Low(ish) maintenance shade gardening

016 (2)It is clivia season here though it may not be clivia season for those who live in colder areas. Despite being much favoured by modern landscapers, these plants do not like more than a light touch of frost at most.

There are reasons why clivias are loved by landscapers. Of all the options for shady areas, they must be one of the most tolerant, forgiving and easy-care there is. For the better part of the year, they sit as a tidy clump of strappy foliage requiring little or no attention and when they flower in spring, the showy blooms last for many weeks. Plants can be left for years requiring no attention.

I looked at a photo of a property where the owners had used a reputable landscaper and the shady side of the house consisted of an access path with two narrow borders either side bounded by a solid fence. Both borders had been planted with clivias in single file, surrounded by bark chip as mulch. It is a very tidy, utility solution which, if the fence and path are smart, can even look stylish. If you like that sort of look.

Everything looks better with ferns, in my opinion. Ligularia reniformis.

Everything looks better with ferns, in my opinion. Ligularia reniformis.

Clivias are not a great choice for inland areas unless you are confident that you are frost free, which most of Hamilton and the Waikato won’t be. Sometimes such borders are beneath the eaves of the house and that will afford protection. But you will often see the same look achieved with, maybe, the tractor seat ligularia (L. reniformis), Ligularia ‘Desdemona’ or a similarly reliable, evergreen perennial.

It will come as no surprise to regular readers that it is not a look I favour, personally. While I can see the logic to keeping clean, crisp lines and some degree of simplicity, I just think it would look so much more interesting with the introduction of another one or two types of plants. They don’t have to be expensive or choice plants but what they add is textural interest, variation in height and sometimes the bonus of seasonal flowers.

Most gardens have a shaded area – at least that narrow side that runs alongside the bathroom and laundry and is on the other side from the sunny living areas. If it is a little-used area which is primarily access and has no house windows that look out to it, then it hardly warrants great expenditure of either money or ongoing effort. But a small amount of effort can make it so much more attractive and the beauty of shade gardening is that it tends to be much lower maintenance.

left to right: Helleborus x sternii, Francoa ramosa, pulmonaria, arthropodium (renga renga), phlomis, random fern and mondo grass - all cheap, reliable options for low maintenance shade gardening

left to right: Helleborus x sternii, Francoa ramosa, pulmonaria, arthropodium (renga renga), phlomis, random fern and mondo grass – all cheap, reliable options for low maintenance shade gardening

I headed out to the garden to look for options to add interest to a shade garden. There are plenty to choose from – just don’t choose them all if you want a clean look. Keep it to a maximum of three. Ferns. Pretty much everything looks better with ferns in the shade. They add a lightness of texture and detail of leaf to solid plants like clivias or ligularias and it is that contrast that can add interest.

Renga renga lilies are happy in more shaded areas and have the bonus of spring flowers. We have a lot of success with phlomis (P. russeliana or Turkish sage) with its yellow tiered flowers in summer. Similarly, the bridal wreath flower – particularly Francoa ramosa – is easy and obliging with summer flowers. The unattractively named lungworts or pulmonaria family combine very well with bigger, chunkier foliaged plants and add detail with their gentle variegation. Even common old mondo grass, be it black or green, can add a different texture. Helleborus x sternii is a reliable shade option with lime green flowers in winter.

If you keep to evergreen perennials which don’t require much more than an annual clean-up and which can be kept for several years without having to dig and divide them, you can make a low maintenance shade garden. Take care to plant them well in soil you have dug over, add plenty of humus or compost, mulch after planting and generally they can look after themselves.

It does not have to be expensive or difficult. If you can get simple combinations that are compatible, look good together, are happy in the conditions and meet the requirements of the gardener, it is a great deal more interesting than looking at a single plant variety en masse.

But that is the voice of a gardener, not that of a landscaper.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

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