Retreat In The Shade

story & photo by Cindy Gilberg



Where better to be on a hot, sunny St Louis summer afternoon than relaxing in a shady nook in the garden. Some gardeners say they have too much shade and can’t grow anything. To the contrary, many beautiful native plants grow in the woodlands of Missouri.

For inspiration on designing a woodland garden, go to the source – take a woodland walk in some of the natural areas of Shaw Nature Reserve and parks nearby. Begin the design process by creating a meandering path that takes you into the shaded space. Decide where the bench or garden chair will go so you have a place to sit and fully appreciate the shade. Note whether larger trees need to have lower limbs removed to allow for an understory planting of small trees, shrubs and perennials. Absolutely remove any bush honeysuckle and other invasive species.

The most classic small trees for woodland gardens are Missouri’s spring blooming dogwood, redbud and serviceberry. Another lesser known one is spicebush, really a small tree rather than a ‘bush’. Spicebush blooms in early spring with chartreuse flowers, is tolerant of moist soils and is the host plant for the spicebush swallowtail butterfly. Excellent shrub choices include the wild hydrangea and fragrant sumac. Both grow about 3-5 ft. tall and spread, forming a colony. To maintain a full, compact shape, these are pruned in late winter.

Along the path use masses of shorter native ground cover species. Wild ginger and alum root have rounded leaves while the spring-blooming crested iris has short, spiky leaves. Groundsel (Senecio obovatus) forms an evergreen planting with yellow flowers in spring. White-flowering woodland sedum is yet another choice to try. Oak sedge (Carex albicans) and cedar sedge (Carex eburnea) are very fine-textured, grass-like species that are great in combination with any of these.

Highlight the scene with taller perennials that bloom at different times of the season. Springtime offers many choices such as wild geranium, bellflower and the ephemeral bluebells. For early summer, my favorite is Indian pink (Spigelia) with its bright red tubular flowers whose tips open as a yellow star. Tall spikes of black cohosh (Actaea) bear white flowers in midsummer. The sky-blue flowers of skullcap (Scuttelaria incana) appear at this time as well. For autumn color, try the 2 ft. tall broadleaf goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis) that brightens the shade with bright yellow flower clusters.

Ferns add a primeval, lush quality to the garden and a delicate texture that is unrivaled. In general, ferns thrive in organic soil so addition of compost may be necessary, depending on the existing soil. Christmas fern and maidenhair fern grow about 2 ft. tall, while others, such as such as ostrich fern, wood fern and silvery spleenwort grow 3-5 ft. in height.

Because textural contrast is a key design element, choose plant species that create interesting combinations of fine and coarse textures that play off each other. Add natural elements such as mossy stones and a fallen log planted with ferns. A small water feature such as a bubbler stone or small pool adds habitat benefit and attracts birds and small mammals. Put all this together to paint a soothing picture where you can be, away from the hectic world, and take in the natural surroundings.

NOTE: The Whitmire Wildflower Garden is a 5 acre display garden at Shaw Nature Reserve that includes a ground cover display and many woodland gardens that highlight native Missouri plants. A walk through this garden will give many great plant and design ideas for use in home gardens. Native plant gardening information is available online at www.shawnature.org.

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