Tag Archives: shade gardening

Found! Low maintenance gardening (of a sort)

The magnolia and te maunga

Magnolia campbellii, the Quaker Mason form

For me, the start of a new gardening year is marked by the opening of the first magnolia bloom. It is a very personal measure of time. This year, it happened this very week. Magnolia campbellii has opened her first blooms on the tree in our park. So I start a new season series of The Magnolia and Te Maunga – ‘te maunga’ being ‘the mountain’ in Maori. Our magnificent Mount Taranaki is commonly referred to simply as ‘the mountain’ by locals because it stands alone and is part of the very being of anyone who was born or now lives within sight of its presence. It is, by the way, an active volcano. With other volcanoes erupting in the world, Mark was moved to comment last week that we do at least live far enough away to get some warning if we ever need to evacuate. I have ascertained that the distance between our magnolia and the peak is 36km as the crow flies, so it is at the limits of my camera zoom.

Beneath the mighty rimu trees

Earlier in the year, we rashly agreed to open the garden for the annual conference of the NZ Camellia Society. I say rashly, only because the August date is coming closer. We closed our garden to the public coming up to five years ago now. While we maintain it to a standard that we are happy with, opening it to others requires a higher standard of presentation. I am beginning to feel the pressure. This week, I started working my way along the garden we call the rimu avenue. It is an area about 100 metres long and up to 25 metres wide, so large enough to accommodate a fair number of townhouses, were it in a major city. Fortunately, we are in the country, so instead of townhouses we have a backbone of 14 majestic rimu trees, now nearing 150 years old. Rimu are a native podocarp, botanically Dacrydium cupressinum. Mark’s great grandfather planted them back in the 1870s and photos show that they have doubled in size in Mark’s lifetime.

Beneath these rimu, we have what is probably the most complex planting of anywhere in our garden. Oddly, it occurred to me this week that it is the least demanding in terms of regular maintenance. This is not related to the complexity of the planting; it is to do with the fact that it is all in dry shade and also to the plant selection over time. In the last five years, we have gone through it and pulled out fallen branches and a bit of occasional debris but it has not had the loving attention to detail that I am currently giving it.

Over time, this area has become a largely self-maintaining matrix planting, an ecosystem in its own right.  There is a little bit of seeding down, but not too much. The *volunteer plants* that arrive are largely ferns, nikau palms, native collospermum and other astelias. The most common weeds are the occasional germinating Prunus campanulata and the cursed bangalow palms. Most weeds need more light. That in itself is worth knowing. If you hate weeding, go for shade gardening.

Piling the debris onto the meandering paths

All I am doing to jazz it up is going through and removing much of the fallen rimu leaf litter and debris which builds up over time, taking out the spent heads of bromeliads, thinning clumps where necessary, a bit of cutting back of shrubby begonias, zygocactus, thinning the thuggish Monstera deliciosa and Philodendron bipinnatifidum and general tidying up. It looks a great deal better for it.

For those who are wondering what plants we have growing in the rimu avenue, I will tell you that when we first went into the enormous subtropical glasshouse at Kew Gardens in London, we felt right at home. There seemed to be a large number of plants growing under glass that we grow under the rimu, an area that is completely frost free. We have a whole range of shade palms, schefflera, vireya rhododendrons, dendrobium orchids, many clivias red, orange and yellow, species hippeastrum bulbs, Crinum moorei, bromeliads galore, ferns and a whole lot more. Everything is interplanted so it is complex and layered full, interesting year-round, as well as low maintenance.  Mark’s father first starting planting this area in the late 1950s so it has only taken 60 years of active management to reach this state of gardening nirvana.

Laying cut lengths beneath

and spreading the mulched leafy waste – yellow because it was mostly berberis

While I am working ‘up the top’, as we say, Mark and Lloyd have been down in the park doing a tidy up of fallen branches and dead shrubs and trees. Chainsaw and mulcher work, mostly. For those who read these posts looking for handy hints, I photographed their techniques for dealing with the waste on site. While they may have removed the bigger pieces for firewood, the smaller lengths of branch and trunk are chainsawed into short lengths and laid beneath large shrubs or trees. Line the lengths up in the same direction and they look neater and more purposeful than being tossed higgledy piggledy. The leafage and finer material has been mulched on site and raked out over a bed of dormant herbaceous planting. These are not techniques for formal or tightly groomed gardens but we find it an acceptable process in informal and more naturalistic areas. And we like the philosophy of keeping the cycle of growth, death and then decay nourishing further fresh growth in the same location.

