Sunday, August 13, 2017

A Natural Shade Garden in Summer

Jamie DeWolf and her husband George reside in what was once the carriage house of a large estate.

The trees on the property tower over the former carriage house. Many of these trees are part of the original forest and have never been cut. Into this very special woodland, Jamie has incorporated both native and shade-loving plants.

A few years ago, I paid a visit Jamie's garden in early May. Then I made a return visit to see the garden in July. Gardens change constantly, and it was fascinating to witness the garden's transformation from spring to summer. Plants that were shyly emerging in May were at their glory in July.

Most people focus on the backyard when creating a garden and put a boring lawn at the front of the house. I asked Jamie what inspired her to focus on the big front yard when creating her garden.

"Because the space was so large, and there was so much shade (and deep shade to boot), I decided to enlist professional help and hired a landscape architect, Christopher Campbell. When he arrived with the plan for the front, I could see that it was 90% plants. I could have cried! It was so overwhelming, but after he explained that we "would never get the grass to grow," I understood. We then decided that it would be impossible to plant it all in one year, so we put together a multi-year plan that seemed much less daunting. I think we put in about 10-12 feet per year, "Jamie says.

It's hard to miss the unique front gate.

"The landscape architect designed it for us, and my husband built it. It has become pretty iconic in our neighbourhood to the point of having been on neighbourhood websites," says Jamie.

Jamie's summer garden is lush and green. One of the big reasons is the soil. 

"We compost all summer and fall; garden debris, kitchen clippings and we make mulch from the maple leaves in the fall. Oak leaves take 5 years to break down so those go to the curb for city pick up. I put the compost down every fall—usually as late as early December/late November after all the leaves have fallen. The oaks, of course, are the last to fall", she tells me.

Enriching the soil and creating the garden worked hand-in-hand right from the onset:

"The first summer I had found a book that described how to make your own rich soil using the ‘lasagna’ method. We overturned the sods in the fall and layered newspaper and topsoil alternately. After they had sat all winter and early spring, we tilled it all up (only that first year) and planted. This method worked fairly well, although it was a lot of work. With successive plots, and as the garden got bigger, we brought in topsoil. I’m guessing in excess of 100 yards over the years."

Jamie says the book Weedless Gardening by Lee Reich helped form the foundation for all her current gardening practices:

• Minimizing soil disruption (preserving natural layering by not rototilling, etc.)

• Protecting the soil surface (mulch)

• Avoiding soil compaction (ergo the stepping stones)

• Composting 

1. Astrantia 2. Yew 3. Sedge, Carex 4. Hardy Geranium 5. Astilbe 6. Purple Flowering Raspberry, Rubus odoratus 

Purple Flowering Raspberry, Rubus odoratus is native of Eastern North America. It is a deciduous shrub with thornless, cane-like stems and purplish-magenta flowers. Cup-shaped, red fruits which are edible, but not particularly delicious, follow the rose-like flowers. Please note that this plant spreads fairly aggressively. Full sun to light shade. Average to moist soil, well-drained soil is best for this plant. Height: 3-6 feet, Spread: 6-12 feet. USDA zones: 3-8.

False Hydrangea, Deinanthe is native to cool, moist regions of China. Large hydrangea-like leaves arise from woody rhizomes in the spring. In June or July clusters of nodding, cup-shaped blooms stand above the foliage. This plant likes moist, humus-rich soil. It needs full shade and protection from strong winds. Height: 30-45 cm (12-18 inches), Spread: 60-75 cm (24-30 inches). USDA zones: 5-7.

The garden is almost twenty years old now. A lot can change over such a long period of time.

"Originally I stuck pretty closely to the garden plan I was given, but about 10 years ago I visited Christopher Lloyd’s garden in England (Great Dixter) and was truly inspired. His style was more of a rambling cottage garden– at least that was the impression I had anyway– where plants are left alone to flourish. He also uses height to create interest. Turning a corner always yields a bit of the unexpected. Things were always fluid, but never stodgy. This garden turned everything I knew about garden design on its head. Truly inspirational," she says.

