If you have mature trees or structures that shade portions of your yard, landscaping might seem extra challenging. The plants with the showiest flowers, brightest colors, and most bountiful fruit always seem to prefer basking in the sun, with perhaps the only exception in drought years like we are currently experiencing.
You can have a beautiful garden in the shade too, though, and the Douglas County Extension Master Gardeners maintain a demonstration garden at the Douglas County 4-H Fairgrounds that proves it. The shade garden is part of a collection of gardens that demonstrate sound gardening practices and exhibit plants that grow well in this area.
Although a shade garden has been a long-standing component of the Fairgrounds Demonstration Gardens, local Master Gardener volunteers spent last fall and spring moving the garden to an area that is more convenient for visitors. The new shade garden is located just north of the K-State Research and Extension office on the fairgrounds, 2110 Harper St., and is accessible from a sidewalk that connects the parking lot to the courtyard at the Dreher Family 4-H Building.
As you stroll through the various gardens, you will recognize the shade garden by the mature linden, ash and catalpa trees that were likely planted with the construction of the extension office in the 1970s.
You will also notice the natural features that complement the plantings.
“We used logs, tree stumps, and rocks from this area to create a very natural hardscape,” explains Master Gardener Michele Passman. Passman co-chairs the group of Master Gardener volunteers that work to maintain and improve the gardens. “We were trying to create a woodsy look.”
The logs and stumps were donated by a local arborist, and some handy Master Gardener volunteers used a few of the logs to create a rustic arbor. The stumps make seats so visitors can rest while they enjoy the garden.
“A shade garden should always have places to sit,” Passman says. There is also a bench that was moved from the former shade garden.
A variety of ferns, hydrangeas, hostas, azaleas and heucheras fill much of the garden right now. All of the plants are labeled to help you identify things you might like, and more plants will be added when the weather is more conducive to planting.
Passman points out that the garden is a work in progress.
“As soon as we saw what the weather was going to be like, we stopped planting,” she says. “This fall we will put in more shrubs and fill this area with a bunch of bulbs, as long as the weather turns.”
I make note of some of the smaller perennials, including brunnera, Barrenwort, wild ginger, hellebores and leadwort as things I might add to my own shade garden. I also admire the Japanese maple that seems quite happy with the protection of the larger trees.
Passman says the garden, which was just a grassy area a year ago, was converted into a landscape area quickly with the work of the volunteers who maintain the gardens.
They first added soil in a few specific areas to create berms and add visual interest but without adding soil over the majority of the existing trees’ roots, which could cause stress for the trees.
They also added compost to the area that was made on site in a three-bin system near the new shade garden. The entire area was covered with newspapers and then a two- to three-inch layer of mulch. The newspapers work like a weed mat except they decompose and improve the soil over time.
The soil and mulch was allowed to settle over the winter, and volunteers began moving plants from the old shade garden early this spring.
“The garden was hard to maintain and hard to water in the old location,” Passman adds. “It wasn’t connected. Once the sidewalk was in place, it was the obvious next step to create something here.”
The Fairgrounds Demonstration Gardens are open to the public year-round. If you visit on a Tuesday morning, however, you just might catch some Master Gardeners working who can tell you more about the gardens and good gardening practices.
You can also join the Master Gardeners by signing up for their fall training class. More information about the program is available at douglascountymastergardeners.org or by calling 843-7058. Weekly classes begin Aug. 21.