In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
August, 2007
Regional Report

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My passion for gardening was inspired by the exquisite passion flowers in my Grandmother's garden.

Made in the Shade

As an incurable collector and compulsive gardener, I have always gardened wherever I happened to be. My earliest experience was a garden near the California coast, where sandy soil and mild temperatures produced luscious strawberries and plump, tender carrots. Then for many years I gardened in central California. The summer heat was perfect for growing melons and tomatoes, and my cutting garden overflowed with riotous color from March through November.

When we moved to western Washington and found a picture-perfect house nestled in the woods, I remember thinking I could make a home for my treasured Japanese iris there and add a few ferns and rhododendrons to make a real woodland garden. How idyllic! Obviously by this stage in my gardening life I felt rather confident in my skills. Funny how quickly confidence dissolves when things do not go as expected.

It took three full years of gardening disasters before I hung up my trowel and admitted I needed some help. Salvation came in the form of Master Gardener training and countless hours of self-study at the local library. Cold, wet summers meant the end of growing beefsteak tomatoes and weighty watermelons, but in exchange I learned how to grow apples and peonies and cabbages by the bushel. I also needed to rethink my passion for cutting gardens; our wooded site is just too shady for the typical cottage garden plants.

After 15 years I now have a garden full of plants that flower well enough in the shade to cut and bring into the house. There are actually advantages to gardening in the shade! Shady gardens require less water, and they sprout fewer weeds. And, when plants need to reach for light, they produce longer stems, which are easier to arrange. Here are some other things I've learned.

A Plant for Every Degree of Shade
Not all shade gardens are shaded alike. A garden is in full or heavy shade if it never receives direct sunlight. The ground just beyond the north side of a house, for instance, is often in heavy shade. A garden is in what I call medium shade if it receives a very small amount of direct sunlight. If a garden receives direct sunlight but is shaded by a house or tree for part of the day, it's in partial or light shade.

To grow cutting flowers successfully in the shade, you have to match the right plant with the right shade. Your plant choices for heavy shade will be limited. On the other hand, a great many plants will grow and flower in the light to medium shade cast by deciduous trees before they leaf out, which is why a shady cutting garden is often a spring garden.

Heavy Shade
For cutting plants in the heaviest shade, I love the old-fashioned bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis), Solomon's seal (Polygonatum spp.), and hellebores (Helleborus orientalis). Daffodils, hyacinths, and bluebells (scillas) are a few of the spring bulbs that do well in deep shade. Tulips will flower the first year they're planted but they never return, so I treat them as annuals, planting new bulbs each fall.

Medium to Light Shade
Hosta, money plant (Lunaria biennis) and Lady's mantle (Alchemilla mollis) provide a nice green backdrop for pansies and primroses, and I use the foliage as fillers for my cut flower arrangements. Columbine (Aquilegia spp.), coral bells (Heuchera spp.), windflowers (Anemone coronaria) and Siberian iris will bloom in light shade, although not nearly as well as when they're in direct sunshine.

Keeping the Garden Full
A shady cutting garden is not as prolific as one in full sun, so it takes a little extra care to keep it producing. I try not to take too much foliage from one plant, so the plant can renew itself. I've also found that you can place plants more closely than is recommended, which provides additional cutting material.

Once you have cut flowers in hand, arrange them in vases of a suitable size; small vases for spring bouquets of little flowers, and tall, narrow vases for longer stems. Nothing is more disappointing than seeing your few hard-earned stems leaning limply over the edge of a container that is too large. Placed in the right container, delicate flowers cut from a shade garden rival anything you'll find at the florist.


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