As a vegetable gardener, my general opinion is that I want full sun everywhere.
And full shade, as everyone knows, is for the birds. I'm talking about the kind of shade under maple trees, where even a fern won't deign to survive, where it's hostas and obnoxious weeds like spiderwort and lily of the valley, or nothing, baby.
But as an amateur ornamentalist, I happen to be discovering that part-shade is a delight, the kind of dappled shade that will allow a highly bred lily but also encourage experimentation with sweet and subtle woodland natives.
When I first acquired my house in Saratoga Springs, I scorned the plantings here…nothing but the plainest green hostas and spiderworts and bad shrubs. I spent a year with a bowsaw as a crazed serial-killer of awful Big Box Store shrubs.
However, there was one single area of the garden for which there had clearly been some ambition, a part-shady bed. Someone obviously had been hired to design and make this area off the screened porch. It had a little koi pond–just a cheap tub like they sell at Lowe's–and a Japanesey fixation on landscape in miniature, complete with odd changes in grade and randomly placed rocks.
A Japanesey fixation on landscape in miniature…boy, is that not my idea of how to plant a garden surrounding a Victorian house in upstate New York.
But I have to admit, I was oddly inspired by certain elements of this bed…mainly, the tacky little pond with the sound of water spraying…a big old hydrangea arborscens whose flower clusters are a such a cool chartreuse before they open that the plant is like visual air conditioner…and a really pleasing combination of ground covers in green and white, including sweet woodruff, silver lamium, euonymus, mint, white-flowering forget-me-nots, and white violets.
The shubbery–a Japanese maple and miniature hemlock–soon bit the dust in super-sandy soil that had been foolishly elevated by the person who designed the bed. But I replaced them with tougher stuff: ninebark, a dwarf Alberta spruce, and a viburnum. And I've had a great time sticking bulbs and perennials into the groundcover.
Because this bed is naturalistic in a way I'd never attempt on my own, a certain randomness seems to look great here, in other words, loads of different perennials poking up here and there out of the carpet plants.
I've decided on a broody, high contrast maroon and white color scheme, and many plants with maroon foliage will grow in part shade, including heuchera, a euphorbia, Eupatorium rugosum, a maroon-leaved geranium, and one of the darker cimicifugas. There's Japanese painted fern, which is maroon and silver. Then there is the maroon flowering stuff, including a wonderful daylily with tiny dark flowers, the incomparable lilium 'Scheherazade' with its unbelievably shapely maroon flowers edged with apricot, astrantia, and something cool I just bought at a perennial sale I organized to benefit our school garden, Geranium phaeum or "mourning widow," which has tiny flowers in an oddly dangerous black color.
Then there are the woodland natives, which are almost too beautiful to be believed…sanguinaria, May apple, Solomon's seal. While our native sunlovers all look as subtle as fireworks on the July 4th, these woodland natives have something worth chasing…mystery.
Of course, I think I like this bed so much because it's a collaboration. It's oddly helpful to have something to react against if you're just an enthusiastic gardener and not a visual genius.
I'm not starting from scratch, I'm just improvising on an established theme. I think if I could get a second-rate designer to do the rest of my yard…so that I could then have enormous problems with his or her work and completely mess it up…my yard might be really beautiful.