Shady Backyard Retreat
How do you keep your zeal for new plants from creating a haphazard mess? A Virginia designer reveals her secrets
Shade Loving Plants
Great gardens are sometimes kind of like rainbows. You don’t look for them and don’t expect them, but suddenly they’re just there. Such is the story of this one located about an hour west of our Nation’s Capital. I’d been driving to see another garden when I passed through a charming village called The Plains, Virginia, and glanced to my right. There stood the home of Linda and Ralph Hostetler—a plant lover’s pot of gold.
A shade garden, terrace, and potting shed occupy the backyard.
Linda, I soon learned, is a totally unrepentant plant junkie. She returns home every other afternoon with a truck filled with “the latest and greatest” shrubs and perennials, all requiring new situations. Ralph is her cheerful grunt and enabler, dutifully planting as instructed and desperately endeavoring to water and weed correctly. Their efforts have transformed an acre lot into a jaw-dropping series of garden spaces.
Repeat After Me
Linda uses the primary colors of red, blue, and yellow over and over in her plant compositions, done mostly with foliage. Repetition accomplishes two things: It establishes a visual rhythm that carries your eye from place to place in a border, and it also ties together adjacent plants that share a common color. With so many plants from which to choose, repetition is easy to do in sun or shade. Linda also pairs blue-leaved ‘Firewitch’ Cheddar pink with dwarf Colorado blue spruce, and Japanese painted fern with spotted dead nettle.
The color of ‘Rose Glow’ Japanese barberry in the foreground echoes a red Japanese maple beyond.
One thing you immediately notice here is that so many plants are various shades of yellow. Why? “When I was studying graphic design in college, on the first day of class, my professor asked us to write down our least favorite color,” she recalls. “I wrote, ‘yellow.’ So he made me use only that color for the entire semester. Now I love yellow, because I found out all the incredible things it can do to jolt the eye and bring light to shadow. Yellow works well with just about any other color. It makes you happy.” And Linda is very happy.
A stream trickles through this shade garden illuminated by yellow hostas and golden Japanese forest grass.
Build Good Bones
Without organization, a hundred different perennials can look like yard salad. That’s where structures—pathways, evergreens, walls, hedges, edging, small trees, and ponds—come in. They define spaces, direct views, and lend interest even when the garden is dormant. One trick Linda uses is planting boxwoods or other small shrubs to accentuate the arc of a curving bed line. She also plants Japanese maples throughout because they’re so architectural. “They’re amazing,” she notes. “They look like pieces of sculpture.”
Walk This Way
Linda’s network of garden paths—gravel, mulch, and stepping-stones— performs a vital function: “They control how people look at your plants,” she says. “You can force people to slow down or encourage them to check out the vista.” Paths can also change your perspective. She observes, “One thing I’m always fascinated by is walking up the path and seeing one view and then turning around and walking down and seeing things completely differently.”
Compound Your Interest
Individually, plants can be beautiful. Paired masterfully, they’re magnificent! So put spiky plants next to mounding plants. Marry big-leaved plants with small-leaved ones. Combine contrasting colors that brighten each other. Accent your plantings with pots, globes, colored bottles, sculpture—whatever. The goal is bringing your vision to life. Linda says, “I love painting the whole picture.”
A Rainbow of Opportunity
Here are some of Linda’s favorite plants for vibrant foliage.
Yellow: golden Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’), ‘Golden Sculpture’ hosta, yellow creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’), ‘Goldmound’ spiraea (Spiraea japonica ‘Goldmound’), ‘Cherokee Sunset’ flowering dogwood (Cornus florida ‘Cherokee Sunset’)
Blue: dwarf Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens ‘Glauca Globosa’), ‘Firewitch’ Cheddar pink (Dianthus gratianopolitanus ‘Firewitch’), ‘Halcyon’ hosta, ‘Blue Mist’ dwarf fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii ‘Blue Mist’), weeping blue Atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca Pendula’)
Red: ‘Crimson Queen’ Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Crimson Queen’), ‘Rose Glow’ Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii ‘Rose Glow’), ‘Dark Towers’ penstemon, ‘Forest Pansy’ Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’), ‘Peach Flambé’ heuchera