Backyard snapshot

After taking a look at what our front yard looks like in mid-May I want to do the same for the back yard. It’s very useful having these photos as a reference to look back on six months or a year down the line.

As is the case in the front yard, we’ve made a lot of progress over the last 4+ years. However, since a significant portion of our backyard is in dry shade, it’s proven to be relatively difficult to find the right mix of plants that thrive in these conditions. Competition from trees make matters worse, necessitating frequent irrigation or container plantings. Still, every challenge is an opportunity—or a riddle, as the case may be. While I’m happy with the state of the front yard, the backyard continues to be a work in progress. I know that eventually we’ll have that lush oasis I’m dreaming about, and in the meantime I’ll learn a thing or two about gardening in the face of adversity.

The first set of photos are of our Asian-inspired area in the side yard just outside our dining room (which also opens to the front porch). This area is mostly shade and plants have to be able to compete for water and nutrients with yet another unwelcome Bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana). This is not a city tree but because of the location having it removed would be very costly so we’ll continue to put up with it.

Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Chocolate bamboo (Borinda fungosa) towering above the granite lantern, Australian sword fern (Nephrolepis obliterata) and creeping wire vine (Muehlenbeckia axillaris) in a pot to the right of the lantern, giant columbine (Aquilegia 'McKana's Giant'), and another clumping bamboo (Borinda angustissima) all the way on the right
Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Australian sword fern (Nephrolepis obliterata) on the left, giant columbine (Aquilegia 'McKana's Giant') on the right, and chocolate bamboo (Borinda fungosa) in the back
Plants of note in this photo:
I love how our chocolate bamboo (Borinda fungosa) has come into its own, defining this space without dominating it
Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Potted Japanese maple (Acer palmatum var dissectum 'Red Dragon'), giant farfugium (Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum’)

The next photo looks towards the dining room window (there’s a sliding door just to the right of the window, which you can’t see). This shallow planting bed gets morning and midday sun so I planted some smaller succulents there. Right now, the bed is dominated by nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) that reseed every year. Once summer arrives the leaves turn brown and I rip them out, but enough seeds will have fallen to ensure next year’s crop.

Plants of note in this photo:
Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus), bamboo muhly grass(Muhlenbergia dumosa) in the pot in the background

In the next photo, the big pot on the left is our black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) which produced 10 ft. culms this year. These culms have begun to leaf out, almost merging with the chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) behind it. The smaller pots on the right contain lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus), which we use for cooking, and Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica ‘Red Baron’).

Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra), lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus), Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica ‘Red Baron’)

Moving counterclockwise from the potted black bamboo, you’ll find a variegated shell ginger (Alpinia zerumbet ‘Variegata’), carpets of lamium (Lamium maculatum ’Purple Dragon’) and sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), and a juvenile blue-culmed mountain bamboo (Borinda papyrifera) so heavy with leaves that the culms bend over under the weight.

Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Blue-culmed mountain bamboo (Borinda papyrifera), sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), lamium (Lamium maculatum ’Purple Dragon’), shell ginger (Alpinia zerumbet ‘Variegata’)

Next to the Borinda papyrifera is our Blue Skies lilac (Syringa vulgaris ‘Blue Skies’) that gave us a beautiful show this spring…

Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Blue Skies lilac (Syringa vulgaris ‘Blue Skies’),
Blue-culmed mountain bamboo (Borinda papyrifera)

…flanked on the left by yet another clumping bamboo (Fargesia robusta), finally putting on some height in its 3rd year in the ground.

Plants of note in this photo:
Fargesia robusta

Continuing counterclockwise, we have our potted Koi bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea ‘Koi’), described several times in earlier posts, and a planting bed currently dominated by a Black Lace elderberry (Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’). Also seen in the photo below (middle bottom) is a Black and Blue sage (Salvia guaranitica 'Black and Blue').

Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Black and Blue sage (Salvia guaranitica 'Black and Blue'), Black Lace elderberry (Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’), Koi bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea ‘Koi’)

Our backyard is dominated by four sweet bay trees (Laurus nobilis) under which not much will grow. For years we put up with a rather barren wasteland but in recent years we’ve been adding more and more containers with leafy plants. As the plants grow, the fence will gradually be obscured, giving the illusion that our backyard is deeper than it actually is.

Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
White Dragon bamboo (Fargesia apircirubens 'White Dragon') in the dark-brown urn, Yushania maculata (to the right of the middle bay tree), Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra) in the red bowl, variegated aralia (Fatsia japonica 'Variegata') and creeping wire vine (Muehlenbeckia axillaris) in an urn you can’t see, Shiroshima bamboo (Hibanobambusa tranquillans ‘Shiroshima’) in the back on the right, Sasaella masamuneana ‘Albostriata’ in the clay pot on the bottom right
Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Chinese walking stick bamboo (Chimonobambusa tumidissinoda) in half barrel, foxtail fern (Asparagus densiflorus 'Myers') in the blue pot, Rufa bamboo (Fargesia dracocephala ‘Rufa’) in the red pot on the right

The final photo is of the area to the left of the bay trees, extending to the corner of our property. This area is characterized by dry shade; the extensive root system of the nearby bay trees sucks up a lot of the available moisture so I’ve had to increase irrigation times. However, after some trial and error this is shaping up to be a pretty nice looking area full of shade-loving (or at least shade-tolerant) plants. The use of containers in the background adds vertical interest. I consider this to be a work in progress and will post updates in the future.

Plants of note in this photo (left to right):
Dwarf green stripe bamboo (Pleioblastus viridistriatus) in the upper left, leopard plant (Farfugium japonicum ‘Aureomaculatum’) in front of it, Australian sword fern (Nephrolepis obliterata), Tasmanian tree fern (Dicksonia antarctica) in the clay pot in the center, astilbe (Astilbe sp.) in front of it, greater wood rush (Luzula sylvatica) on the right. Barely seen behind it is a Teague’s blue bamboo (Himalayacalamus hookerianus 'Teague's Blue’).


  1. Looks great! Is that a hammock gone wrong, or a swing chair of some kind?

    Three words: pan o rama. =)

  2. Alan, it's a rope chair. Think of it as a hammock for one person to sit in. Unfortunately, the spacing between the bay trees isn't quite right for a real hammock.

    Will add a panorama soon.

  3. It's looking lovely Gerhard! Choice plants and planting!

    What about Astelias and Epimediums in your dry shade spot under the laurel trees? They are unfussy and would thrive on dry shade :) I must say though your yard is looking fab already!

  4. Mark and Gaz, thank you for the nice words!!

    Funny you should mention epimediums. I bought one on Saturday at a private plant sale. It's a Epimedium x perralchicum 'Frohnleiten.' In hindsight I should gotten 3 or 4 because the foliage is very attractive.

    I've been wanting an Astelia chathamica for a long time. I'll pick one up the next time I go to the nursery in Sacramento that carries it. I might put it in a tall pot.

    Which astelias do you have?


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