Beth Chatto, the legendary plantswoman and nursery owner, invented the mantra “right plant, right place”–that is, choosing plants that are perfectly suited to the conditions of your garden. In 1989, after famously epic storms in England, an old woodland of oak trees was destroyed at Chatto’s gardens in Elmstead, Essex, so she began to plan a new garden, a dappled oasis that not only champions a wide range of plants that thrive in the conditions, but also provides year-round interest.
It’s that Wood Garden that sets the scene for Beth Chatto’s Shade Garden: Shade-Loving Plants for Year Round Interest (which was first published in 2002 as Beth Chatto’s Woodland Garden) and it’s an invaluable book for anyone with shady areas. Written chronologically through the course of one year, in Chatto’s signature conversational style, it’s an exhaustive resource packed with details of 500 plants and a really useful A-Z illustrated index of shade-tolerant plants. It will make you see shade as an opportunity for all sorts of interesting plants (rather than a problem area). Which is exactly as Beth Chatto intended.
Photography by Steven Wooster.
At the Wood Garden phenomenal amounts of organic matter—both compost and manure—were dug into the sandy, stony earth, which was then further mulched with leaf mold and bark. Irrigation pipes were installed in trenches at the same time. It’s almost certainly this careful and thorough preparation that has laid the groundwork for the lush, healthy garden that exists today. And while the addition of almost any organic matter is preferable to none at all, beware adding alkaline mushroom compost; many shade-loving plants prefer slightly acid soil.
Many shade-loving flowering plants are spring flowers as they can grow, flower and get all the nutrition they need before they are covered up by the tree canopy. These plants also tend to be quite shallow rooted, taking in moisture from the top layer of soil and nutrients from the trees’ leaf litter. Planned well, it’s possible to have a long success of spring-flowering bulbs and plants—snowdrops, hellebores, pulmonarias, fritillaria, anemones, narcissus, and then primroses will flower in a wave of color. If you have the space then plant them in expansive drifts and always allow the leaves to die back even if you have deadheaded narcissus and other spring bulbs as the plant needs to absorb as much energy as possible through its leaves before dying back completely.
When Chatto originally laid out the Wood Garden she added a well-thought out layer of under-storey shrubs including evergreen plants and deciduous shrubs that would provide a long season of interest; from the spring flowers of Cornus mas, vibernums, currants (Ribes laurifolium is valued for its red flowers) and magnolias (including the sublimely pretty Magnolia x loebneri ‘Leonard Messel’) through to lace-capped hydrangeas and dogwoods that would provide winter interest too. In exposed areas, tougher shrubs such as Lonicera pileata, holly, and laurel are planted close to boundaries to buffer winds.
Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris takes a while to establish but once it does it will romp up trees. In Beth’s garden it is trained 20 feet up around the trunks of vast oak trees. Rampant roses including R. Paul’s Himalayan Musk, R. Kiftsgate, and R. Bobbie James will also readily climb up into trees creating light and color in the tree canopy; they will need a wire or support to initially get going. Honeysuckles can be used on smaller trees.
A plant’s flowers are often fleeting—sometimes appearing only for days—so it makes far more sense to choose plants primarily for their foliage. Chatto is a big fan of the seriously unfashionable Bergenia, which she uses on corners for its lush glossy leaves (they also appear in her gravel garden too). Good combinations of foliage can be just as interesting as flowers—and light green and variegated foliage create bursts of light and contrast in high summer. Even among grasses—often considered to be sun loving—there are some shade-tolerant options including Carex elata and Millium effusum Aureum, which has zingy lime foliage to pair with narcissus in spring.
It’s impossible to imagine a shade garden without the lush colors and textures of ferns. These Jurassic plants existed millions of years ago, long before flowering plants and they are typical of shade loving plants that have adapted themselves for their habitat, with large dark leaves that spread out to maximize their surface area for light.
The cultivars of choice are Hosta var. elegans with its deep blue-gray leaves, H. ventricosa, and H. lancifolia, which has glossy dark green pointed leaves. Amazingly in this cool damp garden there is very little slug damage—and there are some hostas that are more resistant such as H. sieboldiana, which has tougher puckered leaves.
More shady secrets for the garden: