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    When Alfred Joyce Kilmer penned the words “I think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree,” he obviously wasn’t taking into account that stubborn bare patch of dry dirt beneath the maple in the front yard.

    Failed attempts at cultivating beauty under the canopy of densely leafed trees are the bane of many a homeowner’s existence, says Matthew Gardiner, president of BooneGardinerGardenCenterin Crestwood. “What I hear most frequently is, ‘I can’t get anything to grow,’ and, ‘All I can plant is a hosta,’” says the fourth-generation horticulturist and landscape designer.

    But when it feels like a wrestler’s armpit outside, there’s nothing more alluring than a well-shaded bench, preferably surrounded by greenery. Once plants are established, shade gardens offer other advantages as well, says Gardiner’s wife Hope, a horticulturalist in her own right. “You get less transplant shock in the shade,” she maintains. “They’re also very low maintenance because you get fewer weeds.”

    And, while hostas and ferns remain shade garden staples, they certainly aren’t the only options out there, says her husband. “We’ve seen a lot of breakthroughs in colors and textures in a variety of shade-tolerant plants.”

    Special Considerations

    The first thing to keep in mind when planning a shade garden is that surface roots of certain trees, maples being a major culprit, suck the ground dry of moisture and nutrients. For that reason, landscape architect Herman Wallitsch of Wallitsch Nursery & Landscaping on Hikes Lanealways recommends irrigation. “In-ground systems are good, but your local hardware store offers less-expensive choices, from lawn sprinklers to spray stake mist systems that hook up to your hose,” he says.

    Watering, however, should be judicious in areas with heavy clay soil, warns Mark Cain of Exteriorscape, off Old LaGrange Roadnear the OldhamCountyline. “Irrigation is difficult to regulate on a clay base. You can drown your plants, because clay holds water.”

    Mulch is also essential to retain moisture and prevent erosion. Organic mulches are best, says Wallitsch, who advocates pine needles, shredded hardwood or bark. “Don’t use expensive barks, such as cypress, because you’ll lose a lot when you rake in the fall,” he says. “And don’t use gravel! The leaves get mixed in and it won’t look good after a few years, and the stones get blown out into the yard.”

    A shade-dappled water lily pond with creekstone rim at Exteriorscape.

    With mulch, a little goes a long way. Gardiner recommends no more than two to three inches around tree bases. “Mulch volcanoes will cause your trees to die a slow death,” he says.

    Paths and patios should move with tree roots and allow them to breathe. Poured concrete can actually suffocate a tree. Better choices: flagstones, bricks or stepping stones laid in sand or pea gravel above a layer of landscape fabric to stifle weeds. Another neat trick is using wood chips for walkways.

    “It’s inexpensive and better for the trees,” Gardiner notes.

    Finally, determine exactly how shady your garden is before plant shopping. Is the shade deep or light? Is there morning sun? Does any portion of the garden receive intense sunlight in the afternoon? Most flowering plants — even shade-tolerant varieties — prefer some sun, says Cain. “You have to be very careful with afternoon sun, though,” he says. “It will burn plants like azaleas and rhododendrons.”

    Types of ShadeGardens

    Shade gardens t/files/storyimages/to be informal. The most prim-and-proper rely on shrubbery — boxwoods and hollies — for structure, says landscape architect David G. Dornick of the Frank Otte Landscape & Design Group. However, while they’ll grow in light shade, “they can’t handle dense shade,” he says.

    Wood-chip walking paths and ferns galore at Whitehall’s Ralph Archer Woodland Garden.

    At the opposite /files/storyimages/of the spectrum are gardens that mimic the forest, such as the RalphArcherWoodlandGardenat Whitehall, one of three historic properties operated by Louisville’s Historic Homes Foundation. The garden, which showcases luxurious ferns, wildflowers and woodland groundcovers, is known as a “stumperie” and was the first to be planted in the U.S.when Archer started it in 2002. “It’s based on a Victorian English concept that was revived about 10 years ago by Martin Ricard of the British Pteridological (Fern) Society,” Archer explains. “During the Victorian era, there was a fern craze similar to the day lily craze today.”

