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August 12, 2003

On the Ideal of Low Maintenance Gardening

I was looking out my back sliding doors this morning and feeling somewhat pleased with myself. This is my first house. Before this itís all been apartments or condominiums, and I had no real yards, only driveways. As a loner with little patience for maintenance tasks, they made sense. No yard work. But I also like gardening, at least on my terms.

When I bought this house I bought it partly for the trees. Itís probably an artifact of the jungles, but I have this need to have trees around me. While the lot isnít all that large, only 1/3 acre, the back yard has about thirty trees: a dozen shagbark pines, three or four huge tulip poplars, a couple large sweet gums, a few small hickories, a couple dogwoods (which are not doing all that well), a couple small red maples, and a handful of something I havenít identified with these little berries and a propensity to spread from their roots. Those latter are annoying. I have to mow them to keep the jungle at bay.

From the list you can guess, itís a shade environment. This posed an interesting challenge. I wanted green, not the brown of dead leaves. But the previous owners had built a boche ball court back there, sweeping the ground and killing off all the undergrowth. They forced some grass along the edge between the house and trees, but it struggles. Most grasses like sun.

For some time I haunted garden shops and bookstores looking for solutions. I didnít want pure green, I wanted a bit of color, but mostly I wanted life beneath the trees themselves. I also wanted to enhance the sheltered feel, the sense of privacy, beyond what the plain board fence offered. I didnít particularly want to look out my back windows into those of the neighbor behind me, even if that house is half a block away.

So I hardscaped a bit, adding some raised beds along the fence and a couple of trellises about eight feet tall. I dropped a couple Japanese maples in strategic places to fill in the gap between the main treesí foilage and the fence. And to add a bit of color of their own. I planted wisteria on one trellis, and three different creepers that like shade on another, then put two grapevines on the third on the side of the house that does get sun. I also put a trellis sort of thing over the gate on that side, and added a climbing rose, but all that is not visible out the back windows.

For some structure in the central areas, I put in some shrubs. My favorites are the two different viburnums that bloom in the spring and scent the whole backyard for a week or so. Tucked in there are a couple of hollies, a few oleanders, a camelia, some spirea, nandina and a couple hydrangeas. I could use more plants in the shrub class. There are still too many gaps.

I picked a couple of shade ground covers and planted them experimentally. The pachisandra looked good the first year, but it spreads so slowly the vinca minor has won out. Itís covered a whole section about 200í squared now. I also put some ivy way in the back on a slope and to climb those trees and the fence. Itís spreading slower than the vinca minor though. The vinca minor blooms lavender to blue mostly in the spring.

What has really turned out well are the mixed hostas and ferns. I like hostas, probably because they remind me of the jungle, but without the thorns. I started with some of the cheap, common varieties, but progressed to where I probably have thirty or so types now, from the very large to the tiny. Their foliage varies in hue from guacamole, chartreuse, forest green, through to a smoky blue-green. The leaves on some are broad, on others small spears almost like a wide grass. Some are solid colors, others are mottled or striated. The blooms are mostly white, with the occasional lavender. Most are scentless, but some are very nice. The hostas bloom in succession throughout the year. Thatís due to the mix of types, and to the difference in amount of sun they get. The ones on the borders tend to get more sun than those in the deeper shade, and that appears to bring the border ones to bloom earlier.

In the far back on the slope, I mixed them with ferns of a half dozen types too. The contrast of broad solids with frothy works nicely. I bought some of the ferns, the others I gathered down in my parentís swamp. Results are about the same. Some do well, some donít; depends on the shade and moisture levels mostly. Ferns seem not to like the raised beds. After two or three years settling in for most of them, they are pretty well established. The density isnít where I want it yet, but if I get ambitious and split some of the plants, that will come.

Last year I added a couple of patches of ďmonkey grassĒ of the larger sort too. Thatís doing very well in the shade, and I want to add more. It will give my ground covers more variety. Itís starting to spread and is all in bloom with lavender flowers right now. It too contrasts nicely with hostas, especially the larger ones.

