Lessons from my small shade garden

I have two large pin oak trees in my back yard.  They are one of the reasons I purchased the house.  They are healthy – for the most part – and don’t suffer the blight of most pin oak trees in south central Kansas, Iron Chlorosis.  I appreciate the shade they give my house, especially in the late afternoon.  Each of them is about 50 years old. I have long been envisioning a shade garden underneath them.

Last spring, I finally got around to planting a few shade plants in a small space I had developed long ago under one of these trees.  I was determined to find some plants that would grow in the shadow of this tree.  Root competition is a problem as well.  Honestly, I have struggled to grow anything under their shade. 

Woodland Phlox

Here are a few of the plants that survived in my shade garden, with a few even already blooming this spring.

  • Woodland Phlox
  • Barren Strawberry
  • American Columbine
  • Yellow Columbine
  • Bluebird Columbine
  • Variegated Solomon’s Seal
  • Solomon’s Seal
  • Elm-leaf Goldenrod
  • White Woodland Aster
  • Mayapple
  • Liverleaf
  • Golden Ragwort
  • Herman’s Pride Yellow Archangel
  • Sweet Woodruff
  • Rose Sedge
  • Evergold Sedge
  • Plantain Sedge
  • Pennsylania Sedge
  • June Hosta
Rose Sedge
Plantain Sedge

Watering

As you can see, I had quite a few plants survive these adverse conditions.  One of the biggest lessons was to regularly water the area.  I spent the first three weeks after planting hand watering each plant.  Once I noticed that the plants were starting to put on new growth, I backed off the watering and just watered as needed.  I would frequently check the top inch or two of soil for moisture.  If it seemed dry, I would hand water again.  I followed this regimen throughout the remainder of the growing season.  Keep in mind that you are trying to grow shade plants in an area that was once predominately prairie.  Supplemental moisture is required for those plants to survive. 

Sweet Woodruff

Leaves

Essentially, I left the leaves as they fell from the tree to a depth of one to three inches.  These leaves are good insulation and eventually break down to release nutrients.  Of course, too many leaves can be a problem too.  Gently remove excess leaves that blow in from other areas.

Barren Strawberry

Disappearance

I had some plants disappear last summer.  Some of the Solomon ’s seal faded into the soil.  Remarkably they are coming back to life this spring.  I kept watering them even though they went dormant.  A spring ephemeral like mayapple is supposed to go dormant, so I was certain it would return. However, the solomon’s seal made me wonder about their survivability.  Shade plants are resilient.  They surprised me with their return this spring. 

Mayapple
Solomon’s Seal

A few additions

Bolstered by my success, here are a few plants I plan to add to this new shade garden.

  • Geranium maculatum ‘Crane Dance’
  • Celandine Poppy
  • Crested Iris
  • Jack in the pulpit
  • Bluestem Goldenrod
  • Early Meadow Rue

I have been reluctant to start converting my dark and barren patch of ground into a shade garden.  It has been really rewarding to see this garden come to life this spring.  It took a little forethought and tenacity to make this garden take shape.  It is not perfect, but I have a better handle on how to enhance it and help it through our Kansas summers.

From Lawn To Lush

Lawn alternatives are more than just a passing craze. They are a great way to reduce your carbon-footprint and increase pollinator habitat. I am excited to present a class this week on this very topic, and thought it might be nice to preview it here on the blog.

I replaced a large section of lawn at my own home, and instead planted with bluebeard, perky sue, sedum, prairie drop seed, Mexican feather grass, horsetail milkweed, and lavender. The violets came up on their own, and in hordes! But I leave them there because they are host plants for fritillary butterflies.

Cost over the ‘Lawn’ Haul

Traditional lawns of cool season grasses such as fescue and Kentucky blue grass have a wonderful place in my heart. They are great for entertaining, playing family games of badminton or throwing a Frisbee for the dog. But all that green space adds up: Kansas alone has 157,000 acres of turf and lawn, according to data from 2006 released by the KSDA. In that year, it cost Kansans an average of $1,541 per acre to maintain the turf grass in our state. So we end up with lots of grass, lots of money spent, but little to show in terms of habitat, soil health, or carbon sequestration.

Volunteers helped us plant our Sundial bed near the Visitor Center. The planting is dense and diverse, but is balanced well by the solid green of the fescue lawns around it and the tidy limestone edging.

Lawn Alternatives Bring Balance

Rather than villainizing turf grass and framing it as the epitome of all native landscaping evils, a symbol of a Eurocentric society ,obsessed with outward displays of status that date back to palaces and aristocratic practices of a bygone era….I choose to focus on balance. We must balance our love of flat, green, monoculture lawns with the urgent need for diverse native plantings. By converting some areas of your lawn to forbs, shrubs, native grasses and groundcovers, you gain interest and beauty and ecological benefits.

This home in Oklahoma has skipped the traditional grass lawn by planting shrubs and perennials around pathways/hardscape. The sidewalks keep it looking organized and also make for easy access to the beds. By Lebuert [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons

If you want to learn more about planting lawn alternatives, what species to choose and maintenance tips, be sure to sign up for our Native Plant School Series and catch my class tomorrow night!