"Initially I planted everything that was on the garden plan given to me, but as plants died, I would run out the next spring and replace themAt one point I moved away from the stock more ‘generic’ plants at places like Sheridan Nurseries and went to more exotic ones that were available from the more speciality nurseries such as Lost Horizons– although some survived, others failed."

"After a few years, I realized there was no point in fighting Mother Nature and there was probably some sort of happy medium. My strategy now has been to see what has done well in certain areas and stick with a good thing. I have tended to favour more native woodland plants such as Solomon’s Seal, Sweet Woodruff, May Apples, ferns, sumac and that sort of thing."

"I have recently discovered a nursery near Hamilton called Northland Nurseries that sells every pot for $5.99. There is such a huge selection there, I can now afford to replace things I really like. I can also venture out into newer plants that I haven’t tried before to see what will happen without any financial repercussions."

1. Canadian Ginger, Asarum canadense 2. Forest Pansy Redbud, Cercis canadensis 'Forest pansy' 3. Sedge, Carex 4. Sedge, Carex 5. Goat's Beard, Aruncus dioicus 6. Japanese Fern, Athyrium 7. Trillium 8. Astilbe 9. Ostrich Fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris.

Jamie and I weren't one hundred percent certain on the identification of these two Carex, but here are two that look very similar:

Sedge Grass, Carex elata Bowles Golden' (shown on the right) has yellowish-green foliage. It is semi-evergreen, moisture-loving grass that likes to find itself on the edge of a pond. It prefers full sun, unless afternoon shade is needed to keep it from drying out. Height: 45-60 cm (18-24 inches), Spread:60-90 cm (24-36 inches). USDA Zones 5-9.

Variegated Japanese Sedge, Carex morrowii, Laiche japonaise 'Ice Dance' is a grass-like perennial that forms a low mound of tufted green leaves edged in white. It likes moist, rich soil and is evergreen in habit (in colder areas it may need to have any foliage scorched by cold trimmed off in the spring).  Height: 20-30 cm (8-12 inches), Spread: 30-45 cm (12-18 inches). USDA Zones: 5-9.

By this point, you've looked through a number of pictures of the garden. How much work would a garden of this size entail? Jamie's answer might surprise you:

"The bulk of the work comes in the fall with raking and composting, and in the spring with cleanup and mulching. Other than that, over the summer there is just light weeding and deadheading for the most part. Like any garden, every 5 or 6 years I will deconstruct a plot and really move things around."

Japanese 'Ghost Fern' has that has upright, silvery-grey-green foliage. It forms a slowly spreading clump and likes soil that is rich in organic matter.  The 'Ghost Fern' is more tolerant of soil dryness than other types of Japanese ferns, but it prefers soil that has medium to average moisture. Height: 90-120 cm (36-48 inches), Spread: 30-45 cm (12-18 inches). USDA Zones: 4-9.

Tatting Fern (on the left) and Christmas Fern (on the right)

Tatting Fern, Athyrium filix-femina has long, narrow fronds that have rounded pinnae along their mid-ribs. This fern prefers moist soil. Full shade. Height: 15-30 cm (6-12 inches), Spread: 30-45 cm (12-18 inches). USDA Zones: 3-9.

Christmas Fern, Polystichum acrostichoides forms a low clump of dark-green leathery fronds. It also likes moist, rich soil. Part to full shade. Height: 30-60 cm (12-23 inches), Spread: 30-60 cm (12-23 inches). USDA Zones: 3-9.

Goat's Beard, Aruncus dioicus has feathery white plumes mid-summer. The plant has green ferny foliage, which is quite attractive in its own right. Full sun or part shade. Height: 120-180 cm ( 47-70 inches), Spread: 90-150 cm (35-59 inches.) USDA Zones: 2-9.

What impact does the garden have on the other aspects of daily life and how do Jamie and her husband use the garden? 

"Pretty well everyone I see when I am working out front calls out to say how they love walking by to see what is new or blooming. So the first thing the garden is used for is for our neighbours to enjoy."

"We decided about 6 or 7 years ago to convert one of the beds into a sitting area that we could use to serve meals, and for entertaining, because although everybody else got to enjoy it, we never did! It is a lovely place to have a cocktail or even dinner for 4. My husband put a small light over the table that comes on along with the other garden lights. It is very magical at night."

