Saturday, March 16, 2019

A Shade Garden in Oakville, Ontario


Over the years I have come to think that shade gardens are often amongst the most soothing and relaxing of all outdoor spaces. Shade makes them cool on a hot day. Showy drifts of flowers are beautiful, but color can overload the senses. Green feels serene in contrast. The focus of a good shade garden is on more subtle and sophisticated assets like texture, shape and contrast. You literally have to slow down to be able to appreciate them.

Today I'd like to introduce you to one such garden in Oakville, Ontario. The backyard was pretty much a blank canvas when the McAlindon's bought the property in 1984.

Cynthia McAlindon explains, "My initial vision was a modest size garden which quickly changed as I became intrigued with plants in gardens belonging to friends and family.  In some cases, I would snag seeds or cuttings and start numerous plants which I would eventually place in various areas. If I ended up with a good number of them, I would give some away to friends.  In essence, my garden is ever changing. I've even been known to rearrange the garden into December!"

"I planted three trees by the back fence which now shade the backyard.  Hostas became my passion.  I would seek out small nurseries where I would find hostas which were uncommon.  I became enamoured with miniature hostas.  There are so many colours, sizes and textures which I use to make a nature's quilt.  In the shadier areas of the garden, I planted hostas that were primarily white which attract your eyes that way."

The view from just inside the back gate.

Cynthia inherited her love of gardening from family members. 

"I was surrounded by a family of gardeners from an early age. My maternal grandmother was a prolific flower gardener for indoors and out.  My paternal grandmother, a very strict English woman, also had a flower garden that was beautiful and full of very fragrant flowers. It was my father who became enthralled with vegetable gardening." 

"My aunt had a dairy farm.  She and my uncle grew tomatoes, beans, cucs, strawberries, corn and several other crops. She had a florist shop prior to the farm and surrounded herself with flowers.  I spent years working on the farm which got me very interested in gardening and landscaping."

Ostrich Fern

As well as collecting hostas, Cynthia became a fan of other foliage plants– ferns among them, "Ferns have interested me forever. They also are my go-to for texture. I love Maidenhair, Tassel, Rabbit's foot, and Japanese painted ferns–just to name a few. Tassel ferns are my latest additions." 


Hart’s tongue, Asplenium scolopendrium has leathery, tongue-shaped bright green fronds. It likes moist, soil that is well-drained. Part-shade to full shade. Height: 30-45 cm (1-1.5 feet) Spread: 30-45 cm (1-1.5 feet) USDA Zone: 5-9.

Tassel Fern, Polystichum polyblepharum is an evergreen fern native to Japan and South Korea. It has shiny, dark green fronds and grows in a vase-shaped clump. "Tassels" appear  as the fronds emerge. This fern likes organically rich and consistently moist soil in part-shade to full shade. Plant the rhizome on an angle to prevent the crown from rotting. Height: 45-60 cm (18-24 inches) Spread: 45-60 cm (18-24 inchesUSDA Zone: 5-8.

Maidenhair Fern, Adiantum venustum

Maidenhair fern, Adiantum venustum is a Himalayan native that has wiry black stems and triangular fronds that are apple-green in color. This fern performs best in humus-rich acidic soil. Evenly moist, well-drained soil is key. Slow to establish. Part-sade to shade. Height: 20-30 cm (8-12 inches), Spread: 50-60 cm (20-24 inches). Zone: 3-8.

The contrasting foliage of a Japanese Maple, Hosta and Japanese 
Forrest Grass, Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola'

Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola' forms a low mound of arching foliage striped with buttery-yellow and green. Moist soil is essential. This clump-forming grass is slow to get established but is worth the wait. Part to full shade. Height: 30-65 cm (12-25 inches), Spread: 45-60 cm (18-23 inches). USDA Zones: 5-9.

Hosta 'Guacamole' has avocado-green foliage with a darker green edge. The flowers are white. Part-shade to full shade. Height: 45-50 cm (18-20 inches), Spread: 60-70 cm (23-27 inches). USDA Zones: 2-9.

From this vantage point, the pond is partly hidden by a cluster of perennials at the foot of a tall tree.


The idea for a pond was Cynthia's but her husband can take credit for its installation:

"Twenty-five years ago I told my husband I wanted a pond and he promptly went and dug one for me.  I regularly stock it with fish and racoons regularly use it as their food source.  Damn rodents!!!"

