tree roots

Coming to Terms…

This hot, dry summer — and the likelihood of even hotter, drier ones as the climate warms — has forced me to come to terms with the realities of gardening in this place: four big Norway maples on or near my 6,000 square feet; only six millimeters (about 1/4 inch) of rain from mid-June to mid-September; thin, sandy soil into which compost is instantly absorbed.

I’ve lost my inclination to struggle against these facts.

The essence of gardening is creating artificial environments — making plants grow in places they would never exist under natural conditions; tinkering with plants to change their natures; assembling plants into unlikely combinations for aesthetic purposes. That takes cleverness, imagination and energy. Doing what it takes to keep a garden going is the whole point of gardening. A garden is a place in which to dig, plant, weed, prune, edge, trim, water. And, for a few minutes every now and then — admire the results. That’s the payoff (and, of course, edibles in the case of food gardens).

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The trouble for me is that the combination of shade and dry, root-filled soil has made gardening here more of a slog than a pleasure. Those withered August leaves in the featured image perfectly represent the situation.

An obvious solution is to have all or most of the trees removed, but that’s a huge, expensive and disruptive undertaking. Moreover, the trees are inhabited by a myriad of life forms — bugs, birds, squirrels and others. And mature trees take up more carbon than young trees, so cutting them down — even non-native, “junk” trees like Norway maples — isn’t a good thing to do, simply for the rather frivolous reason of growing better perennials.

Another obvious solution is to give up. But I can’t even articulate what that would mean in practical terms, so it’s no solution at all.

No. The only solution is to work with what I have, adjusting my expectations accordingly (sort of like self-publishing, actually). I’ve already identified the plants that tolerate the conditions here. Any that can’t cope have either vanished from the scene or, in the case of must-haves, been moved into pots. Delphiniums, blue poppies and a couple of hostas grow here in pots (or barrels) or not at all. That’s the way it is.

October 2016

Potted Hostas near pond.

Another approach would be to dig up roots, pile on fertilizer and pour on water to counteract the natural tough conditions. But digging in rooty ground is a miserable business, and I already pay enough for water. Besides, the trees would love extra water and fertilizer.

I must accept the conditions as they are and use techniques that work within them to achieve results that meet realistic expectations.

In thirty-five years of gardening, I have learned how to arrange plants in beds and borders, and how to make those beds and borders look good, no matter what they contain. I could make a garden out of utter weeds if I had to — spurge laurel, thistles, dock, brambles and bindweed. “Weed” is only a label.

Some of the plants that do well here, that actually prosper despite the shade and the poor, dry, root-infested soil, are what I consider near-weeds. The two champs are campion (Lychnis coronaria or Silene coronaria) and toadflax (Linaria purpurea). Having worked with them for a couple of decades now, I know how to manage them. Left to themselves, they get seedy and show their inner weediness by midsummer, but deadheaded and cut back at the right times, they are long bloomers that maintain colour in beds that are otherwise a mass of blah by late July.

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Campion

In fact, I’m envisioning a set of posts for next year that will feature these plants and how to grow them well. With pictures showing the different growth stages and effects of deadheading/cutting back.

I recently read something that suggests true gardeners have an insatiable appetite for new plants. They pore over catalogues and nursery websites seeking the latest varieties. Well, I consider myself as much a gardener as anyone, but I don’t buy many plants. Many just can’t take the conditions here, especially since most nursery plants are grown in super-fertile, moisture-retentive growing mediums (or is it “media?”) that are the horticultural equivalent of steroids. Transplanted into my ground, even into spots prepared with hearty digging and added compost, many new specimens either cling to their original clump of super-dirt and slowly dwindle, or go into shock and don’t bother dwindling but die immediately. Any plant I buy now is one I have researched thoroughly and can reasonably expect to do well here. One piece of advice I’ve heard is to wash off the growing medium nursery plants arrive with and plunge them right into the dirt that will be their new home (after reasonable preparation, of course). They have to adapt or die, and if chosen wisely, they will prosper.

