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Allan designs and plants flowering gardens in Montreal, Zone 5 [USDA Zone 4] .

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Entries in shade gardens (6)


Six Steps to Creating Grassless Tree Lawns and Shade Gardens

A reader submitted the following inquiry:-

I am dying to transform my Williamsville NY tree lawn into something more than grass! I am thinking wildflowers but also need to keep in mind that I can’t have anything in the lawn that would obstruct vision when entering exiting the drive. I'd like to start this soon - any helpful ideas, suggestions!!!

Here is my reply:-

Step One. Decide upon a desired appearance of the completed tree lawn when grass has been removed and plants have been installed. If this proves to be a challenge, close your eyes and dig deep inside yourself to imagine the finished project. It’s easier than you might think. That idealized image will influence the choices you make as the project progresses.

Keep in mind that there is a difference between a tree lawn and woodland. The tree lawn may be a studied, deliberate composition while the woodland has a more spontaneous, naturally surprising feel about it.

The most inspiring advice for planting a beautiful spreading, woodland is found at the garden blog Carolyn’s Shade Gardens. This site is a beautifully illustrated treasure of suitable information.

In addition to the overall visual impression or mood that one wants the garden to convey, consider a garden’s personality. The choices are "wild and messy", "neat and trim" and "casual”.

Wild and messy refers to a combination of wildflowers, self-seeding woodland perennials, and other plants whose forms tend to be untidy.

Neat and trim implies a composition of tame and mound-like plants that respect a predetermined linear planting design. Such disciplined plants increase in size at a conservative rate.

A casual garden uses the same mound-like tame plants that are found in neat and trim but in an unstructured, informal collage-type arrangement. This style of planting may be achieved with a deliberately abstract placement of plants or by distributing them randomly and haphazardly throughout the garden.

Step Two. Select a procedure for effectively removing grass. That process will be influenced by one’s acceptance or disapproval of herbicides, [a very controversial topic, with valid arguments pro and con] and by local environmental by-laws that govern the use of such products.

When evaluating a grass removal procedure, one must consider the amount of time available for the task, the amount of physical energy one can muster, and one’s comfort with mechanical, chemical, and organic methods. In her book Beautiful No Mow Lawns, Evelyn J. Hadden identifies 5 different ways to remove grass from an existing lawn. It’s a must read.

Step Three. Inspect the density of the soil. Have the trees reached a maturity that makes the soil so dense with roots that it is difficult to dig there?

If the soil is root-bound, there are two options: One may use a roto-tiller to chop up the tree roots that grow close to the surface. While this method is effective, it can risk compromising the health of the trees. Some mature trees might be unaffected by surface roto-tilling, while others may be damaged. [It is wise to consult an arborist for advice on this subject]. Or, one can build raised beds about two feet high, above the root-bound soil, to create a happy growing place with minimal damage to the trees.

Soil amendments that are needed - and those that are always beneficial, like compost - should be considered at this point.

Step Four. Research the garden’s USDA hardiness Zone; that detail is important when selecting plants.

Step Five. Determine if the tree lawn creates part shade or full shade and if its soil is dry, moist, or normal. Dry means that neither natural rainfall nor irrigation hits the lawn. Moist implies a garden that is damp more than it is dry.

The information gathered will help determine what is or isn’t plantable around the trees. When researching suitable plants, or when perusing an online garden catalogue, look for adjectives in the product descriptions that match the garden’s growing conditions.

[It is at this point that one also starts paying attention to the mature height of suitable plants. My reader specifically requested plants that do not block her line of vision when entering or exiting the driveway.]

Step Six. Evaluate the role of aggressively spreading plants and ground cover perennials that sometimes grow for "miles". Is the area encompassing the tree lawn ample enough to accommodate such plants?

A garden is not a naturally occuring place. It is created by humans from a figment of imagination and, as such, it remains forever a work in progress. These six steps are only the beginning. There will always be something new to consider, to add, or to remove.


Shady Woodland Retreat as Secret Fairy Garden; a guest post by Ronald Gauch

In keeping with this blog’s theme about gardening as a source of pleasure, and to reflect the strong interest in shade gardens, I am pleased and honored to share this guest post with my readers.

The very shady area between the driveway and the back entrance to the red frame summer cottage had always been a problem. The cottage was built during the civil war and there were three very tall pine trees whose umbrella of branches and leaves hovered over the area, making it almost impossible for anything to grow there.

For years my mother-in-law, would vigorously scrape up the area with a rake, throw some seed down and wait for the grass to sprout. The first year there would be a nice lawn, the second year the lawn would be so-so, by the third year we were back to where we started: an area where nothing would grow.

When I inherited the garden, I wondered if there was a better way to use this space. I got a break shortly after when one of the tallest pine trees died, letting in the some much needed sun.  I decided to create a woodland shade garden.