Solomon's Seal, Polygonatum

Japanese Iris in light shade.


From very bare beginnings, the garden began to take shape over a number of years.

"The back yard was flat, all grass with a Japanese maple planted tight to the house," Cynthia says."I had the tree moved close to the fence away from the house. That tree died after being attacked by a bug but several saplings grew from its keys.  Those little trees now flourish in my back yard and several have been given to friends."

"In the shade of the original tree, I planted numerous hostas and heucheras.  Immediately I bought four Austin Roses and planted them by the house so they would benefit from the sun and the warmth the bricks soaked up. They loved it. I planted herbs there also. As the years went by, I added a variety of plants such as False Indigo, Echinacea, lilies–just to name a few." 

Plants here include Heuchera, Hosta, Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa) and Hellebores. 

Another key plant in the shady part of Cynthia's garden is Heuchera. 

"Heucheras are another great plant for shade gardens, "Cynthia notes."The colours that are available are outstanding.  The leaf sizes range from large to extremely small.  I am loving the purples with silver veining for more colour variety." 


Here are references to a few Heuchera that look very similar to the ones you see in Cynthia's garden:

Heuchera 'Sashay' has dark green foliage with a rust colored underside. Part to full shade. Height: 20-25 cm (8-21 inches), Spread: 20-25 cm (8-21 inches). USDA zones: 4-9.
A similar cultivar with green foliage and contrasting undersides: Heuchera 'Crimson Curls'

Heuchera 'Cherry Cola' has reddish-brown leaves and cherry-red flowers in late spring/early summer. Full sun or part-shade. Height: 40-45 cm (16-18 in), Spread: 30-40 cm (12-16 in). USDA zones: 4-9.

Alternate cultivars with dark foliage are: Heuchera 'Encore' Heuchera 'Ginger Peach', Heuchera 'Berry Marmalade' 


Heuchera 'Champagne' has peach and gold leaves with a matt finish. The flowers are light-peach on maroon colored stems. Part to full shade. Height: 25-30 cm (10-12 inches), Spread: 30-35 cm (12-14 inches). USDA zones: 4-9.
Similar cultivars: Heuchera 'Peach Flambe', Heuchera 'Vienna'

Heuchera 'Marmalade' has foliage ranging in color from umber to deep sienna. The underside of the leaves is a blend of orange and magenta. The flowers are reddish-brown. Part-shade. Height: 25-40 cm (10-16 inches), Spread: 30-45 cm (12-18 inches). USDA zones: 4-9.
Similar cultivars: Heuchera 'Amber Waves', Heuchera 'Autumn Leaves', Heuchera 'Kassandra'


Without some height, the garden could have looked a bit understated against the backdrop of the tall fence.

"One other thing I like to do is to try to get height into my garden. I have an iron urn that I change up every year.  It's in the darkest section of the back garden.  I'll fill it with smaller Hostas, Heucheras, variegated Ivy and Hellebores", Cynthia tells me.


Hosta 'Cool as a Cucumber' has long tapered leaves with a cream centre streaked and edged with green. Lavender flowers in early summer. As with many hostas, slugs can be an issue. Part-shade. Height: 60-70 cm (23-27 inches), Spread: 112-120 cm (44-47 inches). USDA Zones: 2-9.

Athyrium angustum forma rubellum 'Lady in Red' has burgundy stems and lacy green fronds. It likes moist, well-drained soil. Part-shade to full shade. Height: 60-90 cm (23-35 inches) Spread: 45-90 cm (18-35 inchesZone: 3-9.


Astrantia which can be seen both in the image above and to one side of the urn in 
the previous picture.

A similar combination of plants to the one you see in Cynthia's garden: Japanese Painted Fern, Athyrium niponicum 'Burgundy Lace' (left) and Coral Bells, Heuchera 'Berry Marmalade'.



Oakleaf hydrangea

Oakleaf hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifolia is a deciduous shrub that produces pyramidal panicles of white flowers in the summer.  This isn't strictly speaking a "full shade" plant. They will, however, be quite happy in lightly dappled shade that still allows in sunlight. This type of hydrangea blooms on the previous year's growth (do not prune in the spring). Water regularly to maintain evenly moist soil. Height: 4-8 ft, Spread: 8ft. USDA zones: 5-9.