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Oriental Hellebore (in March)

 

Another fact I have to live with is that this is a spring garden, not a summer one. From March through May the soil retains moisture from the winter and early spring rains, but from June to late September, water comes from a hose or not at all. Late-blooming herbaceous plants (asters, dahlias, colchicums, autumn crocus) are fairly reliable, but shrubs and trees are not. I once lusted after Franklinia alatamaha, a small tree that produces white camellia-like flowers just as its foliage begins to turn red and orange. I wasn’t able to obtain one, which is just as well, as it’s native to the southeast U.S., where summer rain is not unknown, and it’s generally reputed to be hard to grow. In autumn and winter, my trees may be appreciated as colours and shapes, but forget about fall bloomers here.

Norway Maples

The Norway maples. Imagine the roots!

What about native plants? I planted Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) and snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus). They do well — too well, in fact. I’m always digging out their suckers. I also have some native ferns, camas, barrenwort or inside-out flower (Vancouveria hexandra), and a patch of salal (Gaultheria shallon). But this was disturbed ground long before I arrived on the scene, so making a garden of native plants alone wasn’t practical. Those Norway maples, remember? And anyway, our native landscape in late August is pretty brown and uninspiring. In spring it’s a different story, of course. So on my patch, natives and aliens have to rub along together.

Today I moved some colchicums to spots where they’ll show up better and add zing to the late summer scene.

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Colchicums, called “autumn crocus” by some, but they’re not crocuses at all.

Asters are starting to bloom.

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Aster frikartii “Monch”

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“Pink Cloud” and “Monch” asters with fading peony foliage and a few Rose Campion flowers.

October 2016

Those asters again.

As long as I can find a thrill in scenes like this as the seasons go by, I’ll keep gardening.

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Rooting

A couple of weeks ago, I engaged in yet another epic struggle with tree roots.

A perennial bed that was root-free when first planted (about twelve years ago) had been showing signs of decline for several years. Plants were smaller and obviously struggling, especially the hostas. Turns out hostas don’t compete well in rooty situations; strange, considering at least some species are native to woodlands. Not woodlands of Norway maples, I suppose.

I’m pretty philosophical about the older beds in the back garden. After all, they are close to five large trees, three of them maples (1 red, 2 Norway), whose roots interlace in a network throughout that 50 by 50 foot space. Goodbye, vegetable patch. Tough plants only. But this newer bed, situated in a narrow strip of land between my house and my neighbours’, was, I thought, far enough from any tree to remain root-free. The drip-line (canopy edge) of the closest maple was safely distant, and tree roots don’t extend beyond the drip-line. Or do they?

Yes, they do. Roots roam far and wide, as it turns out. Once I discovered creeping rootiness in that new bed, I started reading up on how tree roots grow. There was surprisingly little written for home gardeners, even those who are familiar with Latin plant names. I found a lot of scientific papers written by researchers in the fields of forestry or agriculture. Their focus was narrow and their terminology over my head.

Finally, I found this — relatively comprehensible and relevant to my situation. Also discouraging. The drip-line idea is one of the fallacies. Au contraire, “it is not uncommon to find trees with root systems having an area with a diameter one, two or more times the height of the tree.”

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This isn’t how it works! (Image from Pixabay)

Trees send out long, questing roots that keep on growing as long as there’s a reward in the form of water or nutrients, as in a fed and watered perennial bed. The roots run along horizontally, sending up vertical subsidiary roots ending in fine mats of feeding roots. Those are the ones that make that typical ripping sound when a spade is thrust into the soil.

So I tried a strategic strike. I dug up a clump of purple monkshoods (Aconitum napellus) and a few young hellebores at the end of the bed closest to the tree I suspected to be responsible for the root. Then I excavated down two feet and indeed found not one, not two, but three roots a couple of inches apart, each of them about two inches in diameter. Using a nifty little saw (actually intended for cutting wallboard) and a hatchet, I removed sections of these roots, one to three feet in length. Then I dumped in some compost and replanted the aconites and other plants. Thanks to cool and rainy weather, they recovered nicely.
I hope this will give the perennials in the beleaguered bed a chance, if only for a season or two. I don’t relish the thought of a full-bore rebuilding of the entire bed in the grand manner. This rather limited effort was enough for an aging gardener.
October 20, 2011

Hostas, autumn of 2012.