    Inexpensive to create, stumperies utilize “trash wood” — stumps and logs — for walkway edgings, backdrops, seating and even planters. They’re sometimes called “poor men’s rock gardens, because they’re not permanent,” Archer says. “Prince Charles was having a stumperie built at Highgrove House, and one of his sons supposedly asked his father deadpan, ‘When do you int/files/storyimages/to burn the lot of that trash?’”     

    Getting logs and stumps can be as easy as calling a few tree services, which, Archer says, are often willing to provide them for free. Dirt, however, can be an issue, particularly in areas with clay soil. Most woodland plants thrive in loam. Some canopy trees also work better than others. Maples are a problem because they produce so many seedlings. Better trees, he says, are oaks and hickories. For the Whitehallgarden, he topped out the maples and is using the trunks as supports to grow a native variety of climbing hydrangea.

    Shade-loving yellow and violet columbines  and a flower-box bouquet at the home of Herman Wallitsch.

    Another great use for a large shady area is an outdoor room, says Gardiner. “It’s the easiest place to create one, because you already have the trees for the ceiling and can add bushes for backdrops and structure.” Other nice additions include water features and lighting. “Shade gardens get dark quickly, so lighting means you can use your room longer,” he says. His favorite special effect for the shade: moonlighting, where lights are mounted high in trees. “Moonlighting gives a soft glow, creates depth and pulls the perimeter beds,” Gardiner says.

    Finally, Cain, who rents Exteriorscape’s verdant eastern JeffersonCountygrounds for garden weddings, offers this advice for planning beds. “Shade gardens,” he says, “are much nicer when they’re free-form — smooth curves instead of straight lines.”

    What to Plant

    The question Gardiner hears most frequently is, “What kind of grass works best in shade?” His response: “Save your time and money and invest in a groundcover.” Boone Gardiner now carries Stepables, a line of groundcovers that tolerate foot traffic. Some do well in full as well as partial shade.

    When selecting plants, go for both texture and foliage. “When I plan a shade garden, I don’t try for flower color,” says Dornick. “You may get small bursts of color, but for the most part, it’s the foliage that’s important, not the bloom.” Another piece of advice: white flowers show best. “Reds and purples t/files/storyimages/to get lost in the shade,” he says.

    Guided tours of Thieneman’s Herbs & Perennials, Wallitsch and Boone Gardiner revealed some of today’s top shade garden picks:

    Endless Summer Hydrangea (season-long bloomer)
    Oak Leaf Hydrangeas
    Juddii Viburnum (very fragrant flowers)
    Red Twig Dogwood
    Rainbow Leucothoe
    Dusty Zenobia or Honey Cup
    Nandina (Heavenly Bamboo)

    Coral Bells or Heuchera (new colors such as Lime Rickey, Palace Purple, Marmalade, Dolce Peach Melba and Caramel)
    Sum It Up Hostas (king-size plants)
    Blue hostas, such as Big Daddy and Krossa Regal (the darker the leaf, the deeper the shade it will tolerate)
    Japanese Painted Ferns
    Autumn Ferns (bronze foliage)
    Ostrich Ferns
    Solomon’s Seal
    Polemonium (Jacob’s Ladder)
    Aruncus (Goat’s Beard)
    Hardy Begonia
    Alchemilla (Lady’s Mantle)
    Helleborus (Lenten Rose)
    Tradescantia (Spiderwort)
    Dwarf Crested and Japanese Iris
    Pulmonaria (Lungwort)
    Columbine (can be invasive)

    Pachysandra (but not under maples)
    Epimedium (Barrenwort; invasive)
    Liriope (dark green spreads best)
    Euonymus (invasive)
    English Ivy (invasive)
    Lily of the Valley
    Ajuga (invasive)
    Wild Ginger
    Creeping Jenny (invasive) 

    Resource List
    6300 Old LaGrange Road, Crestwood, 243-3832

    13104 Cain Lane, 241-9111


    9120 Blowing Tree Road, 491-6305

    2608 Hikes Lane, 456-2908

    3110 Lexington Road, 897-2944

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