Silene 'Clifford Moor' is a nice variegated cultivar with green leaves flecked in cream. Small magenta-pink flowers appear in spring. Silene 'Clifford Moor' prefers sun to light shade. Normal, sandy and clay soil all work well for Silene. Height: 30-45 cm (12-18 inches), Spread: 38-45 cm (15-18 inches) USDA Zones: 5-11

Valerian, Valeriana officinalis

Valerian, Valeriana officinalis is a clumping perennial with ferny, scented leaves, stems, flowers and roots. It is originally from Europe and western Asia, but has escaped gardens and has become naturalized in the northern U.S. and Canada. It is easily grown in average, well-drained soil. This is a potentially invasive perennial that freely self-seeds. Full sun to part shade. Height: 3-5ft, Spread: 2-4 ft. USDA zones: 4-7.

Calycanthus 'Aphrodite' is a bush that Jamie pruned to be a standard.

Sweetshrub, Calycanthus 'Aphrodite' has glossy, deer-resistant foliage and fragrant red flowers in summer. It likes moist, well-drained soil. Height: 1.2-1.8 m (4-6 feet), Spread: 1.8-2.4 m (6-8 feet). USDA Zones: 5-9.

A glimpse of the back garden. 

The white Dogwood on the right is Cornus Chinensis and the pink one (on the left and seen below) is Cornus kousa ‘Satomi’.

Flowering Dogwood, Cornus kousa ‘Satomi’

I always like to ask a gardener about what they've learned and any advice they might have to share. Here's what Jamie had to say:

• Hire a professional! For starters, anyways to get you going.

• Don’t be discouraged. Look for the beauty in textures, different leaf colours and shapes that you had not appreciated previously.

• Go for a vibe of ‘cool’, ‘serene’, ‘ethereal/whimsical’ to achieve the most satisfying results.

• Experiment! It is every bit as fun as the sun.


  1. I loved it. Great advise. You have done a beautiful job.

    1. I am glad you liked the garden. Jamie does have lots of great advice and I hope to check out Northlands Nursery soon!

  2. A very inspiring garden. Thank you for telling us the story and the wonderful photos.

  3. Beautiful garden Jennifer. Makes me want to run out and get another Tatting Fern (that would be #4 to replace the last 3 that didn't make it over the years). Such a fun plant. Missed you in Buffalo. Saw a garden with 2000 named hosta! Just when I thought I didn't need another hosta....... I've got a new list now.

    1. I have a feeling that the Tatting Fern really likes those moist conditions and won't do well without it. Buffalo sounds wonderful Barbara. I look forward to seeing your post on your visit.

  4. Jennifer, I love your posts on shade gardens, especially this last one, as I have a yard full of trees. I spent years before I realized how lovely shade plantings can be. Your posts are always full of ideas and Like being able to take garden tours all the time! Thanks!

    1. I have to say that this is one of the nicest shade gardens I had the good fortune to visit. Glad you liked the post Diane.

  5. wonderful post and plenty of ideas! Thanks!

  6. These are some really magnificent gardens, Jennifer!
    And I absolutely LOVE that little white gate.
    So beautiful.

  7. Jennifer,
    The inspiration I have found from your shade gardens in amazing, and I can't thank you enough. My garden looks better this year, thanks to you, and I already have a good list for some new plants to try next year. Cant wait to visit Northland, I live in London Ontario but my dd is in Port Credit, and I visit often so only a short diversion, and it's never too far to find a great nursery anyways!

  8. You know, as much as I do love and appreciate a lot of colour, my favourite type of garden is still a deep shade garden. I think I like all that green in various textures and tones, as well as the contrast of hints of colour. Whether the colour is from early spring blooms, flowering trees, the delightful hosta blooms, or a hit of colour from a climbing clematis -- like the beauty on their front gate.

  9. Hi Jennifer, your gardens are beautiful! We at Toronto and Region Conservation Authority are always looking for inspiring photos to share during our gardening with native plants workshops. Would you be comfortable with us displaying some of your pictures and providing photo credit? Please feel free to email me directly for more information: Thank you for considering!

  10. Beautiful garden! Can you tell me what the purple plant is that is climbing up your gate?


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