Ottawa Citizen


Creating magical shade gardens

- AILSA FRANCIS Ailsa Francis blogs at

In the past, shady gardens were always considered a curse. Indeed, early in my gardening career I thought having a garden without full sun was like having dessert without chocolate. I just couldn’t fathom it.

Older gardening books and articles seemed to agree with this point of view, often describing how to cope with shade and especially how to get rid of it. But the tide has been turning.

Whether it is because gardeners are now appreciati­ng the importance of being out of the sun, or are embracing a calmer colour palette, I think this shift to where a shade garden is valued is a welcome change. My bet though is that gardeners are becoming savvier and are learning that a shade garden affords them the opportunit­y to make something uniquely magical.

This was English plantsman Keith Wiley’s motivation for writing his new book, Designing and Planting a Woodland Garden (Timber Press, 2014; available in Canada through Thomas Allen & Son). He describes a childhood desire of wanting to re-create the romantic oak woodlands he saw in western England or the spirituall­y moving redwood groves of Northern California (or B.C.) in his own garden.

Wiley calls a garden under trees protective and uplifting, deeply emotional responses that allow for contemplat­ion and spiritual peace.

Finding that spiritual peace while digging through tree roots and laying endless lengths of soaker hose may indeed be challengin­g and Wiley does not really discuss this largely urban challenge. For this type of struggle, the reader is better to try Graham Rice’s 2011 book, Planting the Dry Shade Garden. Wiley’s focus lies in creating a shade garden or woodland from an open field and not an overgrown city plot.

As Wiley is a nurseryman, this book is not surprising­ly heavy on plant choices and indeed two-thirds of it is a plant directory, predominan­tly perennials. Although a number are too tender for our climate, others are hardier ones that I had not heard of: Pachyphrag­ma integrifol­ium (zone 5), native to the Caucasus Mountains, is a semi-evergreen ground cover perennial that is a non-invasive and attractive cousin to garlic mustard; or Oresitroph­e rupifraga (also zone 5), which was recently introduced from China and has handsome one-foot-wide foliage and pink flowers.

There is a small section showing the anatomy of the author’s own shady courtyard using line drawings, but the effect is somewhat lost because there are no photograph­s.

The book falls down in the area of shrubs for understory planting, but the author rightly champions trilliums, dogtooth violets, barrenwort and corydalis, yet strangely gives a zone 6 attributio­n to yellow fumitory, a reliable performer in my zone 5 garden.

With its largely novel perennial plant list — granted, many plants may be difficult for us to find without resorting to seed catalogues or rare-plant nurseries — and earnest championin­g of the woodland garden, Wiley’s book tempts us with his own vision of this magical understory world.

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