Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Middle South
May, 2011
Regional Report

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'Shirofuji' hydrangea offers snowflake-like blooms sprinkled across the small shrub.

In a Cool Shade

This spring, as I've tried to come to grips with my new garden, I've kept the words of a friend in mind. "A shade garden takes more of everything," Lib explained when I first visited her place years ago. "It takes more effort, more raking, more watering, more digging, and more mulching. But it also gives more; I find shade gardens are so much more charming and inviting, and so much more peaceful."

For a sun-spoiled gardener like me, however, this cheerful thought doesn't always hold sway. I miss the bodacious blooms of peonies, lilies, coneflowers, and cannas, and I long for easy-to-grow roses such as 'Carefree Beauty', with its tight clusters of buds that open into rose-pink bouquets with a fruity perfume.

The gardener who cultivated this space before me felt likewise, I know. Everywhere a pocket of light shines, even for an hour, she planted an iris, a lily, a rose, or another sun-loving plant. They were not happy here, though. The roses, recently potted up and given to friends, had grown long and lean as they reached skyward, and the herbaceous perennials, now relegated to the compost bin, had become weak and scraggly.

Sometimes gardeners can push the envelope, utilizing a special niche that is a tad warmer or cooler than the rest of the landscape to grow a plant that doesn't normally thrive in their climate zone. They can improve drainage, too, planting high and adding a lightweight aggregate such as Perma Till in wet soils, or amending dry locations with water-retentive leaf mold, compost, or other organic matter.

But you can't argue with light. After you've limbed up the trees and thinned the understory layer, it is what it is, and you're best advised to make what you can of it.

For Lib, whose garden grows on a steep hillside under a stand of hardwoods, that means lots of hydrangeas, especially her beloved 'Annabelle' (H. arborescens), as well as hostas raised above the reach of hungry voles in containers, and critter-resistant Lenten roses (Helleborus orientalis) that thrive in dry shade.

In the half-moon garden within a circular driveway at my house, I have hydrangeas too. Mine are the bigleaf species (H. macrophylla), and time will tell if they are rebloomers, such as Endless Summer or 'Penny Mac', which set buds on both old and new wood. Even if they don't rebloom, I've upped the ante in this garden by adding a relatively new Japanese variety of hydrangea that is wowing gardeners with its delicate blooms.

Hydrangea serrata 'Shirofuji' deserves a place in every hydrangea lover's garden for its white, double florets that resemble snowflakes. The flowers are neither a mophead nor a lacecap, but are sprinkled across the compact deciduous shrub in small clusters. And though I paid a very reasonable price, in 2002 one 'Shirofuji' sold for $185 at the Hydrangea Conference in Dearing, Georgia.

Located near an edge of the semi-circle, where they will have prominence despite their small size (just 2 to 3-foot tall and wide), three of these blooming shrubs already add sparkle to the landscape.

In fact, seeking out beautiful and unique plants such as 'Shirofuji' is one way I'm coping with the limitations of my shady haven. In addition to the hydrangea, I've planted a Stewartia pseudocamellia in the sunniest spot, where it will enjoy a bit of morning sun, and I've brightened a dark corner with a Gardenia jasminoides 'Variegated Double', which has such lovely foliage it doesn't even matter if it blooms.

Though better known and more common, I've added cinnamon clethra (C. acuminata) too, for its polished bark in various shades of red and tan, as well as its summer spires of small white bells,and golden foliage in autumn. And I know I won't be disappointed by the newly planted 'Tamukeyama' Japanese maple, a small weeping tree with dark red, deeply-dissected leaves. It's been a winner among gardeners since 1710.

The garden seems to be evolving naturally into a color scheme of green and white with burgundy foliage accents. To this color harmony, Lib adds touches of pink with shade-loving annuals such as caladiums, begonias, and impatiens. It's easy to see that these colors brighten the shade and enhance the natural mood of the woodland, while bold oranges and yellow would be out of place.

Luckily, Lib's garden showed me long ago that sunlit spaces are not the only avenue to a beautiful landscape. With persistence and luck, and a bit "more of everything," perhaps my own garden can become equally successful and satisfying.

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