Along the house, a few very large hostas seemed very happy so I split them and added a few more to the basic frame for the garden.  A cobblestone walkway leading from the driveway to the doorway bisected the garden and I decided to enclose the entire southern section (it received the most sun) and screen it so it had a concealed feeling.

I chose Arborvitae to block off the driveway and to create a barrier along the southern line and planted climbing hydrangeas, tying strings up to some nearby trees so the climbing foliage would be taller and denser.

A mix of rhododendron, ferns and azaleas were planted along the walkway and I introduced pebble paths that wandered through the foliage. One path leading from the walkway into the center of the southern garden became home to a green patio chair and table set. Various plants (annuals and perennials) surrounded this centerpiece, which also contained a small water fountain.

Slightly larger perennials, like coneflowers and Joseph’s Ladders, a woodsy Adirondack chair and a metal birdbath radiated out from the same center.  The net effect was like being in a secret garden, although my granddaughter preferred to call it a fairy garden

The garden on the north side was still handicapped by a lot of shade and I planted it in a more conventional manner. The pebble path winds through hostas and English ivy and around its centerpiece, a small ivy-edged pond that is shaped like Lake Huron, apropos since the front of the cottage looks out on that magnificent lake.

There is an assortment of astilbe, ferns and other shade loving plants that occupy this area as well. Some few annuals – begonias, dahlias on a sunny edge - provide color and texture. Partially hidden statues of a child reading and an angel musing at the pond’s edge seem to be secrets a visitor – or grandchild – can discover.

Each year the garden grows, as I experiment with new plants and flowers, but this once barren ground is now alive and flourishing and giving a family and friends  - as well as the gardener - pleasure.

Scientist, educator, and author Ronald Gauch, Phd. is retired Associate Dean and Associate Professor at Marist College, School of Management and Faculty member of the Center for Lifetime Study. He gardens both in Hyde Park, New York, across the way from the historic Vanderbilt Estate, as well as in Lexington, Michigan, on beautiful Lake Huron.

Links to Works by Ronald Gauch

Statistical Methods for Researchers Made Very Simple (2000)

The Changing Environment in Management Information Systems [Public Personnel Management, 2005]

It's Great: Oops, No It Isn't: Why Clinical Research Can't Guarantee the Right Medical Answers (2009) 


Brunnera Jack Frost; Does it Really Need a Perennial of the Year Award? 

Photo by Walters Gardens, Inc.

Recently, the Perennial Plant Association selected Brunnera Jack Frost as Perennial of 2012. Many of my garden writing colleagues reported this news as the innocuous, recurring, marketing strategy that it is; except for one who was unhappy. This garden writer argued that such awards are responsible for taking exquisite, unusual, and beautiful perennials and turning them into common, over used ones. I disagree.

I believe that how a plant is used, that is, where it is placed and how it is combined with other plants, is more important than its exclusiveness. There are flowerbeds around the world that have been designed effectively with the most common perennials, and yet they capture our attention with their artistry.

For example, a wild Rudbeckia perennial self-seeded in one of my most successful flowerbeds. I used to dislike this plant; I was never a fan of its gold and black coloration, and it is seen in almost everyone's garden on the street.  Nevertheless, combined with the taupe-brown tone of the home’s façade, the yellow Rudbeckia’flowers looked amazing; they took my garden design to a level higher than I could ever have imagined possible.

I do not feel that my professionalism is compromised when an exquisite, rare, unusual plant earns award-winning status and becomes ubiquitous. I am unmoved when these gifted plants are used in every parking lot across the country. What I do care about is that they will be used. I, for one, will continue to design with them.

From a business perspective, it is effective marketing to designate one perennial as special. At the nursery or in a mail order catalogue, when a plant is flagged to be out of the ordinary, it draws consumers’ attention. That may determine which plants the customer will buy.

While this tactic may be of no value to seasoned, knowledgeable gardeners, I’ll bet it comes in handy for the less-than-omniscient gardener, overwhelmed by the vast number of plant options. Believe it or not, some are delighted to have choices made for them in the guise of an award winning perennial. It makes the selection of plants easier.

So thanks, but no thanks, for the Perennial of the Year awards. I don’t need them, neither do any of my colleagues. However, I know many gardeners who do. Anything that helps a homeowner create a more beautiful garden is an asset to our industry.

Photo by Walters Gardens, Inc.

With this year’s selection of Brunnera Jack Frost our secret is revealed. Now, EVERYONE will know about the sublimely beautiful shade plant that turned all my clients’ sunless gardens into sculptural collages. The texture of its foliage is a work of art and the white highlights on the green leaves capture daylight to make this plant glow in the shade.

Brunnera Jack Frost will illuminate a dark spot in the garden, from early spring until late fall. In spring, mature clumps of this no-care perennial will produce frothy bouquets of light-blue flowers to touch the hearts of all.

