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SHADY CHARACTERS

            Lots of people, including gardeners, regard trees the same way they regard health food--good for you, but likely to produce undesirable side effects.  And the side effect that some people have the smallest tolerance for is shade.  Before the advent of air conditioning, shade was a desirable thing.  Tall trees kept people, animals and dwellings cool in summer, and sheltered them from the worst of the wind and weather at other times.  In spring trees added to the beauty of the scene with luxurious blooms, and in fall they fed creatures of the two and four-legged variety with a wide variety of fruits and nuts.

            Now, however, too many people treat shade as a curse.  After all, you can’t grow roses or peonies or snapdragons or petunias in the shade, and most of the flowering plants that can get by in shady situations have less than amazing blooms.  Besides, hardly anyone sits outside in a lawn chair in the summer any more, so the idea of a “shade tree” has lost a lot of its meaning.  At a time when so many people want instant gratification, the idea of planting something now that won’t reach its glory for at least thirty years does not appeal.

            I feel like “The Lorax” in the Dr. Sueuss book of the same name.  For those who haven’t read that colorful ecology manifesto lately, The Lorax is a small, curmudgeonly, pot-bellied creature who tells the tale of the rise and fall of the Truffula tree, a species that had the great misfortune to be so commercially valuable that it eventually became extinct.  Perhaps I, like The Lorax, can speak for the trees by describing the beautiful things that enterprising gardeners can grow underneath them.

            Almost nothing grows in really deep shade, but very few of us actually have really deep shade--unless there is an evergreen thicket on the back forty.  Most deciduous trees provide filtered shade.  The farther you get from the trunk, the less filtered it gets.

            If you are public spirited, and put in a new tree, you can plant anything you want at the base of it—for a few years.  Sun loving annuals will thrive, and they will give you a perfect reason to water when the weather gets dry, thus helping your young sapling at the same time.  If you have a medium-size, ten or fifteen year old deciduous tree, you can still plant spring bulbs around the base.  These will flower and sop up sunshine before your tree leafs out in the spring.  To cover the dying foliage, plant shade-loving, perennial ground covers such as dead nettle (Lamium) or yellow archangel (Lamiastrum).  You can also surround your tree with ferns, tradescantia, foxglove, or pulmonaria, planted in clumps or even wide swathes.

            If you have healthy full-grown trees, or are planning for the future of your medium-size trees, you may want to surround them with a combination of shrubs, perennials and ground covers, creating a shade garden.  With a little effort this garden can be so inviting that you might even feel compelled to sit quietly in it during the dog days of summer.  For a bright spot in the spring, plant Japanese kerria (Kerria japonica).  The flowers of ordinary kerria are bright, forsythia-yellow, with five petals each.  Kerria japonica ‘Flore Pleno’ is the same color with double flowers, that look, for all the world, like tiny yellow roses.  Tell the neighbors that you have discovered the secret of how to grow roses in the shade.

            Daphne is a flowering shrub that also tolerates moderate shade.  Little rose daphne (Daphne cneorum ‘Eximea’) grows only 12” tall, and bears four-petaled pink flowers in the spring.  Its cousin, Daphne odora, is larger, growing to about 4’, and, as the name implies, is fragrant, as well.  Another Daphne, Daphne mezzereum, is a bit taller, and is reminiscent of small cherry tree when it is in bloom .  Daphne odora is a little more tender than the other members of the genus, and may require winter protection north of USDA Zone 7.

            For the many suburbanites who believe that a landscape is not a landscape without euonymous, there is good news.  Some cultivars can tolerate shade.  Euonymous japonica ‘Matanzaki’, and Euonymous japonica ‘Silver Night’ have variegated leaves, and tolerant natures.  While some textbook authors say that both are tender north of Zone 7, I have seen a good many thriving specimens in my Zone 6 neighborhood. 

            The Lorax inside me says that whatever you do, remember to care for existing trees and make the effort to plant new ones.  The gardener inside me reminds you that if you are planting shrubs around half-grown trees, leave some room between the trunk and the shrub for expansion on the part of both plants.  After you have finished planting, sit down by your tree and read Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree.  Like The Lorax, it is a children’s book.  Like The Lorax, it will help you remember why planting a tree is a good idea.

 



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