King Tut, Hori-Hori and Fragrant Cloud

After an epic battle with tree roots — a whole network, from 1/4 to 3/4 inch diameter, with sponge-like wads of feeding roots — I prepared a spot for a plant new to the garden:  papyrus! Specifically, Cyperus papyrus “King Tut.” It now resides in a small boggy area next to the pond. Although a dwarf variety of the famous plant used in Egypt, it’s supposed to reach 4 or 5 feet. It’s not frost-hardy, of course, but I understand it’s easy to root new plantlets by inverting the flower stalk in water, which is what happens naturally as the plant dies down. The small plants may be wintered indoors and set out the following spring.

Papyrus "King Tut"

Papyrus “King Tut”

 

Added to my garden tool kit this week is a Hori-Hori Knife, a tool which originated in Japan, and combines features of a knife and a trowel. Its original purpose was plant gathering in the wild. It’s a formidable thing, with a thick blade and sharpened edges, one of which is serrated for root cutting. Suckers, look out!

Hori-hori knife and its sheath.

Hori-hori knife and its sheath.

 

While all this was going on, the hybrid tea rose “Fragrant Cloud” opened two of its six buds to perfection. It is truly well-named, exuding an intense, true rose fragrance. The plant is a scrawny, feeble-looking specimen that lives in a large pot. It had a bad case of black spot earlier this spring, which totally defoliated the old wood, but put out new growth that is free of black spot, and six buds.

"Fragrant Cloud" bud #1

“Fragrant Cloud” bud #1

 

Bud #1 fully opened

Bud #1 fully opened

 

Bud #2, leaning against Olympic Mullein (Verbascum olympicum)

Bud #2, leaning against Olympic Mullein (Verbascum olympicum)

 

Perfection!

Perfection!

 

Radical Ruminations

Poised on the brink of another spring — and retirement! — I’m considering the options for renovating my garden. As I’ve lamented in a number of posts, the back garden is dominated by two mature Norway maples and a Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus). The entire space (about 30 x 50 feet) has been infiltrated with a solid mat of maple roots, which makes it difficult to grow any but the toughest plants, especially in soil that is mostly sand, and in a summer-dry climate.

 

The Norway maples. Imagine the roots!

The Norway maples. Imagine the roots!

 

The Tree of Heaven. The huge red maple on the right is on a neighbour's property.

The Tree of Heaven. The huge red maple on the right is on a neighbour’s property.

More than once, I have decided to have the trees removed — all three of them. That would open up the sky above the garden and get rid of the roots (eventually). I could grow plants well that barely perform now — peonies, roses, delphiniums, irises! The water lilies in the pond would actually bloom!

Then I think about the disruption. A vigorous climbing rose (white flowers with a pink tinge, very double, in May and June) has slung itself over the lowest limbs of one of the maples. It would have either to be cut down or provided with some other support. Men with size 12 feet would tromp all over the place and there would be all that wood to deal with.

Climbing rose in maple

Climbing rose in maple

Then there’s the expense. Tree removal is not cheap, and I am about to swap money for time.

So I come around to leaving the trees alone and working on the plantings that share space with them. Here, I have a few options:

  1. Remake the Beds. This means digging up the plants I value and stashing them somewhere while I dig out the surface roots and amend the soil with compost and other goodies. Then replant, adding new plants suitable for dry shade. Advantage: the plants will grow quite well for a while. Disadvantages: Back-breaking labour, and the effect would be temporary; in a few years the tree roots will re-grow.
  2. Adjust the Beds. Identify attractive (to me) plants that actually thrive under the present conditions. Get rid of all the sad sacks and weedy specimens and add more of these superstars — mainly hellebores and ferns with spring-blooming bulbs. Fussier things (delphiniums and lilies) could be grown in pots and parachuted in for blobs of colour in season.
  3. Keep the Status Quo. The trouble is, in gardens, there’s no such thing as status quo. Succession kicks in, some plants die, others prosper and in a few years it’s all rose campion, purple toadflax and feverfew jostling around the original hellebores. And yet, even a mess like that can look amazingly good in the slanting light of a summer evening, as long as the bed is defined by edging and trimming.

In the short term, i.e., the next year or two, I think I’ll go with a combination of options 1 and 2. The first thing will be to make the 18-inch tall wooden dog fence along the front of this area taller (by adding 3-foot pickets at 8 to 10-inch intervals) and installing a gate between the two sections of fence. That will make it possible to remove the goofy wire fence around the edge of the circular lawn. Aesthetics apart, that fence makes working in those beds way too hard.