I picked up a hybrid phlox three years ago, and planted a semi-circle around the pedestal birdbath. The flowers were white with pink or lavender insets originally. They got sick. They struggled for two years, and I saw no blooms the second year. This year they came in strong, and bloomed, but they are mostly pure white, except for a couple that are pure pink. I preferred the original scheme, but itís nice to have the additional flowers, finally.

I also dropped in a few less hybridized phloxes. One is a shade variety, woodland phlox or something. Itís doing pretty well back in with the slope hostas and ferns. The flowers are blue and it seems to be creeping, though not as fast as Iíd like. I have hopes I can use it as another ground cover too in the longer run.

I tried geraniums of the cranesbill sort in some of the raised beds, but they havenít done well. Iím not sure why. The few I planted at ground level under the trees have done a bit better, so maybe itís due to a difference in moisture levels. Or maybe the soil I added to make the raised beds isnít to their taste. The ferns seem to suffer in those beds too.

The day lilies, of the short types, do well on the borders, but the oriental lilies are struggling. The orientals do nicely in containers, though, so maybe Iíll move them into pots I just set under the trees. The ones on the patio do fine. I planted a couple of toad lilies and those are doing well. I havenít seen blooms yet this year, but I think they are a fall bloomer. The toad lilies seem to do well in the raised beds, so may have to mix those with hostas there, rather than ferns.

I also dropped in some lilies-of-the-valley. I had a few flowers this year, they are tiny things, but they smell nice. Iím hoping theyíll spread well making another ground cover. They too seem to fare poorly in the raised beds.

One ground cover I like, but that doesnít spread much, is asarum, wild ginger. I have a couple varieties, all doing just fine, but they are a bit static. I wish theyíd spread like vinca does. One batch over on the side in a raised bed is doing fine and holds its own in its role there. Another back in under the trees is doing even better, though they donít make much of a statement. It would take about three times as much as I have to make a real statement with them, but the plants werenít cheap and I am. I get a lot more coverage for the dollar with hostas, even the more expensive sorts.

In any event, the effect of all this horticulture is substantial, if not yet quite what I aim for. Itís not yet completely green, but the immediate impact is that. And itís varied enough that itís probably contributed to the wildlife population there. I have birdfeeders in the small bit of lawn between the back deck and the real shade and I get a steady stream of birds. I also have too many tree ratsÖ err, squirrels, a few chipmunks, and the occasional stray bunny. When I first moved in I had squirrels, and a few titmouses. Now, in addition to those, I have a regular population of Carolina wrens, chickadees, nuthatches, cardinals, goldfinches, house finches, robins, towhees, brown thrashers, mockingbirds, flickers, red-headed and red-bellied woodpeckers, and more.

Along with the flora and fauna, my secret goal was, of course, to decrease my maintenance. Iím working on it. Most of my plants are perennials, so once theyíre in, they can be largely ignored. At least thatís my plan. Now I need to figure out how to replace most of my small front lawn with perennials too.

Along the way Iíve picked up a lot of books on shade gardening, perennials and particularly, hostas. The Ortho series Home Depot carries makes up most of them, but a couple deserve mention. Larry Hodgsonís Perennials for Every Purpose is encyclopedic. In addition to extensive listings of perennials for every habitat, it has a large opening section that deals with growing perennials. (I really shouldnít be thumbing through itÖ) Itís published by Rodale Organic Gardening which is and has been at the forefront of organic gardening research for some time. I see the book is now out in trade paper too. I have the hardback.

The other is The Hosta Book by Paul Arden. Itís in its second edition now, and is a trade paper. It is a comprehensive text on hostas, their origins (Far East), cultivation, and includes a long list of modern cultivars with color photos of many. Hostas are popular because they are very versatile. Their original habitat was shady rain forest, but they adapt even to direct Georgia sun and fairly dry conditions. They do love water though, even if many are fairly drought resistant. The rain here takes care of mine just fine, especially this year.

It just started raining again. My hostas are happy.

Books mentioned:

Larry Hodgson
Perennials for Every Purpose

Paul Arden
The Hosta Book

Posted by dan at August 12, 2003 07:25 PM
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