This Week's Podcast: A Manuel for Gardening in the Shadows with the Shady Lady
Click on the small black arrow on the bar to listen, or the MP3 to download the show:
Amy Ziffer is a professional with a lot of experience in gardening and publishing and many thoughts on both. Amy (right, photo by Ken Stabile) is the owner of A Shady Lady Garden Design and a former editor at Fine Gardening magazine. Like me, Amy gardens in the shade, and like me, she has a lot of opinions born out of experience, which in my case, I could call failure. But if you are interested in success, you will be interested in her new book, The Shady Lady's Guide to Northeast Shade Gardening.
The last time she was a guest on the radio show we spoke from her home in northwest Connecticut and do again, today. It is obvious that regionality is important in gardening. What is covered in the term “Northeast?” The conditions that describe the area covered in the book are those with ample rain and mostly deciduous trees, and ranges from New Jersey in the south, Canada in the north and west to Michigan.
As for opinions, Amy says that people often demand too much from plants, what I call “outdoor decorating.” She says people should think “need” over “want.”
“Plants are often expected to perform like furniture. Sometimes I turn the tables (no pun intended) just to emphasize the point and say that if furniture behaved like plants, your chairs, tables and sofas would balloon or shrink from day to day, might develop some nasty upholstery disease or be gnawed to their claw feet overnight, would slowly inch across the room of their own accord, would have to defend their space from ugly mini furniture that would crop up out of your floors every week, would retire to the attic for six months of the year, and might simply vanish one April day. Yes, plants are living things, with all the unpredictability that implies.”
Now, back to the book: Amy introduces the concept of “backbone plants” and shows why certain plants should make up 75 to 80 percent of a shade garden. These are plants that stick around through the entire season and are disease and insect free for the most part. Many are resistant to deer browsing. Examples include hellebore, Rodgersia, Epimedium, Geranium macrorrhizum. Both non-native and native Polygonatums and columbines.
Among Amy’s favorite natives are Asarum canadense, Smilacina, Aruncus dioicus, Aster divaricatus, Disporum maculatum, Trillium (many kinds). (left, Amy’s photos of ground covering Asarum wild ginger with flowering phlox and Virginia bluebells; and above, the best shade garden plant: Hellebore.)
Much of the book is an encyclopedic section on shade plants. These are essays with a lot of information, and not just the obvious facts like pretty, tall, hardy, etc. Amy shares her opinions on how these plants have behaved in her garden and the gardens of her many clients over many years.
“Several reviewers have used the word ‘opinionated’ (or some variant on that) to describe my writing,” she says. “I say ‘good!’ Gardeners need writers to be more discriminating and opinionated as long as they lay out the reasons for their opinions and those reasons are valid. That's why the crux of the book is the idea that not all garden plants are created equal; some perform better than others in typical garden settings or for special applications, and people are entitled to better information about that fundamental truth.”