Shady areas of a garden can have a magic of their own; a tucked away secret corner with a statue surrounded by ferns or a woodland area where there is plenty of light early in the year so that spring bulbs, Camellias and early perennials flourish.
Many of us are daunted by dry, shady borders in our gardens but there is plenty of choice when it comes to planting up these areas and they can look good through the year if plants are selected carefully.
Shady areas come into their own in spring, when leaves on trees have not yet emerged to block out much of the valuable light that plants need for photosynthesis - the process by which plants convert light into energy allowing then to grow. Early perennials such as Pulmonaria (Lungwort) and Brunnera (Perennial Forget Me Not) begin to flower, along with Hellebores and spring bulbs. Snowdrops are especially at home in a woodland setting, where they pierce through leaf litter in January and flower to let us know winter is almost done. Hard on the heels of Snowdrops are dwarf Narcissus (Daffodils) which look beautiful planted with the evergreen groundcover Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae, whose acid yellow flower clusters enhance the pure yellow of varieties such as Narcissus ‘February Gold'.
Pulmonaria are amazing plants, starting to flower as early as January in sheltered gardens. They will then continue to produce their clusters of tubular flowers until well into early summer when they should be cut down to the ground, leaves and all, given a feed of general fertilizer and a mulch of well rotted garden compost around the crowns of the plants. The reward for this little bit of care are beautiful leaves through the growing season, adding to the tapestry of foliage that shady borders assume through the summer months, when there are, perhaps fewer flowers to look at.
As well as perennials, there are plenty of shrubs that love to show off in shade and these include Camellias with their glossy evergreen leaves and exotic flowers that will light up the area in spring. Look out for the reliable ‘Donation’ and ‘R.L Wheeler’ in shades of pink or try the earlier, double flowering white variety ‘Noblissima’.
Mexican Orange Blossom (Choysia ternata) also thrives in shade and despite the common name is very hardy. Evergreen leaves frame the flat clusters of white flowers which are produced in spring and again in autumn and the plant can be pruned hard if it outgrows its space. An added bonus with this beautiful shrub is the wonderful sweet scent that will waft around the garden and attract plenty of bees and other insects.
If you tidy your border in early spring, there should be little maintenance through the rest of the year. Remove the previous year’s growth from perennials and add this to your compost heap before applying a mulch of rotted compost or chipped bark to help seal in moisture and keep the weeds down. Feed your border each spring with a general fertilizer once new growth is underway and your plants will reward you for many years to come.
A trip to East Anglia recently found us in the stunning Winter Garden at Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire. The day was crisp, clear and cold – the sort of cold that hurts your nostrils as you breathe in and one where you would not want to be without a pair of gloves or your camera! It was perfect weather to appreciate the bare skeletons of coloured Dog Woods, their vibrant colours dulled somewhat by a dusting of frost, but still shining especially when the weak, winter sun hit them and turned the frost to water.Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ is just that – a twiggy bonfire of branches which are bright orange with red tips through the winter. In spring and summer, the plants make pleasing mounds of pale, yellowish green leaves before colouring to orange and yellow in autumn. Cornus alba ‘Aurea’ is more upright if kept ‘stooled’ (pruned to a basic framework close to the ground) every other spring. Deep red branches provide the interest through winter and the leaves emerge bright yellow in spring, ageing to rich gold. Flower clusters are freely borne and in autumn, the leaves turn plum, red and pink – a complete surprise compared to the summer livery of this plant!Scent was provided by the Christmas Box (Sarcococca) whose leathery evergreen leaves made thick mounds at the front of borders near the main paths’ dusted with frost. The sweet scent from the tiny, strand like blooms was appreciated by visitors, along with the scent of well established drifts of Viburnum x bodnantense that were smothered in pink flower clusters set off by the gnarled brown bark that showed the plants age. Standing behind the Christmas Box were masses of the olive green upright stems of Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’ – an old variety but still one of the best for this unusual colouring. Miscanthus grasses stood proudly in borders, although their flower heads were bowed down by the weight of frost in sunless corners and Whitewash Brambles, with a few late leaves hanging on the prickly stems, made impenetrable frameworks of creamy stems. Sheraton Cherries added a stately air with their shiny mahogany bark and elegant shapes while Twisted Hazels made a confused mass of curly branches and the beautiful evergreen shrub Garrya elliptica was putting on its winter show of pendulous catkins, defying the low temperatures.Witch Hazels, not yet in flower, bristled with buds ready to burst open and show off their spidery blooms in citrus colours like strands of marmalade, also packing a punch with their zingy perfume. Thickets of Mahonia were already in flower, their exotic looking leaves crowned with tumbling racemes of golden yellow flowers undeterred by the heavy frost and with plenty more green buds waiting to unleash their powerful ‘Lily of the Valley’ scent. With so much to look at it’s difficult to pick a favourite piece of planting from this garden but perhaps the most dramatic has to be the glade of white stemmed Himalayan Birch planted en masse with brown bark mulch added to the soil beneath, enhancing even more the whiteness of the trees’ bark. The area was peaceful and uplifting – just as a garden should be.
We have bought our Christmas cards, ready to be written on dark evenings, but I am determined to spend the last autumn days in the garden (when it is not raining!) before the Christmas rush begins in our household. The garden is really starting to change now, with most of the leaves off the trees and the last of the perennials to cut back. I like to get as much done as possible before the beginning of December when thoughts turn to Christmas preparations and the dreaded ‘indoor jobs’ which usually mean decorating a room or fixing something! Leaving routine garden tasks until the New Year can sometimes be a problem with wet soil and bad weather making things take twice as long!
Time seems to have flown by this year - it definitely does as you get older - and I am already planning for next spring, with the allotment cropping programme to write and the last of the spring bulbs to go in this week. More Tulips have been purchased from Notcutts, to be planted in pots for the patio and I couldn’t resist picking up some white Anemone blanda and Scilla for the area by the dining room. At the moment, with plants jostling for space it is difficult to remember how much spring bulbs are appreciated filling the borders before perennials begin to grow and shrubs put on their green summer coats in May.
My raised beds have been built and I am looking forward to moving the salad crops from the allotment so that they are easier to harvest as we need them. I am hoping to grow some more Dahlias here as well and will be on the lookout for some of the miniature ‘pom pom’ varieties when they are in stock at Notcutts as tubers next spring. They are some of the best flowers for arrangements – the more they are cut the more they flower! The scented white Lilies that we have had in pots for years are also favourites of ours through the summer and I will be looking to add to these as well.
Christmas is fast approaching now and Notcutts will soon have their cut trees in stock in the outdoor planteria. We like to buy ours early and keep it in its net in the garden shed, well watered, until it is time to bring it into the house and decorate it. I love the strong pine scent of Norway Spruce but prefer the softer needles of the Fraser Fir, which is a narrower alternative to the Nordmann Spruce. Last year we had one of each but this year we are going away over Christmas, so will stick to one large tree for the lounge and if I have time a ‘twig tree’ using suitable branches from the garden to go in the dining room.
Twig trees are useful to show off ‘special’ decorations and over the years we have collected many, mainly from Notcutts who always have a unique range that we find irresistible!
No doubt on our frequent visits running up to Christmas we will be tempted again, whilst we are busy finding the perfect presents for friends and relatives!