Taking a Chance


Most of the risks I take in the garden are financially motivated and involve the shade garden on the north side of my house.  If a true plantsman or woman comes to lunch with notebook in hand, I save that bit of the kingdom for the last part of the tour.  For when appetites are fierce and thoughts are turning swiftly to a promised glass of Pinot Gris, who has time to notice the suffering stand of sun-loving iris, the five foot agastache, or…dare I admit it…the straggly buddleia?

My sunny beds are filled these days, and the only way in is through a dead-man’s boots.  So divisions, clearance items, impulse buys and give-aways usually end up here – reading the obituaries and praying for their chance in the sun someday.

It is a challenging area for a plant.  Much of it never sees direct sunlight and most of it competes against the monstrous root system of a silver maple.  Eight inches of good top soil are infested with feeder roots and cover a hard pan of rock-filled clay.  So, in the summer we have dry shade, in the winter we have sodden, frozen shade.  Hydrangeas would rather die than brave this environment (and often do), spring ephemerals such as mertensia and claytonia become super-ephemeral, blooming and disappearing faster than I can pull out my Nikon.

Always bearing in mind that I must balance my checkbook between family obligations and plant obsessions, I have learned the hard way that whatever I choose to plant in this no-man’s land cannot put too much of a dent on the pocket-book lest I lose it and I am stuck with the guilt of pointless expense.  So I take leftovers from my garden and the gardens of others, consider myself lucky when I score a shade lover, but constantly experiment with the amount of shade a sun worshipper can take and still look reasonably happy.

It is probably unnecessary to tell you that the buddleia failed my test in frugal necessity miserably.  It is difficult to find unhealthy looking buddleia, but I have succeeded past my wildest expectations.  Thin wisps of silver green branches are topped with panicles that I know to be flower-heads, but look more like foxtails on brome grass.  The iris are equally unhappy, but wait patiently to be moved, neither dying, nor living with any vigor.

Agastache, which will grow anywhere, soldiers on with great lust for life, and blooms with abandon.  Sadly however, the flower heads are well past eye-level as the poor little beggars are desperate for light, and the effect is similar to standing in a corn field looking at hundreds of green stalks.  I pull it out by the fistful when I am given another species of fern.

Shrubs that sport bright color in leaf or stem usually need sunlight to achieve their glow – but that didn’t stop me confirming this for myself.  So, golden varieties of euonymus are now dusty green, and the recent impulse buy of three half-price red-twigged dogwoods (Cornus sericea) probably won’t brighten my winter days with sweet scarlet moments.  Still, there was always the possibility that they would get what they needed, and they were cheap, so I gave it a try.

I have had successes after all.  Hemerocallis fulva, Silver Queen and Manhattan euonymus, Clematis terniflora, Primula kisoana, and a rambling rose named ‘Gardenia’ flourish next to bone-fide shade lovers like epimedium, brunnera, liriope, hosta, Aquilegia canadensis and Geranium macrorrhizum.

And sometimes all my experimenting really pays off.  This year I had the pleasure of watching a division of Phlox paniculata ‘Franz Shubert’ continue to bloom and thrive long after his brother phlox had punched his time card on the opposite side of the garden.  The lavender bloom wasn’t as deep, but boy did it stay around for the end of the party….a true success.

I could cut down the maple, double dig the soil to a depth of two feet and spend a fortune on just the right plant in just the right place.  And, a couple thousand dollars later, I might have one heck of a showpiece that would start the tour, not end it.  But this way I am learning, staying financially solvent, and slowly….ever-so-slowly….it’s coming together.  It’s worth taking a chance or two.

2018-02-20T20:41:27+00:00 By |

About the Author:

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Marianne is the mother of two, wife of one and the voice of The Small Town Gardener. She gardens and writes from her home in the scenic (and exceptionally convenient) heart of Virginia's wine country.

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