7 Tips for Planting a Great Garden in the Shade
Forget About Doing Everything at Once
You'll be overwhelmed and probably quit. Brown's garden is a series of areas developed over two decades. It began as a large burn pit in the middle of the backyard into which she tossed a handful of cleome seeds. She added a new area every two to three years.
Tend to the Soil Before Planting
"I remember using a pickax to dig the holes when I planted my first laurels," she says. Wisely, she tilled in copious amounts of organic matter (about 2 inches each of mushroom compost and soil conditioner) to loosen it and improve both drainage and water-holding capacity. "Put your money into soil first," she advises. "It will save you grief later."
Pick Foliage Over Flowers in a Shade Garden
Green leaves can add color, too, but the key is combining different shapes, sizes, and textures. Nashville landscape architect Duncan Callicott gave Brown a tip she now suggests to others—take a black-and-white photo of your garden (you can adjust a color image on your smartphone or computer) to reveal where plant combos are working and where they aren't. "If you don't have enough bold foliage, the picture will appear fuzzy," she explains. "Too much bold foliage will make it look flat." Plant thickly to leave fewer empty spots for weeds to grow.
Move Plants Around as You Wish
"If I have a hole in a border and don't know exactly what to plant there, I'll fill it with a container for one season," she says. She might actually end up moving it two or three times until it finds a permanent home. In the pot above, the big, bold leaves of African mask (Alocasia amazonica) mix well with dainty Southern maidenhair fern.
Make Focal Points with Flowerpots
Containers inject color—either by themselves or with what's planted in them. Plus, they add height, increasing the impact of what they hold. Pots also protect vole-prone perennials, such as hostas, from attack.
Consider These Picks for Dry Shade
Shrubs: oakleaf hydrangea, smooth hydrangea, boxwood, plum yew, and yew
Perennials: hellebore, crested iris, epimedium, Solomon's seal, and Christmas fern
Don't Waste Time on Whimps
Brown believes in choosing the right plant (native or non-native) for the right spot. Anything in the ground must be able to survive with a single soaking a week from an oscillating sprinkler. If it doesn't, she replaces it with something tougher.
Pictured, ferns, perennials, ground covers, and oakleaf hydrangeas slowly reveal a birdbath as you round the bend.