There's a spot in my front yard directly under a black walnut tree where every time I attempt to mow the spotty patches of sad-looking grass I find myself coughing and sneezing amid the dust storm stirred up by the mower.
It's a pathetic little area of my yard that just won't cooperate. Lately I've been thinking that perhaps I'm not alone in this gardening headache. Massive, old trees are a huge asset in established neighborhoods and gardens, but they come with a price. Although they keep your home cool in the summer, sheltered in the winter and provide a stunning show of colors in the fall, these big boys can have such a dense canopy of leaves that no light or moisture enter the garden, and what little droplets might make it to the ground are immediately sucked up by these shallow-rooted monsters.
I was about to throw in my gardening gloves and give up all together, but then I saw Pam Borchardt's garden.
She and her husband, Ron, have been successfully gardening under gigantic shade trees since they moved into their Lawrence home 30 years ago. The property boasts a number of enormous trees, including hackberries, sweet gums, elms, pin oaks, black walnuts and locusts.
Although Pam sheepishly diverts compliments toward others, a garden like hers can't be achieved without some vision, a love of the outdoors and good old-fashioned hard work.
The garden paths weave between monstrous tree trunks, and every little square inch delights the senses. A bed of hostas cushion the bottom of a grouping of locust tree trunks, while the fence is lined with red twig dogwoods, astilbe, liriope and golden mock orange.
"You just have to finally come to terms with what you can grow," Pam says. "Plants that say 'part-shade,' I don't even bother to purchase because there is not one spot in this yard that receives four hours of sun a day. Some of the plants I have might not bloom and do what it is they are 'supposed to do'. You simply must accept that reality when you have a shaded garden."
The Borchardt's yard has three distinct levels created by the variety of ornamental trees they have planted.
Why would anyone with so many trees plant more trees? Probably because it works. The 8- to 12-foot-high middle level, where the ornamental trees flourish, really guides the viewer's eyes to the canopy of trees above. The specimens include weeping crabapple, Weeping Norway spruce, blue spruce, coral bark maple, forest pansy tree and a slew of Japanese maples.
The Borchardt's garden has some color from annuals like impatiens and coleus, but Pam has come to grips with a general lack of color in her yard.
"You have to succumb to the idea that your garden will be mainly shades of green, and you have to rely a lot on texture," she says. "However, coral bells are getting pretty colorful, painted Japanese ferns are a lovely shade of gray and there are some shade-loving plants that bring a splash of color."
Like Max Frei hardy geraniums, with their delicate purple blooms, Endless Summer hydrangeas, yellow tree peonies, Sweet Kate spiderwort, columbines and Lady's Mantle, with its petite yellow flowers.
"Overall, I would say that a thriving plant often comes from planting and then re-planting," Pam says. "It is like musical plants around here some days. You just have to find an area they prosper in."
The Borchardt's definitely have outsmarted Mother Nature and created a whimsical, picturesque, woodland habitat that's an absolute joy to behold. They've even given me hope for the problem area under my black walnut tree.
Coming out of the dark
Here are some tips, from Reed Dillon, owner of Lawrence landscape architecture firm Reed Dillon and Associates, for successfully handling areas of dense shade in your landscape: ¢ Plant ground covers. English ivy is a universal solution under any tree, doesn't mind shallow roots and is evergreen. It will climb up the tree if you let it, which doesn't seem to hurt the tree. Pachysandra works well if you have well-prepared soil without much rock, but it needs more supplementary irrigation than ivy. Vinca seems to be a little spotty at times, but usually works. Wild ginger is beautiful but needs watering in the heat of the summer. ¢ Plant shade perennials, such as hostas, ligularia (needs lots of water), lamium and violets (will reseed). Some more unusual options are darmera (big, round leaf; nice bold texture), turtlehead and some oriental lilies. ¢ Prune a few tree limbs. Everything under them will do better with more light. ¢ Create a shady entertaining spot by putting down a flagstone terrace over a crushed rock/sand base. This still allows air and water to get to the root system of the tree, but takes care worrying about what will thrive under the shade canopy, especially with shallow-rooted trees like red maples. ¢ Mulch away the problem. Mulch can cause bark rot if piled up at the root flare, so don't put down more than 2 or 3 inches and pull it away from the base of the tree.