Shade, Summer's Blessing

A shady area can be transformed into the focal point of a garden.
Orene Stroud Horton

When Bob Rossier and Eldred Hudson bought this Arts and Crafts-style bungalow in Charlotte, the narrow side yard had only two notable features. One was a large shade tree. The other was an air conditioner overflow pipe protruding from the house. With a little creativity and the right plants, the area saw a dramatic transformation.

The overflow pipe was an eyesore until it became part of a delightful fountain, now the focal point of the little garden. Bob and Eldred combined a Victorian fireback (a cast-iron plate used to line a fireplace) and the sculpted head of a mythological creature. After painting both pieces to match, they mounted them on the wall so the pipe extends from the sculpture's mouth. A shallow, old birdbath now catches the overflow water for an array of birds to enjoy.

Filtered light lets in just enough morning sun to support the growth of a range of shade-loving plants. Two Japanese maples are part of the understory. Shrubs include fatsia, viburnum, sasanqua camellia, and a 10-year-old Daphne odora. "The daphne must have thrived on benign neglect," admits Bob.

Most of the garden is in fairly dry shade. Without irrigation, plants in this garden must be accommodating. "Only the fittest survive," says Eldred. In these conditions perennials such as lily of China (Rohdea japonica), trillium, bloodroot, Italian arum, variegated periwinkle, galax, hellebores, wild ginger, epimedium, and cyclamen are happy. "A wonderful thing about dry shade," says Bob, "is that weeds don't grow well."

Fragrance is also an important part of the garden's appeal. A gardenia's scent heralds the summer. Daphne and wintersweet saturate the late winter air. Spring brings the flowers of a 'Mohawk' viburnum, and an empress tree blooms in vanilla-scented violet panicles.

Nestled 8 feet below the front garden, this side garden is not only protected, but private as well.

"Shade, Summer's Blessing" is from the June 2002 issue of Southern Living.