Photography by James John Jetel

Published on August 12, 2020

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I have never been as enamored by dandelions as I was this spring. Thousands of their friendly little heads poked up out of my lawn, and there was a constant hum from the bees buzzing about their billowing, bright yellow blooms. Nature has a way of making things look better than mankind ever could through gardening, even the lowliest weeds. But when it comes to our shade gardens, mimic we must (otherwise there would be no article for me to write here). Of course, you can’t really begin planting until you know exactly where everything is supposed to go.

Everything in Its Place

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I like to overlay my planting plan, either digitally or on a sheet of tracing paper, with a grid that works within the scale of the space. For example, a 24-by-6-foot bed would do best with a grid of 3-by-3 squares. A 12-by-36-foot bed, however, might need 2-foot quadrants if you’re planting in small groups—or 4-foot quadrants if you’re doing large ones. Once I’ve figured out a reasonable system, I mark up the grid to scale on my real-life prepped planting beds, using a bright-colored spray paint or string. 

From there, I assign a value to each column and row, kind of like high school algebra—numbers for the longer side and letters for the shorter side. Looking back at my planting plan with the overlaid grid, I can then identify that the native evergreens I’ve chosen (Eastern hemlocks, one of the backbones of New England woodlands) should be placed in B2, B6, etc., or that my grouping of hellebores is located primarily in C7, but spill over into D8. This helps to ensure that you end up with the closest depiction to what you had in your head. Plus you’ll be able to spot any tweaks you may need to make. Gardeners, like nature, must always be evolving.

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Where I ended up: Four trees (which will eventually be pruned into large columns, referencing both the formality that would have been demanded of my home’s original Italianate gardens) and spherical boxwoods of various sizes, another nod to this formality. Native cultivars of cimicifuga and heuchera mimic species that could easily creep in over time (and will help support the local pollinator population), while the aquilegia is typical of something my house’s 1950s owner might have planted back then. I’m excited to see how it will all morph as things grow and die and fight for space and self-seed over time.

Water Wisely

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Once you’ve planted everything, give your plants what will be crucial to surviving their first year: water. In the age of climate change, you can’t take historical weather data at face value, and unless you want to be checking on your garden multiple days a week, I highly suggest you invest in a drip-irrigation system. For a few hundred dollars and a little manual labor, you get a system that delivers a steady stream of precipitation directly to the roots of the plant. A number of suppliers sell prepackaged kits (like this WaterWise one from Amazon) with everything you need, including detailed instructions that should give you the confidence to install it yourself. After you’ve laid all your lines, hide them under 1 to 2 inches of mulch. You can actually mulch with more than just bark chips—hay, composted leaves, and grass clippings will all help your plants retain moisture, suppress weeds, and add nutrients back into the soil as they decompose. 

Ideally, you’ll be mulching less and less as your plants grow over the course of the first five years, eventually seeing little to none of it. Long gone are the days of gardens with singular islands of plants floating in a vast sea of brown.

The Finish Line

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I don’t think there is much in this world more rewarding than being able to step back and take the first look at a garden you’ve created. My own started with the question of how to create a landscape that would reflect my home’s history and carry it into the future, as well as be a haven for local wildlife. That’s the thing about gardens—they’re not static.

The process is at turns daunting and freeing; knowing that your creation will never stay the same gives you the liberty to try anything. Already I’ve been thinking about adding a few new species or adjusting the location of some that may thrive with just a bit more brightness. The one thing that will be staying: an old marble trough salvaged from my next-door neighbor’s house. I’m currently using it as a birdbath, and so far robins and finches have paid a visit. It may just be the only unchanged feature left after another hundred years go by. 

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