Gay Gardens: All Tree, All Shade

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By Dan Lynch 

All Tree, All Shade

As is typical of many Portland homes, my house had more shade than I knew what to do with when I first moved in. It’s a frustrating thing, until you learn to embrace it. Because, most plants do indeed benefit from more than half-a-day’s worth of direct sunlight.

This week’s column is devoted to some great ground covers for shade. They will provide  lush growth, and some give off flowers, in even the darkest corners of your garden.

So, let’s begin…

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Embrace the fact that you're a shady, shady queen

The first step for dealing with a deep shade garden is acceptance. Or, it’s my first recommended step. I went through a few steps of first trying to grow things that could put up with part shade and waiting a few years. However, this only let watch them get leggy and not bloom well—or at all. Then I got angry. Then I bargained with myself on alternate solutions and got depressed for a bit. My advice is skip all that and move straight forward to acceptance.

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Trim that bush (and tree)

The second step--or sixth, if you’re like me and insist on going through all five stages of grief first--is pruning, and lots of it. The easy stuff is to cut off any branches under eight feet above the ground which are scrawny and skinny. Preferably as close to the trunk or nearest main branch to the ground as you can. Clean out any dead wood or branches that you can, as well. Pruning strategies from there vary a bit by plant and we’ll have some plant-specific pruning tips in future columns. But, following these steps, if your shady corners haven’t been pruned in a while, it will make for a bit of aesthetic improvement and get more light to the plants underneath. Furthermore, it's good for anything you cut back. If there are shrubs that are ALL lank and weak growth, don’t be afraid to cut them all the way to the ground. In some cases, this may be great for the shrub, causing it to send up new shoots from the crown. It depends on the shrub though, so don’t bet on it happening. For stuff higher than eight to 10 feet, especially for the novice gardener, it’s time to call an arborist. For larger trees and/or trees near power lines, this may be a legal requirement, depending on where you are! I’ve been very happy with Treecology, here in Portland. They have competitive bids and have consistently outperformed expectations. Just know, especially for larger jobs, it’s definitely worth it and reasonable to call and get a few bids. Your physical safety is more important than trying to trim that topmost stubborn bough yourself. 

Some great shade ground covers

Now that you have some more light in your shady areas, and assuming you’ve either got, or have amended to have some decent soil, it’s time to plant. Starting with some great groundcovers is a solid way to go. In future columns I’ll be talking about great specimen plants and shrubs for shady areas, but shade plants take a while to grow in. Getting some ground covers going will help keep things looking green and, by keeping you from having exposed dirt, helps you either reduce your water bill or deflate the impact of our summer dry season. I'll share some of the ground covering plants which have worked well at Gay Gardens over the past few years.  

Geranium macrorrhizum

 

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This perennial geranium is an incredible shade groundcover for bright shade. Mine get no direct sun, but the lowest trees are 20 feet’ overhead. It thrives even in drier shade, is evergreen-ish as it stays green through the winter, but older growth dies off. It spreads relatively rapidly, but not invasively. And best of all, it flowers relatively profusely for about six weeks, from early April until mid-May. I have a few large clumps that put on a pretty bold show and that also do a pretty good job of covering up bare ground under some deciduous shrubs. They’re easy  to find. I’ve seen them at Fred Meyers, but most nurseries should have a few in the spring--and if they’re happy, you’ll have a few to share or propagate to other sections of the garden in a few years. Varieties include ‘Bevan’s Variety,’ with rose-purple blooms, and ‘Ingwersen’s Variety,' with soft pink, almost white blooms. Since you’ll eventually have a mass of them, you’ll find they’re more striking if you clump a group of the same color rather than mixing them up.

Sedum makinoi

 

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Sedums are wonderful succulent plants that aren’t too greedy for water, but most of them require full sun to do their best. Sedum makinoi is one of the exceptions. It’s not an evergreen, but mine starts to come back pretty early in the spring. It forms a low one to three inch chartreuse mat that spreads a few inches every year. ‘Limelight’ which, as the name suggests, is a bold lime-y chartreuse, has performed better for me than the more easily available ‘Ogon’ variety, which is a yellower tone of chartreuse. ‘Ogon’ is easily available, but ‘Limelight’ is a little trickier to find—if you see it and like it, snap them up before someone else does. Also, my housemate thinks they're fun to say, 'seed-um.' And, I like the color so much I may have chosen my current car because it's close to this color.

Lysimachia nummularia (Creeping Jenny)

 

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This low-growing vine spreads quite nicely in virtually any climate, but is still quite happy in both wet or dry shade. Another common one, but I like this ‘aurea’ variety for its bright yellow-green foliage. Be careful with this one as it WILL spread everywhere, which is great unless you plan to plant low growing competition nearby.  Unlike a lot of the other groundcovers listed, this one won’t suffer at all from being stepped on occasionally. I can verify since it’s on the end of my driveway, that it can even take being driven over a few times a year. Easy to find at local nurseries or at Fred Meyer.

Sedum rupestre

 

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Sedum rupestre is another one of the handful of sedums that can thrive with quite a bit of shade, and none perform better in shade than ‘Angelina.” Angelina, depending on time of year and the amount of light it gets, is anywhere from light green to lemon yellow, and is prone to pleasant splotches of orange and red in the leaves at times. It spreads quickly, but not invasively. In fact, 20 bucks worth of 'Angelina' covered a two to six inch patch of impossible-to-irrigate sidewalk strip in three years for me. Sedum rupestre comes in a number of other varieties, many of them a gorgeous blue-green. But this variety has always done much better for me—and it’s also the one I see thriving in neighbor’s yards, too. Easy to find at local nurseries or at Fred Meyers.

Thank you for visiting Gay Gardens! 

Something you’d like to know more about, or the right snarky gif to insert in a future column?  For more photos, visit GayGardensPDX and feel free to ask me any questions there in the comments or via direct message.