Dog fences.

Dog fences.

The next step will be to identify the plants that do well here already, both “quality” and “weedy” types. Undesirables and struggling specimens will be removed and selected areas dug over and replanted. (Of course all these labours will be performed by me, but somehow I can’t quite bring myself to say “I will remove, dig, replant, etc.”)

I keep reminding myself I will have ten extra hours most days of the week in which to accomplish this stuff. One way or another, the place will look like this again. Or better.

The Back Garden, May 2010

Remaking a Perennial Border

I suspect most naive gardeners (even those with years of experience) think that a perennial bed or border, once made, is a done deal. Plants may come and go, but taking the whole thing apart and reconstituting it is unthinkable — sort of like rebuilding a house. But of course a perennial border is a collection of living things, so it’s bound to change. Over time, the tough and hardy plants muscle out the weak and fussy. Some inevitably become dominant in the picture, while others disappear.

Consider these two views of my back garden:

Back Garden, Fall 2010

Back Garden, Fall 2010

 

Back Garden, September 2015

Back Garden, September 2015

 

The same scene, obviously, but details are different. Some plants have grown bigger or more numerous, while others have declined or disappeared. Superficially, though, one could say it still looks fine, despite the addition of dog-excluding fences in the 2015 scene. But I know it was lusher, fuller and better-maintained five years ago.

I plan to retire from my job next spring. Near the top of my list of post-retirement projects is an overhaul of the garden, yanking it out of its present state of decline. Over the years I have whined about the effect of tree roots on perennial beds and vegetable patch (now the Ex-Veg Patch). I have vacillated between accepting the inevitable (substandard beds and borders in dry, rooty shade) or doing the heroic (and expensive) — tree removal.

Now I wonder if there is a third option — rebuilding the border. I remember reading a description of how English perennial borders (the ne plus ultra of this form of gardening) were taken apart, re-dug, enriched and replanted every few years. This was (still is?) a routine procedure, intended to keep the border at a peak of perfection.

Something like that — which I admit sounds pretty heroic, if less expensive — may be the answer, especially as I’ll have more time but less cash.

So, a plan is needed. What plants to dig up and return to refreshed, de-rooted soil. What plants to dig up and discard. What plants to leave in place because they are too difficult to dig up. And I have to decide just when all this digging is to take place. The usual seasons for planting and dividing perennials are spring and fall. A rough rule is to divide spring bloomers in fall, and summer and fall bloomers in spring. But I think this operation is best done in spring, or even earlier — mid-February to mid-March, which I think of as “pre-spring” here on the fortunate west coast. With some care I’ll be able to extract the plants to be kept with enough soil around the roots that they won’t even know what’s happened.

As for the final configuration of the beds, I’m considering fewer large and medium plants and more low groundcovers, such as variegated periwinkles, which are not as pushy and vigorous as the plain types. I’d like more hostas, but I’ve come to realize they really don’t do well in rooty soil. The only way I can grow them well is in pots. Therefore, a combination of large ferns (Dryopteris species) snuggled up to potted hostas (the ferns concealing the pots), with some white foxgloves in the background, and the stalwart hellebores, of course… Too many large plants already? Well, I’ll work it out.

The best gardens, of course, are those in the gardener’s imagination.

In the meantime, it’s reassuring that this small area near the pond, right now, looks a lot like this picture, also taken in 2010.

Hosta (in pot), with Hellebore and Cyclamen, Fall 2010

Hosta (in pot), with Hellebore and Cyclamen, Fall 2010

Dry Shade Revisited

Since I started this blog, nearly two years ago, by far the most popular posts have been the two on tough plants for dry shade, especially in spring when people start planning their garden activities for the coming season. It seems that there are many gardeners struggling with dry shade, trying to find plants that tolerate dry shade conditions and look good.

I’ll bet this is a common scenario: someone buys a house and lot and decides to make a garden. But the lot harbours at least one, and possibly several, large trees. Even if the effort of digging up the rooty soil under the trees to make planting beds doesn’t discourage the prospective gardener, the eventual failure of most of what is planted will do the trick. Unless the gardener is willing and able to do tree removal, that may be the end of their garden.