 

Stumperies – an ecological option

Our Rimu Avenue with its informal raised beds which are essentially a stumpery

Our Rimu Avenue with its informal raised beds which are essentially a stumpery

Stumperies are a thing, overseas if not so much in New Zealand. After all, Prince Charles has one at Highgrove. So has Wisley, the Royal Horticulture Society’s flagship gardens. Indeed, many of the best gardens have a stumpery. The first deliberate construction of old tree roots and stumps is attributed to Biddulph Grange in Britain, where the keen owner wanted to display his fern collection but other shade gardens through history must have had incidental stumperies. They are hailed these days as ecological havens.

When you think about it, the stumpery is basically a naturalistic alternative to trendy insect hotels. But instead of being a confined hotel, it is more like an entire estate.

Our stumperies have rather more pragmatic origins than caring for the under-appreciated critters of the garden. In the area we call the rimu avenue, it has evolved over decades. The rimus are so grand and large now that they suck all the goodness and moisture from the ground around them. Our stump and log constructions are a means of getting informal raised beds so we can establish underplantings, including epiphytic plants like vireya rhododendron species and zygocactus, the so-called chain cactus. It adds a lot more interest and gardening potential to have these elevated areas and pockets for planting amongst the tree stumps and trunks.

When we have dug out the stumps of larger plants, these are re-sited to shade areas, sometimes placed upside down so the roots give more visual interest. There they can gently decay, but in the process they add some structure and height to otherwise flat areas dominated by very tall trees.

Allowing nature to create a stumpery – two pine logs left where they fell

Allowing nature to create a stumpery – two pine logs left where they fell

The more substantial stumpery efforts come on the other side of the garden where we have venerable old pine trees. As with the rimus, they are up to 140 years old. Unlike the rimus, they lack a good grip below ground and from time to time, one falls. Four plus a gum tree of the same age have done so in recent years. They cause surprisingly little damage when they fall but were we to try and extract the enormous trunks, it would create a swathe of destruction. We do a cleanup of the foliage, the side branches and the prodigious quantities of pine cones but leave the main trunk where it fell and simply work around it, chainsawing back to clear paths where we need to.

A naturally developing ecological haven on fallen poplar logs

A naturally developing ecological haven on fallen poplar logs

When our instant stumpery installations arrive, they are invariably covered in epiphytes – native astelias and collospermums in particular. We thin these if required but basically leave it to nature to colonise these new areas, adding in special plants to add interest. The ferns just arrive. Dendrobium and cymbidium orchids add seasonal colour and settle in readily. Clivias are often happy at the base. Hostas tend to need more soil than is offered in these situations, but rogersias and farfugiums have settled in well. Hippeastrums and scadoxus are bulbs that we find are happy in this environment and common old impatiens seeds down and adds some summer blooms.

A small stumpery (or stumpette) in a narrow, shaded border in Pat and Brian Woods garden in Waitara

A small stumpery (or stumpette) in a narrow, shaded border in Pat and Brian Woods garden in Waitara

You don’t need a large area to establish a stumpery. Many suburban homes will have a dark and narrow back border (usually the home of the wheelie and recycling bins and the garden hose). As long as you have half or metre or more in width and are not scared of wetas, you can bring in a smaller stump or length of tree trunk and start establishing shade loving plants around it. A little shade garden will contribute far more to a healthy eco-system than gravelling or paving and can be genuinely low maintenance. Fewer weeds grow in shade and once plants are established, it becomes a self maintaining system with the falling leaf litter and gently decaying wood feeding the soil. I did pause to wonder if a very small stumpery became stumperesque in style, or maybe a stumpette?

Amusingly, according to the information board on Wisley’s stumpery, “Not everyone appreciates an artistic garden feature. When the Duke of Edinburgh first laid eyes on the Highgrove stumpery, he allegedly turned to Prince Charles and said, ‘When are you going to set fire to this lot?’”

A natural-formed seat in the stumpery at Wisley, though it would look better without the dedication plaque

A natural-formed seat in the stumpery at Wisley, though it would look better without the dedication plaque

First published in the May issue of NZ Gardener and reprinted here with their permission.

