Keeping the Shade Garden Going in Late Fall
Articles on landscape design advocate creating beds that flower through out the gardening season. This is a lofty goal, and one that is not always worth achieving. Beds that are designed to accomplish it often look spotty and unfocused because there is no theory behind the design besides bloom time, and the bed never truly peaks. My woodland gardens, which contain mostly spring ephemerals and are done by June, provide immense satisfaction to me and are thoroughly enjoyed by my customers, even though their ornamental season is limited. Most of my other gardens also have their season of splendor and then step aside to let other areas shine.
On the other hand, it is important to me that I have at least one prominent garden that is ornamentally interesting all year. And I realize that most gardeners don’t have the space that I have to indulge in the luxury of letting a garden go by in June. So, the question is, how do you keep a garden going in late fall before the winter-blooming plants get started? What plants can you use to create the sense of a garden still growing: a feeling of plant combinations not individual plants?
I want to tell you about the area where I have done this most successfully: the shady end of the terrace outside my front door. Through silver, purple, pink, and dark green groundcovers, leaves, and flowers, this terrace still has the feeling of a garden in its prime right now in early December.
I think the most important element of a late season border is a flowering evergreen groundcover. In this bed, I use ‘Shell Pink’ lamium (photo above) because it blooms from April to December (at some times more prolifically than others) and remains evergreen all year. I have also planted the fall-blooming hardy cyclamen, Cyclamen hederifolium (photo below). Its pink flowers appear from September into November. Although dormant for a short time in summer, once its leaves come back in late August, it maintains a fresh pristine appearance through the following June. It spreads to form a very attractive groundcover and is not picky about the site like the spring-blooming cyclamen.
Foliage is important this time of year. I chose pulmonarias to fill a big space because their leaves remain ornamental almost until new leaves appear in February. The solid silver foliage of ‘Diana Clare’ (photo above) is one of my favorites in my pulmonaria collection. Equally as important are the dark evergreen leaves of several hellebores: Christmas roses, hybrid hellebores, the H. x ericsmithii cultivars ‘Silvermoon’ and ‘Ivory Prince’ with their silver marbling, and the golden-veined leaves of H. x nigercors ‘Green Corsican’. Finally, I treasure the almost year round interest of the new cultivars of our native coralbell, Heuchera villosa. Here I used ‘Frosted Violet’ (photo below), which is deep burgundy-purple with lighter highlights.
For the final element of flowers, in addition to the pink blooms of the lamium, I added the fall-blooming Christmas roses, Helleborus niger ‘Jacob’ (photo above) and ‘Josef Lemper’. ‘Jacob’, the shorter and more compact of the two, is sending up buds now. ‘Josef’ will begin flowering in a few weeks. Both cultivars continue to produce new blossoms into May. I have also added lots of the fall-blooming snowdrop ‘Potter’s Prelude’ (photo below). This exceedingly robust snowdrop will produce its lovely white flowers for the next month.
So that’s it: groundcover, foliage, and flowers through mid-January when the winter-blooming perennials and bulbs take over. Not the abundance of late spring, but certainly ornamental.
Notes: All photos in this post were taken at Carolyn’s Shade Gardens in late November. Flowering evergreen shrubs are an important part of any late fall garden. For all of you who have been to Carolyn’s Shade Gardens, you may wonder why I didn’t mention the semi-circle of large fragrant daphnes (Daphne odora) that lined this bed. Unfortunately, they were killed last winter by falling white pine branches. I hope to replace them.