Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Middle South
December, 2010
Regional Report

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'Mount Airy' fothergilla is a good choice for shady gardens.

Choosing the Right Plant

I've heard the mantra time and again, "Choose the right plant for the right spot." So as I examine the garden at my new home, I'm left scratching my head. How, I wonder, did the precept of better results for less work fail to impress the gardener who lived here before me?

The front yard, though small, boasts eight towering hardwoods and an equal number of understory trees. Simply put, seven oaks, a lone tulip popular, three dogwoods, a pair of Japanese maples, plus more, can only add up to one thing-- shade, and lots of it.

Nonetheless, I've also inherited a sweep of Knockout roses that have knocked themselves out trying to bloom and a half-dozen gardenias that don't even produce flower buds. Even worse, there are scraggly clumps of tall bearded iris, rudbeckia, coreopsis, and several other sun-loving perennials.

The best of these plants will be potted up for friends, and a few can be moved to the partly-shady backyard, but unfortunately many will become compost. It's a shame really. A little research, or even observation of gardens with similar growing conditions, could have prevented this waste of time, money, effort and good plant material.

Maybe the gardener was an adventurer, or a risk-taker who liked to push the envelope. I've certainly given that a try. Or perhaps she just got carried away at the nursery. I've done that too.

The fact remains, however, that plants that require a good bit of sun are not going to thrive in shade. Or more to the point, no matter which plants you prefer, it's always more prudent to select those that match the conditions of your garden.

I have to admit, working within the limitations of this space is going to be difficult for me too. And sometime in the future, but not soon, I hope to clear the west side of the backyard for an area with more sunlight.

I won't ever be able to grow vegetables or herbs, though, unless I plant them in wheeled pots on the deck. Hardly a feasible option, but I might give it a try for the pleasure of fresh tomatoes and home-grown basil.

Instead of fretting, I've put aside my frustration as best I can by making a list of what I can grow. The first part includes fabulous shade plants that I've cultivated before, such as crested iris (Iris cristata), Solomon's seal (Polygonatum biflorum), various hellebores (Helleborus), 'Mount Airy' fothergilla (Fothergilla major), and red buckeye (Aesculus pavia).

Then to broaden my palette, I've also done a bit research. I've consulted two types of books, ones that provides "what to grow where" information and others that give full details on specific plants.

The most useful in the first group included The Southern Gardener's Book of Lists by Lois Trigg Chaplin and Perfect Plant, Perfect Place by Roy Lancaster, while the best of the second group were The Southern Living Garden Book edited by Steve Bender and An Encyclopedia of Shade Perennials by W. George Schmid.

This effort has substantially added to my already long list. To name just a few, I have high hopes for Carolina silverbell (Halesia tetraptera), shredded umbrella plant (Syneilesis aconitifolia), candelabra toad lily (Tricyrtis macropoda), and large-flowered bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora).

With this wish list in hand, the prospect of gardening in the shade doesn't seem as difficult or as restricting as before. Best of all, I'm looking forward to cultivating a garden full of enchanting plants that will grow and flourish with minimal care.

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