‘the new shade garden,’ with ken druse

ken druse new shade garden‘THE GARDEN of the future will be a shade garden,” proclaims author and photographer Ken Druse in his latest book, “The New Shade Garden.” And that’s not just because there are now so many plants to choose from that grow in a lower-light environment.

The selection is unlike in the early 1990s, when Ken published his first big shade-garden book and most people knew maybe two, hostas and astibles. Then, gardeners cursed shady areas of their yards as a liability to be eliminated instead of a refuge to be celebrated and expanded upon.

Ken has been called the “guru of natural gardening” by “The New York Times,” but I just call him my old friend and the longtime master of the shade, and I’m was glad to welcome him back to my public-radio program to talk about making gardens in the shade, 21st-century style. Read along as you listen to the May 25, 2015 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

read/listen: shade gardening,

a q&a with ken druse




Q. Let’s go sit in the shade, Ken—even though it’s only springtime. We’ve had a spring where on some hot days, it has only been nice in the shade.   

A. I’ve just heard that spring now starts 14 days earlier than it did 20 years ago.

Q. Scientists who are studying things like spring peepers are finding that they can begin peeping weeks earlier some years. Crazy, and not in a good way.

The subheading of the “The New Shade Garden” is “Creating a Lush Oasis in the Age of Climate Change.” So let’s start there.  What makes shade so attractive now, Ken?

A. I just don’t like being hot in the garden. You’re thin and trim, but I’m overweight—perspiration and all that.  I like to find refuge in cooler places, and the shade can be 10 to 20 degrees cooler than the sunny parts of the garden.

Q. It’s one thing if you’re a tomato plant—those sunny spots are where we put our vegetable gardens.

A. And that’s where we go out early in the mornings and do what we have to do.

Q. And then we get out of there.

A. Well, I do.

Q. Me, too—I really prefer the chores that can be done in the shade. Should we be therefore creating more shade? People used to say, “I want to take down trees,” but now it’s more the opposite.

A. I think so, as a refuge and for our own health. We know it’s not so healthful to be in the sun, especially in the middle of the day. We can do some things to help the planet, like reduce the size of our lawns, and get a Prius and things like that. But we have to deal with these changes that are happening, with warmer weather.

I’m advocating going into the sheltered parts of the garden, and if you don’t have them or they’re not beautiful, amending them—or as you say, making them.

Cercidiphyllum japonicum 'Morioka Weeping' edit 2 copyQ. You say in the new book that you particularly like trees with small or fine-textured leaves that “cast a soft shade.” Tell me about some of those, for planting in the garden. [Above, a fine-textured weeping Cercidiphyllum.]

A. Most of us have some large trees, what we call the treetop canopy, and we want to enhance the area below them.

Maybe some of us have lawn or moss, or a lawn that’s limping along under the tall trees because of the competition of the roots, or the shadows. We can plant those areas as if they are parts of the woodland, when you have all those different layers from the flowers on the ground to the treetop canopy.

We can fill in that middle layer, and we want to do it with some of the trees that grow naturally in the forest understory—which is what that area’s called—like dogwoods.

Q. Depending where we live, we should take inspiration from that forest understory.

A. And as you were saying, it’s that light shade that’s created by trees with compound leaves. They’re either pinnate (which is like a feather) or bipinnate (the leaves are all divided into smaller parts). We’ve all seen them, like on a honey locust. That makes a filtered light; some people would say it’s dappled shade. The light and the shade are always moving. You get the benefit of having more trees, but with a kind of lighter version of shade, so you can plant more underneath them.

Paulownia page 151 (1) copy 2Q. So that’s the rationale for the smaller-leaved trees. Any trees you don’t like, or “buyer beware” warnings? [Above: Weedy Paulownia tomentosa seeds around fast, displacing natives, also has giant leaves that block light.]

A. How much time do we have? [Laughter.]

Q. Shall we start with Norway maples?

A. Norway maples: top of the list. And what about those Bradford pears I still see being planted.

Q. What is the story with them; why are people still planting those horrible trees?

But beyond those: For instance, if you’re making a garden, you don’t want a tree that’s going to be a giant mess on top of all the underplanting below it.

A. That’s another nice thing about those trees with the divided leaves: The leaves just blow away.

Although we love leaves, and we need leaves.

Q. We do, but we are assuming we probably have some to use from large trees, like maples and oaks.

I think such an important point you make is that our job as gardeners isn’t to stick a tree in the ground and have lawn or some other basically flat groundcover come up to it, but to create that middle layer.