Or it may be a more insidious situation, like my own. When I began gardening here in 1992, the two large Norway maples on the western edge of my lot had been lopped by the previous owner of the place. Ugly though this treatment was, it meant that the back yard got a fair amount of sunlight. The first year or two, I was able to grow cucumbers and even corn in my minute vegetable patch, not to mention tomatoes and pole beans.

Ten years later, the maples had regrown and moreover had sent out a mat of roots into the vegetable patch (not to mention the perennial beds that are closer to their trunks). Shade was way more prevalent. Cucumbers? Forget it. (I gave up on corn once I realized how many raccoons lived in the area). The tomatoes did less well every year, until by 2009 I had resorted to growing them in big pots parked in whatever sunny spots remained.

In the perennial beds, it soon became clear which plants could tolerate shade and root competition and which could not. Delphiniums and lilies, even the tough Asiatics, dwindled away over several years. Blue poppies gave up immediately when roots re-invaded their carefully prepared bed. This spring, things don’t look good for a tree peony that did relatively well for years. About the time I gave up on tomatoes in the vegetable patch it started to weaken and may now be in its final gasps.

Shade is a problem for sure, but it’s more than that. There’s also the matter of what’s happening underground. Roots, in other words. Most of a tree’s feeding roots are in the topmost one or two feet of soil, right there with the roots of herbaceous perennials and small shrubs. They compete with the smaller plants for water and nutrients, but they may also do something else — a phenomenon known as allelopathy, which is a process by which a plant produces biochemicals which affect the growth of nearby plants. Norway maples are suspected of negative allelopathy, especially in places where they are an introduced species. So is the Tree of Heaven, under which I planted my doomed blue poppies in the fall of 2000. They bloomed beautifully the following spring, but died soon after.

There is almost no mention of allelopathy in most gardening books, even those that have sections on shade gardening. From my rather superficial internet research on the topic, I see that much of what has been written is academic papers in forestry and agriculture, or to do with the interactions between introduced trees and native understory plants. A few bloggers have written about it as well, for example, this post by Curtis Adams. There is definitely scope for investigation of this subject as it pertains to ornamental gardening.

When I first discovered allelopathy, I had an Aha! moment. Yes, those tree roots are indeed evil, poisoning my delphiniums as well as bullying them. But in the end it comes down to this — either I get the maples cut down, or stop gardening under them, or do as well as I can with conditions as they are. Which I’ve known for years.

Another option, of course, is to move. Drastic, perhaps, but if I ever purchase another patch of land with the intention of gardening upon it, that patch will be tree-free. In the meantime, this year’s massacre of maple seedlings has begun.

Happy Plants in Dry Shade

Autumnal Ruminations

(OK, that’s a silly title for a post, but I like it better than the others I thought of — Fall Bits & Pieces, Autumn Thoughts, etc.)

I was actually stumped for a topic this week, so decided to ramble on about the state of the garden at the end of the 2011 season, and my plans for next year.

I can’t say that this was a spectacular year, garden-wise. The spring was rather cold and damp, the first part of the summer also.  After the middle of July the weather dried out but remained cool, which was fine with me, since I’m not a heat-lover. I got a good crop of tomatoes from my potted plants, and two HUGE crops of apples. Today I made apple crisp with the last of them.

The blue poppies? Not so good. A few of them bloomed, but not much. Late in the summer, most of them succumbed to crown rot. On the plus side, I do have a couple of dozen seedlings coming along for next year (if they make it through the winter, that is).

The single word that best describes the garden right now is “overwhelmed.”  Trees and shrubs have grown too big and are taking up too much space on this modest lot (50 by 120 feet). The wall of rose-and-clematis-overhung maples and vigorous hollies on my western boundary has become oppressive, and a magnolia in the front garden is now wider than it is tall.  It’s a dark pink, lily-flowered variety called “Ann” (or maybe “Susan,” I can’t remember which). In any case, the lady is a thug. Something Must Be Done, specifically removal of at least 3 large limbs near the bottom of the trunk, a process I’m somewhat apprehensive about, because I have read that magnolias really should not be pruned.