Stumperies for shaded areas

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“Not everyone appreciates an artistic garden feature. When the Duke of Edinburgh first laid eyes on the Highgrove stumpery, he allegedly turned to Prince Charles and said, ‘When are you going to set fire to this lot?’”
Spotted on an information board at Wisley Gardens, England (2014).

Not our seat as you can probably tell from the dedication plaque to Miss Ruth Ezra who was, apparently, ‘Unique, Outstanding and Unforgettable’, but a fine example of a bench seat constructed from a weathered tree trunk.

Not our seat as you can probably tell from the dedication plaque to Miss Ruth Ezra who was, apparently, ‘Unique, Outstanding and Unforgettable’, but a fine example of a bench seat constructed from a weathered tree trunk.

Stumperies. I first saw the term used in a garden description locally and it did sound a little pretentious – ‘admire our stumpery’, it may have said. It is not a term that has ever appealed to me – too close to stumpy and dumpy – but it is an established term. Why, even Prince Charles has one at his famous private garden named Highgrove, as you will see from today’s quote.

The origins apparently date back to 1856 when the owner of Biddulph Grange in Britain created the first recorded instance of a deliberate construction using old tree roots and stumps in order to display a fine collection of ferns, but I suspect that incidental stumperies must have occurred throughout garden history. Mark pointed out to me that our rimu avenue gardens are in fact a stumpery, though the creation of a garden beneath those trees only dates back to the 1950s.

The addition of wood in this garden is for both decorative purposes but also to enable the soil levels to be built up so that plants will thrive despite competition from tree roots

The addition of wood in this garden is for both decorative purposes but also to enable the soil levels to be built up so that plants will thrive despite competition from tree roots


Our newest stumperies in the garden here are a pragmatic solution but one with which we are happy to work. When large trees fall – and this happens from time to time here – the initial mess can be daunting. But once the superficial clean-up has been done, it is always amazing how little long term damage huge trees actually cause when they fall – as long as they miss buildings and do not bring other trees down with them.
A recently fallen pine tree needed some chainsaw work to tidy up the remains but the trunk will be left to lie where it is and we will garden around it

A recently fallen pine tree needed some chainsaw work to tidy up the remains but the trunk will be left to lie where it is and we will garden around it

But to turn around and remove the main trunks of these trees would cause damage beyond description. Not only would we have to get heavy machinery in but contractors with massive chainsaws are not going to carefully pick their way around garden treasures. Big boots can do considerably more damage than the original event. Besides, we have plenty of firewood already. It is simply not worth the effort and damage, being far easier to leave them in place and to garden around them.
This is fallen poplar and it has only taken a few short years for Nature to move back in and colonise what remains. Poplar is a soft wood that will break down quickly.

This is fallen poplar and it has only taken a few short years for Nature to move back in and colonise what remains. Poplar is a soft wood that will break down quickly.


Who needs a trendy little insect hotel when you have a natural environment which is the equivalent of an insect estate? These fallen logs quickly become entire ecosystems in the space of a few short seasons. The rawness soon blurs and the first colonising mosses and ferns take hold. It is all part of the cycle of nature and fits with our philosophy of trying to garden with nature, rather than in competition. Mind you, the initial clean-up is what makes the difference. We remove or mulch the smaller side branches, anything broken and much of the foliage. We clear paths and basically leave just the main trunk to gently decay.
The stumpery style can be adapted to narrow house borders on the shaded side and will give a low maintenance option

The stumpery style can be adapted to narrow house borders on the shaded side and will give a low maintenance option

If nature fails to deliver you an instant stumpery in the form of fallen trees, you can create your own version and it is usual to pick a shady spot. If it is possible to get an exposed root system and lower trunk of an established tree, it is more stumpery-ish than merely using logs or bits of wood but space will determine the appropriate size and scale. Many town properties have awkward, narrow passage-way spaces down the shaded side of the house. These often accommodate the rubbish and recycling bins, garden hose and other bits. Any garden borders are almost always difficult, being narrow, shaded, cold and often dry. It may be perfect for a small stumpery.

Just don’t ever think that sawn timber boards are going to give you the right effect. Worse is the very idea of tanalised or treated timber. The whole concept of a stumpery is creating a healthy ecosystem based on gentle decay and natural change while creating pockets to display plants. There is nothing gentle or healthy or natural about tanalised timber. It has its place and purpose, but a stumpery is not one.

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

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.