That’s where a lot of our best shade, and of course also habitat for wildlife, comes from.

A. You were mentioning in the introduction how difficult it was years ago to find plants, and that people didn’t even know what they were looking for. Some of the woodland wildflowers back then, you couldn’t buy them. Maybe if you went to a plant sale at a wildflower garden, or joined a rescue group. And that’s such a great idea—when the place is destined for development, some people can be in touch, after they might find out 20 minutes before the bulldozers come. They can rescue and then disseminate the plants, or sell them to raise money.

Now there are places that are legitimately propagating some of these plants, and we have access to them without them being often stolen from the wild, as they were in the old days.

Wave Hill chairs path07 07 2013 (1) copyQ. So let’s back up a bit, before we shop for lots of beautiful plants. What do we want from a garden, besides respite from the beating sun? Especially at catalog-shopping season, we might get one of these, and one of those, and…but some planning needs to go in first, no?

A. I think that there is no cure for what you describe. [Laughter.] I’m still doing it, though I should not.

There are two things that come to mind. One is what’s called “the program,” especially in architecture. That’s basically what are the needs of the people who are going to use the garden, or the landscape? You might even start with where are you going to put the garbage cans.

But in a shade garden, you want a place to relax or escape [above, Wave Hill chairs in Ken’s garden]—and even though you and I don’t sit down much, and most gardeners don’t, we want a place for visitors to sit down, perhaps. We also have to think about how we’re going to arrange the shade garden so we get the most from the plants.

Often that means figuring out where the brightest sun is coming from—which is often the southern exposure. We don’t want to put our tall plants there, to make more shade, because we are making a garden. We want to put our tall plants at the back, usually starting with the big trees that’s existing, and then the smaller trees and bigger shrubs next, facing the sunlight. And then the middle layer, where there might be some herbaceous plants. And then in the foreground, you might have groundcovers–and again the wonderful woodland wildflowers.

Q. What’s you’re saying about not blocking the light is important, because nothing grows in the dark. [Laughter.] We’re cultivating some light, even in the shade garden.

A. Absolutely. And sometimes we’re amending that light if we can. If you’re in an urban or suburban situation, you might have a wall that you can paint white, and augment the light that way. We want the shelter of the shade, and the cooling effects, but we also want our plants, and they need some light.

Q. So having a wall or fence—almost like a photographer who has one of those big things…what are they called again…

A. …reflectors! [Laughter.]

Q. Right! To fill, or bounce some light off.

A. It really works. Years ago in my Brooklyn garden, I put up mirrors. That was kind of fun and I thought I would augment the light that way. But I found that painting walls and fences light colors and even white is better. The mirrors would bounce a ray of light, but that white reflector—like you’re saying, the fill light; that soft, constant reflection—really makes a difference.

Shade hellebore and bulbs editCC copyQ. People often tell me when they come visit the garden, “Oh, you have so many hellebores, but I couldn’t get them going,” or I have painted ferns in a prominent spot, and they say, “They didn’t do for me.”

I think, “That’s strange, and…” [Interruption of sound of dog barking.]

Uh-oh—someone wants out?

A. We have pets, both who have decided to act up during our call.

Q. Is it an invasive species? [Laughter.] That’s OK; we’re animal-friendly here at A Way to Garden.

I think one of the things people don’t do [with the hellebores] is they don’t prepare properly, or make plans on how to water later.

A. When you tell me that people say, “My hellebores didn’t make it,” I can’t imagine that. You could run over them with a car.

Q. I haven’t actually tried that. [Laughter.]

A. In my experience, one of the things hellebores may not like is the time of year they are moved. I move them very early in the spring or even later winter, and they do fine. After they bloom, later on, they don’t like to be moved as much. If you’re buying it in a pot, and it’s doing fine, and you don’t disturb the roots too much (just loosen them a little), you’re probably better off.

Another related thought: People sometimes think that with native plants, which do fine in the wild, you can just plug them in and forget them and they’ll do fine.

Q. Plug-and-play! [Laughter.]

A. That does not work. [Laughter.] I think about California, and the Southwest now, and I want people to plant these plants, but they have to establish them. If there are water restrictions, you have to be pretty clever about how you are going to establish these plants.

Q. I think that’s the most important word: You have to establish them; to be there as the steward.

A. For the first year in the ground, yes.

Q. Particularly with the hellebores (but as you point out, even with native plants). The hellebores and many things are sold these days in bigger, bigger, bigger pots, and to give aftercare to a plant with a massive root system—especially if buy it on sale after Memorial Day at your garden center…well, it’s really asking a lot; it requires a lot of aftercare.