The vegetable patch is a lost cause — not even scarlet runner beans do well any more, due to maple shade and maple roots. Herbs, even sun-lovers such as lavender, are quite successful, so I intend to repurpose the space into a herb garden. At some point this winter I will read Henry Beston’s Herbs and the Earth once again, to develop enthusiasm for the project, which I fear will involve improving the narrow brick walkways and other efforts requiring digging and lugging.

In the meantime, there are the maples. Eventually one or both will have to be removed, as well as the Ailanthus in the northeast corner. Not just yet, however. Maybe some judicious crown-thinning will do the trick for another couple of years. This year all that remains is the business of raking up the fallen leaves, something that won’t happen for a few weeks, it seems, because 90% of them are still on the trees and a good many are still green. Altogether it’s been a rather peculiar gardening season, with just about everything happening later than expected.

Foliage of fireweed (Epilobium) turning colour

My Less-Than-Perfect Patch

This winter I will have to decide whether to keep my vegetable garden (actually more of a vegetable patch) or re-purpose it. It has become too shady and infested with tree roots to be a suitable piece of ground in which to grow vegetables, apart from peas, lettuce, spinach and scarlet runner beans (which are surprisingly tolerant of difficult conditions).  Tomatoes, cucumbers and anything else that requires full sun and fertile soil have been a total failure the past two or three years, despite dutiful digging-in of compost, manure, lime and other goodies.

It’s such a bad time to give up on growing vegetables! What with the “hundred mile diet” and the craze for locally grown food, vegetable gardens have become fashionable. (Garden fashions — a topic for a future post). Having had a vegetable garden — or at least a patch — for the past 25 years, it’s hard to throw in the trowel.

The trouble is that there are few things sadder than a sad vegetable garden. It’s a total contradiction. Vegetable gardens should be orderly, prosperous and lush. A perennial or mixed border grown in less than ideal conditions can be attractive despite its lack of perfection (I know this because I have such borders), but a vegetable garden of runty, struggling, unproductive plants is an offense to the eye.

I have two exemplars of perfection when it comes to vegetable gardens, both featured years ago in Horticulture magazine. The first is (or was) the garden of Peter Chan, in Portland, Oregon. The article’s title is “Peter Chan’s Perfect Patch,” (Horticulture, May 1985) and perfect it was, although clearly more than a “patch.” The garden was framed by wonderful paths made from stones dug up in the course of its making, and the raised beds were separated by narrow walkways of packed earth. The rows of plants were arrow-straight, weedless and healthy. Bean and pea trellises were solidly constructed, not shaky makeshifts cobbled together from assorted oddments. The whole place was groomed and managed to perfection, practical and beautiful in its orderliness.

My other ideal when it comes to vegetable gardens is that of Rosemary Verey, as written up in the July 1987 issue of Horticulture. Influenced by the jardin potager at the Chateau de Villandry, it features stone walls and an intricate layout of square and triangular beds separated by paths of brick and tile radiating from the centre of a 60 by 60 foot square. The vegetables were grown in blocks, artistically combined with herbs, espaliered fruit trees and the occasional clipped shrub. Details such as alternating red- and green-leafed lettuces and ripening onion tops arranged in parallel lines put the final touch on perfection.

I had a better situation for growing vegetables in my first garden, in the 1980s. The soil was a fat clay loam, difficult to dig but richer than the lean sandy loam of my current garden. Shade and tree roots were not a problem. One year I had a wheelbarrow full of carrots and every year a freezer full of green beans. Tomatoes brought indoors before frost lasted until Christmas. Those were the days.

Here I did at least attempt a layout of my 15 x 30 foot patch a la Ms. Verey, dividing the space into two diamond shapes and six triangles. But my brick paths are too narrow to be practical, due to a shortage of bricks. Then there’s the awkwardly placed apple tree and all the volunteer and spreading plants that I have failed to discipline over the years — various mints, mulleins, violets, Corydalis lutea and Echinops ritro.  There just isn’t a lot of space left for vegetables.  And I use part of the patch as a temporary storage area for finished compost. The shade and tree roots are the final blow.

 

Less-than-perfect vegetable patch

 

This year I grew my tomatoes in big pots parked in a number of sunny spots around the place. This was a success (or would have been if not for a late, cold spring and cool summer) and I intend to do it again next year. I will probably grow peas, lettuces, spinach and the tolerant runner beans again, but I admit that my vegetable growing aspirations have been considerably scaled back.

