Last year Husband researched dry shade planting (shaded border, neighbour’s trees, tall fence). As is the way of these things I, perforce, accompanied him on his intellectual route-march, so I picked up Graham Rice’s Planting the Dry Shade Garden with more than ordinary interest. How would my Plant Enthusiast’s choices rank?
Graham Rice is a pillar of the garden world and, not only gardens in shade himself, but, he admits, peers over fences to check what’s growing in other people’s shady bits. Frequently, he finds nothing. Hence this book.
Dry shade might make gardeners groan loudest, but plant choices aren’t nearly as small as you possibly imagine. Rice gives the low-down on around 60 different plants; before this, your shade is put firmly on the couch. Is it by a wall or trees? Under early-leafing shrubs, or late? Deciduous or evergreen? Is it happy or sad? (Yes, I’m making the last one up.) All these should make a difference to your view of your problem patch.
The plants are divided into shrubs, climbers, perennials, ground cover, bulbs, annuals and biennials. If some shrubs strike you as a touch municipal (found in easy-care amenity planting), then Rice’s relaxed commentary offers reasons to like them all over again, and he pleads for renewed recognition among gardeners of the unloved and unfashionable, such as spotted laurel (Aucuba japonica) and snowberry (Symphoricarpos).
Rice’s authoritative voice, born of many years’ experience, is leavened with wry humour. While you may want to prune to let in more light, for example, taking yourself up “a rickety ladder with a carpentry saw and bucketful of overconfidence” is not recommended.
And there’s plenty here that probably won’t have crossed your mind. Aphidistra, anyone? Other plants that you might reject for their thuggish quality, he recommends as well-behaved under the restraining influence of gloomy aridity, so acanthus, perhaps? The multitude of cultivars suggested for many of the plants makes a themed border spring to mind, while he warns against certain cultivars, and points up neglected members of otherwise common plant families. Good-sized photos are used throughout.
A couple of things gave me pause. In his run-down of mulches, I’d be interested to know why he says commercially produced wood chips rob the soil of nitrogen, but doesn't mention this for home-chipped wood waste. Nor am I the only one surprised by his recommendation of raised beds over tree roots. In his Amazon review Colin Elliot, who runs The Garden Design Academy and writes at A Gardener in France says:
Few trees can confidently be predicted to thrive or even survive if more than four inches of fill are placed directly over their roots, so great care must be taken when gardeners construct raised beds as suggested. The rule of thumb is to preserving the existing levels in a circular area around the tree, equal in diameter to at least one-foot for every inch of stem diameter. This means that I should protect an area of 100 feet (30m) around our 150 year old Sequoia which is 8ft 4" (2.55m) in diameter!
The problem is that one doesn’t necessarily want to try it out, in case you lose a tree (though I guess it could be a way of killing off a neighbour’s intrusive canopy). However, regarding “Pandora’s” Amazon review of the book’s being too American, I wouldn’t worry. US hardiness zones are given and, inevitably the spelling is American, but the plants themselves are widely available, while, if you do want to restrict yourself to native planting, lists for US and UK natives are included.
So, how did my Plant Enthusiast fare? We have, I realise, a textbook border, which includes hellebores, sarcococca and pulmonaria. We even have more unusual stuff, such as Tree Ivy (xFatshedera lizei). After my crash course last year, some omissions even surprised me; perhaps Rice is just fed up with Fatsia and Daphne odora.
You won’t find blazing colours, but you will find variety of texture and leaf colour, and a perhaps surprising array of useful flowers. So if you’ve neglected that part of the garden languishing beneath heavy shade, I’d guarantee that this book will have you new interest in it. Dry shade will always have its limitations, but Rice’s book will go a long way to lightening your darkness.
Graham Rice, if you haven’t noticed, is a doyen of the garden world. He trained at Kew, has written over 20 books, innumerable articles, won writing awards in the US and the UK, judges at Chelsea and Hampton Court, judges flower trials at Wisley, is Editor-in-Chief of the RHS Encyclopaedia of Perennials. He gardens on both sides of the Atlantic.
He writes a very useful page on the RHS website every month, listing 10 Award of Garden Merit (AGM) plants. He also writes their New Plants blog. As if this wasn’t enough, he regularly updates his own blog Transatlantic Gardener, and I guess in the circumstances we can make allowances for its unfriendly typeface and untidy layout. I mean, who has the time?!
Even so, he does have time to squeeze in The Brit Mix, a weekly radio session on Radio Catskill where, I’m delighted to report, he recently featured an artist from the many at Songs from the Shed (garden variety, of course).
Here's Steve Harley going down memory lane in that very shed: