Shape of leaf, texture, colour hues - all are important elements when one sets out to design a garden. I have heard too many people exclaim: 'But there is so much green!' - to which I want to reply: ' but of course there is, its a bloody garden, and without the green there is no photosynthesis!' - but the wolf in me refrains.
These same elements become even more important when you are creating a shade or woodland garden. Most all plants require some degree of sunlight, be it dappled or full on blazing, and with this sunlight comes flowers. This is perhaps the most important rule of all. One must always ask themselves this: 'Are flowers really that important to me?' If the answer is an unequivocal YES! YES! YES! [Did Meg Ryan just pop up in your mind as well?!?] one might reconsider starting off in deep shade! But for those who prefer a more subtle approach to gardening, continue onwards!
Shape and texture: Vitally important elements when designing any garden, but even more so when your main focus is going to be on foliage. As the title of this post makes evidently clear, one must in fact 'love the life under the leaf!' In all of the corresponding photos you will note that indeed there are innumerable shades of green - from the bright apple, to the dark and glossy, as appears in the above photo courtesy of one of my all time favourite foliage plants - Syneilesis aconitifolia which to many looks like a glossy albeit shredded umbrella. More visitors comment about it than do my prized Cypripediums!
Layering is also important. For some it is an art form, for others it is simply a reality. I fall into the latter. I am pressed for room. I have an addiction for the rare and unusual shade perennial. I work at a nursery and have direct access to another nearby specialty nursery. I am an addict, and like most, I have my enablers close by me at all times! Staggering plant heights adds a sense of depth to even the smallest property. In this staggered dance, it is important to consider the shape of the surrounding foliage, the colour, and if perhaps you're lucky to have found something that might even bloom. In the photos above and below the width of the gardening space is roughly the span of both of my arms. It is the long and narrow space between mine and a neighbouring house. Very little sunlight is able to penetrate this space, usually mid morning and late afternoon for what might be a total of three hours. Into this space I have planted no less than one hundred and fifty different plants, ranging from a native Cercis canadensis [for maximum allowable height] down to my prized Hepatica transsilvanica 'Buis' which is but 30cm in height. These photos do not include the presence of flowers, but the keen gardening eye will deduce that indeed I have a few. While my Asian Arisaema [he of the large starburst shaped leaf below] does not 'flower' per se, he does put forth a stunning cobra shaped spathe, which many mistake as a flower. I also grow both species of Kirengeshoma in this section of the garden - both of considerable stature [this year they were both close to 1.5m in height] and both providing me with late season waxy yellow, shuttlecock shaped flowers. Their distinctly palmate shaped foliage [the Korean species has a subtle pewter overlay] provides a perfect foil for the narrow foliage of the Arisaema.
A rose is a rose is a rose, but one must not use the same broad stroke of the brush when describing the colour green. Below is the mid Spring foliage of my beloved Cercis canadensis. Green? Most definitely, but nothing at all like the bluish silvery green of my Arisaema. The juxtaposition between the two perfectly highlights the meaning of the term hue. While one has a cool, almost frosty appearance, the other seems almost golden. When you're at your local nursery this coming Spring stop and look at the various hues of green that are on display. Forget about the flowers for a moment, and simply take in the plethora of greens that are available. Its kind of like painting the interior of your home. Some people want to go bold - no two rooms even remotely alike, while others wish to carry a specific hue throughout.
I tend to adhere to the go big, go bold, or go to hell home mentality when it comes to gardening, which in and of itself is more than ironic, considering the postage stamp size of the property on which I garden. Big bold leaf surface [as seen in the third photo which includes Diphylleia cymosa and my favoured Syneilesis] is my first weapon of choice. Stop people in their tracks! There is also a sublime ornamental rhubarb that is a guaranteed crowd stopper/pleaser, but sadly I haven't the space! The use of variegation is also a way of slowing down the eye. I use it sparingly throughout my shade garden, as to me it looks slightly contrived. My two favourite stars are Polygonatum x hybridum 'Variegata' [below] and the charming fellow directly below it. Bright colours like my signature 'fabulously' chartreuse is also an option that provides that WOW factor. The perennial grass Hakonechloa macra 'All Gold' is a wonderful choice, as is the much larger, bolder Aralia cordata 'Sun King' which I have planted at least three of in the past two years. It maintains a shadier disposition and can grow in excess of 2m in height. The trick to keeping him smaller is to prune and divide every three years and not provide as much water as you think he would like. Trust me, he likes moisture, and he responds in the only way he knows how...... vavoom!
A small space does not necessarily rule out trees and shrubs. As I mentioned earlier, I do have a Cercis canadensis planted here between the houses, as well as a coppiced Cotinus coggygria 'Grace' which is seen in the upper left corner of the photo below. She started off as a multi stemmed shrub, and as she grew, she provided me with more shade - which is something that I had wanted. Call me a shrinking violet [on second thought pansy!] but I do not do well in sunshine and humidity. This past year she eclipsed the 2.5m mark. Her deep burgundy Spring foliage works so well against the siding on the house, and is the perfect foil for the fabulously chartreuse beauty of my golden Metasequoia. [One must always be three steps ahead in the game of garden design!] The wee variegated lad in the above photo is one of my all time prized possessions: Acer campestre 'Carnival' first crossed my path at Lost Horizons in nearby Acton. He is a diminutive species [2m] with sublimely variegated foliage that in Spring also includes pinkish tones to accentuate the existing cream and mint green. I have seen standard versions, but much prefer my dwarf sized specimen.
It is a lot of fun, and yes, it does include a fair amount of work, but in the end, there is so much beauty that can exist in a shaded, woodland type garden. I hope that more gardeners will be willing to embrace their shadier selves, and will lift the word shade up and out of the negative connotation that I still run across. I like to tell people that its the one spot in the garden where, even on the hottest and sunniest of days, you lose the risk of sunburn and unwanted perspiration, and its also the perfect hiding spot from those pesky door to door types. The grass is delightfully greener on the shadier side of life!