Oh! I forget to mention its elegance. Holy Cow, what elegance!  In every garden, no matter how messy or haphazard the flower composition, this plant exudes serenity and good taste.

If this perennial becomes over used, as it surely will by the end of the 2012 season, some designers will feel uncomfortable using it to create a flowerbed with an original, exclusive vision. That is exactly what lies at the heart of the disdain for the Perennial of the Year award. It may be good for retail business, but as designers, it’s not good for ours. Few, if any, should sympathize with us. Instead, rejoice that another great plant has been "found".


Puny Perennial Packs Powerful Punch

When can a very short, pale flower make us stop for a second glance? When that plant is Tiarella Spring Symphony!

It didn’t take much convincing to add it to my shopping cart when I first saw it in bloom at the nursery. Although, the fragrant flowers eventually paled in my sundrenched garden, it added needed color and gentle foaming bottle - brush texture at the beginning the season when most other perennials are not yet ready to bloom. When moved to a shadier spot, the pale spikes were transformed into glowing baby pink candles. Another striking feature is its multi lobed olive foliage painted black along its mid ribs. The visual detail of this plant when it is not in bloom is dramatic.

A bonus is the fact that Tiarella Spring Symphony flowers longer than most other plants. Although it is sold as a spring perennial, its initial bloom period can span an entire month and, if deadheaded, it may continue to re bloom until August. This is of enormous significance to flower bed designers.

In my test garden, the plant has proven to be a very reliable work horse in spite of its diminutive size. The foliage mounds up to only 6 inches in height while the flowering spikes add another 10 inches. The plant has stood up to excessive heat, blazing sun, and very cold winters. I have even planted it in dryish soil that was totally inappropriate and it didn't complain. Best yet, T. Spring Symphony, also recommended as a ground cover, doesn’t spread. This variety of Tiarella is neat and compact. Each mature mound will displace only 10 inches in diameter. For that reason, some gardeners prefer to plant Spring Symphony is compositions of three. When I used it in a collage, I planted only one but made certain to repeat it three times across the span of my design.

Adding this plant to a shade garden composition is like turning on a lamp in a dark room. I can only imagine how it will perform if used as ground cover.


Plants for Designing Anti-erosion Gardens on Shaded Slopes in USDA Zone 4  

Hemerocallis image from

A reader once contacted me for advice about landscaping a bare slope that received little sun. Her concern was that the slope would erode eventually because whatever she had planted on it would get washed away whenever it rained. I sent her a list of plants that might prove helpful in solving the problem and have posted their images throughout this blog.

Achillea image from

Bare slopes may be eroded by heavy rain if the wrong plants are selected. When landscaping surfaces such as these, it’s a good idea to choose plants that have proven effective in erosion control.

Image of Hosta from

Planting Hosta would be one good choice. Its arching foliage acts as an umbrella to shelter the earth thereby preventing the pounding rain from breaking up surface soil and sending it streaming downhill.

Image of one of several large leaf Hosta from

Some of the larger varieties of Hosta have an enormous foliage spread that makes them very desirably for such projects.

Image of ferns from

Another shaded - slope anti-erosion solution is to use perennials and shrubs that, just like Hosta, have thick fleshy roots that grip the soil during rainstorms in order to remain stationary.

Chelone image from

Several useful and attractive plants that grow in shade or part shade are available to help prevent erosion.

Ornamnetal grass Pennisetum image from

When combined together, they create beautiful compositions because of the interplay between the surface interest of their foliage and the variations in color, shape, and tone of their leaves.

Image of Lamium from

Some of these plants, like Hosta and Lamium, are naturally variegated.

Image of Geranium macrorrhizum variegatum from

Others, like Geranium macrorrhism and Pachysandra are available with two choices of foliage. One is solid green and the other is variegated.

Pachysandra variegata image from

For an infusion of rich eye - candy in the garden, consider using the variegated varieties whenever possible.

Image of Ornamental grass Carex from

Variegation raises the bar for composition by providing a rich and effective contrast to the solid green foliage of other plants.

Heuchera Bressingham

The Heuchera family has an even more extensive selection of foliage.

Heuchera Hercules Some varieties have solid green leaves while others are mottled green, combined with white or another color.

Heuchera Peach Crisp http://

There is also a large selection of Heuchera with colored foliage in shades that range into many tones of wine, peach, purple and gold. Shown above is a peach variety called Peach Crisp.


By combining several different species of plants in a variety of textures, shapes, surface interests, and colors, one can enhance the design of any shade garden composition, be it on a slope or otherwise.


However, it is also true that some of the most spectacular designs have been created when only one or two contrasting plants have been used. Some garden designers, and especially landscape architects, often prefer to use only one species in order to make a dramatic statement. In gardening, as in all other creative endeavors, there are always several ways to execute a design.