So many novice gardeners find shade intimidating. I asked Cynthia for a few words of advice and encouragement:

"Shade gardening isn't that difficult. Take chances! Not every plant will survive or work into your planting scheme, but it's enjoyable to experiment."

"If you see shade gardens that intrigue you and give you pleasure, talk to the owner! Ask questions and note the names of plants!  Ask nicely for seeds and, who knows, they may share cuttings or plant divisions.  Gardeners love compliments and spending time with other gardeners. I love sharing knowledge and my plants. I have a neighbour who laughingly tells everyone 99 per cent of his garden is actually my plants." 


In among the plants, there is a wooden bird feeder and a birdbath.

"Birds are a joy to observe and to listen to. They bring me joy all year long. There are a good number of hawks in the area so it's interesting to see the birds scatter into my trees", says Cynthia. 

"Along with the birds I regularly have racoons visiting the backyard. There are several chipmunks that are so tame they will take sunflower seeds from my hands. They're too cute. Squirrels aren't my favourite but there are a good number of them running around. On occasion, opossums scamper across my back fence. Nature is wonderful."  


We weren't quite sure of the identity of this hosta. Here's a reference to one that's similar:

Hosta 'Afterglow' has heart-shaped, blue-green foliage with a chartreuse margin. The leaves of this sun tolerant hosta are moderately corrugated. The flowers are lavender. Height: 60 cm (24 inches), Spread: 121 cm (48 inches). USDA Zones: 2-9.

A frog prince awaiting his princess.



In a shade garden, plants have the disadvantage of low light. Amending the soil to make sure it is rich in organic matter can help compensate for this shortfall.

"For years I would attend the free mulch giveaway the town has every spring and fall. I would fill garbage bags with the mulch, pack the bags into the back of my old Windstar and drive home with a very steamy van. I wanted the best nutrients for the garden", says Cynthia. 


Sedum is a perennial that is generally regarded as requiring "full sun" but it does surprisingly well in part-shade. Here Cynthia has paired it with a Heuchera with warm peach-colored foliage.

Sedum 'Autumn Charm' has this terrific variegated foliage and salmon-colored flowers. Full sun and average garden soil. Height: 35-40 cm (14-16 inches), Spread: 45-60 cm (18-23 inches). USDA Zones: 3-9.

Heuchera 'Sweet Tea' has deeply lobed foliage that changes with the seasons. Sprays of white flowers appear in the spring. Full sun to part shade. Height: 50-68 cm (20-27 inches), Spread: 45-60 cm (18-23 inches). USDA zones: 4-9.


The bright pop of pink is a peony that is very special. "The prize of my garden is the heritage fern-leaf peony that belonged to my grandmother," Cynthia says. 


1. Hakonechloa 2. Astrantia 3. Japanese Fern, Athyrium niponicum 4. Heuchera 5. Heuchera 6. Hakonechloa 7. Oakleaf Hydrangea 8. Hellebore 9. Heuchera 10. Daylily 11. Hosta

A couple of notes on plantings: Cynthia has repeated certain key perennials (Heuchera and Hakonechloa) along the front of the garden. This repetition has a way of unifying the planting scheme into a cohesive whole. 
Most shade gardens will still have areas where the sunlight breaks through. Cynthia has taken advantage of the spots with part-shade to grow flowering perennials–a daylily, a tree peony, an Oakleaf hydrangea and an Astrantia are a few examples. 


"Using texture over color results in a garden that is extremely soothing and serene," Cynthia muses. "Friends regularly will comment on the calming effect my garden has and that is extremely pleasing to me."

Cynthia has every right to be proud of her garden. It's beautiful in a quiet and sophisticated way. Without the high drama of a lot of flowers, nothing demands your attention. I think that is why green feels so restful–it is every bit as relaxing as soft music.

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4 comments:

  1. Oh so lovely, I don't have a garden but I do like nice gardens

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    1. Glad you enjoyed the post Jo-Anne. It is a nice garden, isn't it?

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  2. Such a nice garden, looks so relaxing and soothing. What a charming frog prince.

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    1. I really like that frog prince as well. I must remember to ask Cynthia where she got it.

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