, it spreads by rhizomes, or roots, that create a dense carpet of green when planted about 15 cm apart in a grid formation. It takes about 2 years for the grid to disappear and the carpet to spread out before you. The dog could not kill it.
Sweet Woodruff [Gallium odoratum]. So named for their sweetly fragrant white flowers in late spring, sweet woodruff can be your friend or a royal pain in the neck, depending on where you want it to grow. It can spread where you don’t want it. Remember, plants don’t speak English. How is your Woodruff to know exactly where you want it to grow? They love a woodland setting but will tolerate some sun. Growing to only 10 cm high, it is one of the lowest growing of the woodland plants.
Deadnettle [lamium]. Whoever came up with the common name of ‘deadnettle’ wasn’t thinking. This is a very respectable plant that deserves better treatment. The variegated foliage and signature blue, purple, or white flowers are worth the wait come late spring. There are over 60 varieties to choose from, so go nuts. But keep in mind that this plant will travel through a flower bed like snakes on a rock if left unchecked. Dig out and compost the unwanted parts as needed. Matures to about 20 cm. Hardy to zone 4.
Barrenwort [epimedium]. When I lived in Unionville in our wooded lot I wished that someone had told me about epimediums early on. They are not ground covers, as are the perennials mentioned above, but they are low growing, flowering perennials that produce the most interesting flowers. Shaped like bells, they hang in clusters just over the heart-shaped foliage below. With only a little imagination I can picture the flower fairies nesting amongst the barrenworts. Ask your kids if they can find them.
Solomon’s Seal [Polygonatum biflorum]. Another white flowering plant, but this one is a stand out. At maturity it grows to 60 cm high and features a charm bracelet of white flowers that hang beneath the foliage. I have seen Solomon’s seal used to best advantage in raised beds, where you can see underneath the foliage. To miss the flowers in early June is a crime. This is where the gnomes hang out by the way. Get the kids to check them out.
As your plans for a beautiful ‘shade garden’ develop, you will find yourself shaking your head every time someone says to you, “I would garden, but I have too much shade.”
Question of the Week
Q/ In a previous column you mentioned a mixture of sand and grass seed which I can use to repair dog ‘spots’ in the lawn. What is the ratio of sand to grass seed?
A/ Mix ½ pound of grass seed with 10 pounds of sharp sand. This same mixture is used on golf courses to repair divot marks.