I have figured out what to plant in the areas the get sun all or most of the day--California and Southwestern natives thrive here, as do many Mediterranean, South African and Australian plants and, of course, cactus and succulents. Gardening in the sun is the easy part.
What's not easy is gardening in the shade. Specifically, dry shade.
Our backyard is dominated by four 30+ ft. bay trees that cast deep shade. Even areas away from the bay trees receive varying degrees of shade, be it from other trees and shrubs or simply from the 6-foot fence that encloses the backyard on three sides. Add to that the fact that from May to November we go 5 or 6 months without any significant rainfall (and we try to irrigate as little as possible). All these factors result in a situation that is quite challenging.
These were the constraints I had in mind when I asked Timber Press if I could review their upcoming title Glorious Shade by Jenny Rose Carey.
The frontispiece spread is a perfect example of what a shade garden can be. At least in some parts of the country.
The author of Glorious Shade, Jenny Rose Carey, is the senior director at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Meadowbrook Farm. Previously, she was the director of the Ambler Arboretum at Temple University in Philadelphia. Born in London, Jenny has gardened both in the UK and in the US and has many years of experience working with shade.
Glorious Shade has six main sections. They describe the different kinds of shade; seasonal variations; soil types and organic matter to promote healthy root growth; planting and maintenance techniques; examples of gardens you can create in shady areas; and plants that prefer or at least tolerate shade.
"Shade," Jenny Rose Carey says, "[is] the absence of light, but the lack of something is rarely so beautiful and so useful." This positive view sets the tone for the book. Shade isn't an annoying problem to be overcome--the attitude so often found in gardening books. Rather, it's an opportunity to create a special garden that not only harbors a huge diversity of plants but also offers humans relief on a hot summer's day. "Instead of seeing these areas of lower light as ones to be avoided in your garden," Jenny adds, "I encourage you to relish the pleasures to be found there."
This is a big book (323 pages) and it covers a wide variety of topics. These range from observing how shade shifts throughout the year and ensuring visual interest in every season to performing practical tasks like dividing plants, planting a tree, pruning, mulching, and fertilizing to dealing with pests. Whatever it is you want to know, chances are there's information about it.
The garden types represented in this portfolio include woodland gardens, moss gardens, Japanese- and Chinese-inspired gardens, rock gardens, xeric gardens, tropical gardens, water gardens, Mediterranean-inspired walled or courtyard gardens, container gardens, and orchard gardens.
The list is impressive, and you're likely to find a style that suits your own taste. Not surprisingly, my two favorites styles are xeric gardens...
...and Mediterranean-inspired wall or courtyard gardens:
The second half of the book is a 150+ page section entitled "The Plant Palette." Here you learn about "plant layers," "understanding and supporting natural processes," and "illuminating combinations." The bulk of this section are concise profiles of 300+ plants that thrive in the shade. They are broken down into plant groups such as trees and shrubs, vines, ferns, herbaceous perennials, and tropicals and annuals.
Most of the plants, unfortunately, require moist or at least medium moist soil. Scanning the pages for "dry soil" didn't yield a lot of hits. Yes, I found a few, but their number pales in comparison to the riches available to gardens in areas that receive ample precipitation.
At least our winters are mild enough to grow quite a few of the plants in the "tropicals and annuals" category--given regular irrigation, that is.
If I were willing to water my garden, say, twice or three times a week, I could easily grow half of the plants listed in the plant palette. But given California's precarious long-term water situation (this winter's abundant precipitation notwithstanding), I'm trying to garden much more sustainably than in the past. This means working with and around the dry shade that is our default from May through November.
Unfortunately, Glorious Shade isn't much help for gardeners like me. The advice Jenny gives is far too general to be of concrete use: "Choose plants native to your specific area because they are acclimated to your climate."
I do know that in the US our problems are specific to the western states. Jenny gardens in Pennsylvania where the reality is much different. I can't blame her for not solving my challenges with dry shade in a hot-summer Mediterranean climate. Maybe someday somebody will write the authoritative book on that subject. Or maybe it simply cannot be done.
However, please don't let my comments above take away from the usefulness of this book for gardeners in regions where water--either from the sky or a faucet--isn't in short supply. If that describes you, Glorious Shade will serve you well as a source of inspiration and reference for creating or refining your own sanctuary in the shade.