Tough Plants for Dry Shade

I garden in a tough place.  OK, it is in Zone 8, so I can’t complain about cold winters or unfair frosts.  It’s a tough place because it’s dry.  Victoria B.C. has a Mediterranean climate, which means wet winters (but not as wet as some people think) and dry summers.  Not too hot, but dry.  Beth Chatto’s book The Dry Garden has a permanent spot on my bedside table.

In addition, on my 50′ x 120′ piece of paradise, there are four large maples (probably Norway), a big weeping birch and a tree of heaven (Ailanthus), which some may consider a tree from hell for its habit of sending up suckers and seeding profusely.  The soil is a sandy loam, emphasis on sandy.  Drainage is excellent, but much of the space available for growing plants is infested with tree roots, the fibrous feeding roots of maples, which suck up most of the available moisture and nutrients.

There are plants that will put up with these onerous conditions.  Some of them have weedy tendencies, but who’s perfect?  Gardeners with big, greedy trees to contend with can’t afford to be too fussy.

Lychnis coronaria (Rose campion). Grey-green foliage. Surprisingly shade tolerant. Magenta or white flowers in high summer. The white form is elegant. Seeds profusely.

Linaria purpurea (Toadflax). Tall skinny spikes with (mostly) dark purple flowers like tiny snapdragons, in summer. Also pink and even purple/white variegated types (rare). Another terrifically prolific seeder that does well in sun or shade.

Campanula persicifolia (Peach-leaved bellflower). Purple-blue or white cup-shaped flowers in summer — quite showy.  This one seeds vigorously and spreads by offshoots as well. Can be sneaky — once you have it, you have it everywhere.

Digitalis purpurea (Common foxglove). The white form is incredibly elegant, rising out of surrounding foliage in late spring/early summer. Even the ordinary magenta-pink kind looks better than nothing. It has “presence,” if nothing else. Another keen seeder. It’s a biennial, so the first year there is a rosette of leaves, the second year it blooms. With a certain amount of “management” you can have the white form only.

Stachys lanata (Lamb’s ears). A woolly grey plant with tiny pink flowers, usually recommended for sun, but does fairly well in shade. Looks elegant just as it is coming into bloom, especially against a background of darker foliage. Also seeds heartily. (Do you see a pattern here?  With all of these plants, you have to be vigilant about deadheading and pulling up unwanted seedlings, but you will always have some of them around).

Alchemilla mollis (Lady’s mantle). Interestingly shaped leaves that display water droplets beautifully. Clouds of tiny yellow-green flowers in late spring. Only moderately pushy.

Helleborus argutifolius (Corsican hellebore). In good conditions, this can be a big, fat shrub-like plant, 3 feet either way.  When competing with tree roots in shade, it’s sparser but still a presence. It blooms in winter — big clusters of icy green flowers which last well into spring, when they should be cut down to leave room for the new shoots.  This one seeds as well, but not as recklessly as the previously mentioned subjects.

Helleborus orientalis (Oriental hellebore). I have been really impressed by how well this one performs here.  It blooms prolifically, right under the maples (which have not leafed out yet, in March and April).  I cut the bloom stalks down in May, at the same time removing the rattiest leaf-stalks.  The dark green leathery five-lobed leaves maintain a solid presence in the beds throughout the summer.  Colours range from white (pure or spotted pink and purple) through a range of pinks to purples that can be almost black.

Anemone huphensis (Japanese anemone). The single white form is very reliable. It blooms late in the summer and into the fall, not as profusely as it would in better conditions, but…  The downside of this one is that it spreads by running roots, which can be a good thing, but usually isn’t.

Ferns, especially the genus Dryopteris (notice it has “dry” in its name), as well as the native species Polystichum munitum (Western sword fern) and Blechnum spicant (deer fern).  Ferns are solid, reliable and the opposite of weedy.

You can count on these plants to provide a solid foundation, even in dry shade. Then you introduce more refined subjects (lilies, hostas, daylilies, etc.) and try to keep them going.  Between the tree roots and the rowdy, self-seeding, colonizing tough guys, it can be a struggle!

More (relatively) tough plants in a future posting.