My liking for gardens to be lavish is an inherent part of my garden philosophy.  I like generosity wherever I find it, whether in gardens or elsewhere.  I hate to see things scrimp and scrubby.  Even the smallest garden can be prodigal within its own limitation.    

 V.  Sackville West

  Wild Ones Walk in a Shade Garden

 A  dynamic couple, members of the Northern Kane County Wild Ones, opened their lavish shade gardens, decorative terraces, and rain garden to Wild Ones members and the public last week.  Over 60 people toured this unique property, a record for our garden tours.

I’m only going to show you the shade gardens today; watch for more posts of other parts of their gardens in the future.

These grounds are not a natural oak woodland or savanna.  It’s an old farm field in which farming had been abandoned; inevitably, a mixture of fast growing native and non-native trees invaded such as Box Elder, American Elm, Siberian Elm, and Buckthorn.  The owners have been removing these trees and at the same time, adding native understory trees, shrubs, perennials, ferns, grasses, and sedges, thereby creating one of the most stunning woodland gardens in the area.

Note how decorative the rock placed in the brick edging becomes as it breaks up the linear perspective.

 Clusters of fragrant, lavender-blue, 5-petaled blossoms of Wild Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata) mix with Penn Sedge (Carex pensylvanica) along a path.  One of the most common woodland sedges and one of the most useful, Penn Sedge makes a fine matrix for early woodland wildflowers.  It is a running, low-growing grass-like sedge, 8-12” tall, in bloom in early April into early May.

Wild Ginger, Jacob’s Ladder, and Penn Sedge

 The rounded, heart-shaped leaves of Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) are an elegant addition to a shade garden. Spreading by rhizomes, the low-growing–6-8”–plant grows in patches in mesic or floodplain woodlands in the wild and is equally at home in a woodland garden.  Here it is combined with Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium repans) and more Penn Sedge.

Jacob’s Ladder is the first woodland wildflower I grew, given to me by my mother-in-law from her garden.  The leafy clumps are decorated with clusters of nodding china-blue cups that seed themselves cheerfully throughout the garden.  One almost imagines that the pinnately compound leaves resemble a ladder.

 Groundcovers  that thrive in shade

 Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), Virginia Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum)  and Wild Ginger, make a splendid combination in woodland gardens. Because these plants spread vigorously and delightfully, they will be easily available to you for free from the gardens of your friends and neighbors.

Ostrich Fern is rare in the wild, but during the 20’s and 30’s, it was ubiquitous in north side foundation plantings.  It spreads fast by underground stolons.  Elegant when emerging and unfolding, it becomes rather ragged by August.  (This might be mitigated if planted in naturally moist soil where it is found in nature.)  As a bonus, brown, fertile fronds emerge in the fall that give a striking silhouette in winter against the snow.

The deeply-lobed leaves of Virginia Waterleaf are exquisitely mottled (resembling water spots) early in spring when they first emerge from the ground, but as the season progresses, they become all-over dark green.

The globular flowers appear in May, usually an unassuming pale lavender, but this year several patches of mine were a deeper lavender-pink.  Why?  Perhaps the extra moisture from a rainy spring, but I don’t know.

 Looking into the terrace next to the sun room.

More Wild Blue Phlox and Penn Sedge, plus Carex sprengellii–another indispensable sedge.

(The common name of Carex sprengellii is Sprengel’s Sedge or Long-beaked Sedge, but, in my  opinion, it’s just as easy to memorize and say Carex sprengellii as it is Long-beaked Sedge.)   Clumps of Carex sprengellii arch gracefully, somewhat resembling Prairie Dropseed in size and habit.  Mix it in a woodland garden or use it more formally as an edging to a shade garden.  In nature it grows in moist woods, but in my experience, it grows well in dryer situations, as well.  A calciphite (lime-loving), it is extremely happy growing between the stones of my flagstone patio. It spreads by rhizomes and seeds itself about, as well, sometimes at quite a distance–each and every plant is more than welcome.  It does not do well in deep shade.

Later in the year Purple Coneflower, Culver’s Root, and Short’s Aster will join in the mix.

Rain channel and terrace made from old bricks rescued from a downtown street in Elgin that had been torn up.   Bur Sedge fills in the planter next to the holding pool.  There are no rain gutters attached to the roof; the rain sheets off into these rain channels.

The rain channel turns the corner around the sunroom, then runs under the bridge that leads from the sunroom to the attached garden shed.  More Bur Sedge (Carex grayii) grows in the planter next to the door. One 1 gal. plant completely fills the planter and spills out over the edges, in lavish abundance.  Large green, mace-like, starry seed sacks decorate Bur Sedge beginning in May and persisting into fall.  In nature, it is found in moist woodlands.

See my book Design Your Natural Midwest Garden, page 167 for the illustrated design of these areas.

 Chunk of concrete from old barn foundation has acquired a mossy patina.  Carex sprengellii at the right; Grow-low Sumac (Rhus aromatica ‘Grow-low’) at the left.


View north from the deck into a savanna.

Grow-low Sumac edges the deck; Foxglove Beard Tongue, Starry Campion, Purple Cone Flower, Culver’s Root, and Bottlebrush Grass are some of the plants that will bloom here in the summer.

Remove the lawn under the canopy of your trees and underplant them with any of the above.  The forbs (perennials), ferns, and sedges will greatly enhance the well-being of the trees (and the world).


Please refer to my previous post, Underplanting Trees, on March 2, 2012 at



, , , , , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply


Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes