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
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.