A. Or sometimes you unpot it and find out all you got is a little plug in a pot of soil.

Q. I actually prefer a small plant—but not to pay for the extra 2 gallons of soil. [Laughter.]

A. And often those small plants become established better in a shady situation. If you’re competing with tree roots, and trying to get some plants in, you’re going to do a lot of damage to the tree roots making a giant hole, and the plant won’t do as well.

Even sometimes starting from seed and planting a seedling will do better.

Q. The tree-root thing is a critically important piece of advice; the mature trees are the foundation of the garden, and you just want to tuck things in.

Maple containers detail07 07 2012 copyA. And you can’t cover the root system with 2 feet of soil. But you can cover a little bit of the tree with some really well-drained soil. In the book I talk about covering up to one-quarter of it, like a pie wedge, so you have the point at the base of the tree and it gets wider and wider. You just cover a quarter of the area or less with a fast-draining soil. That’s one way, if you have a really deep-rooted tree.

If you have maple trees or beech trees, get containers [above photo]. Don’t try to get in among those roots, or you’ll do a lot of damage.

Q. When preparing any shady border, do you say “no till” is best?

A. Even in the case of a vegetable garden, in many cases, yes. The idea of double-digging, and turning over a foot or two of soil…

Q. Do you remember when we did all that?

A. I find now, especially in the shade garden, you just want to add new material—meaning organic material, humus from plant material, to the top. Over the years that will work its way into the soil. It’s just like the falling debris in the woodland, or the forest “duff,” as it’s called, and it’s not very deep.

If you ever have a chance, go to Framingham, Massachusetts, and visit the Garden in the Woods, a wonderful wildflower garden in New England. All they do every year is add chopped leaves to the surface, and they’ve been doing it for 30 years, and they have the most glorious, gorgeous woodland soil you can imagine.

Q. That’s also a key tip: A lot of people have (and I’m going to put quote marks around this next bit) “help” come in, like a mow-and-blow service, and they blow the leaves away from the trees and shrubs.

I understand if there are 6 inches of matted maple leaves matting down all your perennials, they probably need to be shredded or composted first and returned to the area. But you can’t denude the forest floor.

A. And pine straw—the pine needles are gathered up and sold in the South. Leave them where they are! I drive around the northwest corner of New Jersey, where I live now, and I see everyone has bagged their leaves to put by the curb. I’m tempted to sneak around at night—somehow I feel guilty about it. But one time I did that and I found some tin cans and plastic things in the bags.

We could do a whole show on horrible things, but this volcano mulching—I see mulch 2 or 3 feet up the bottom of a tree.

Q. It’s insane. I’m a lover of mulch, a mulch addict, but I would never do that.

A. It should never really touch the base of any plant.

Q. So let’s talk about siting plants: any hints? It’s one of the hardest things of all.

A. You mean for beautiful effects? [Laughter.]

Q. Yes.

A. Another gigantic topic. I’ve written in the book how the shapes of plants can have effects on visitors and viewers. If you think about how plants with big ball shapes, like the Allium: When you come across them you just stop, to look at them, and it’s like the period in a sentence. If you have a lot of vertical plants, it’s very exciting—they’re like exclamation points.

A general thing to say is to repeat numbers of plants. We talked before about how we sometimes buy one of everything, and I do have a collector’s garden. But I try to have as many repeats of things, of swaths. If you look in nature, things grow in big patches. That’s a soothing effect on the viewer, to look at a drift or sea of one plant or color. They used to make fun of people who had those yin-yang patterns in their gardens, interlocking shapes, but you want to have numbers—especially of the groundcovers.

Then if you have individual one-of-everything’s, if they’re popped into a soothing base of a number of plants, it makes a little more sense; they’re specimens.

[Dog barking.]

Q. There’s your little girl, talking to you again.

A. She’s not talking to me—it’s her job to yell at intruders.

Q. Thanks, Ken, and we can find you at Ken Druse dot com when you’re not there looking after the wild beasts of New Jersey. [Laughter.]

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the May 25, 2015 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

enter to win ‘the new shade garden’

cover New Shade copy 3I’VE BOUGHT an extra copy of Ken Druse’s “The New Shade Garden” to share with one lucky reader. All you have to do is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page (after the last reader comment): [Update: The giveaway is closed, but comments are always welcome.]

Are you making more shade, trying to reduce shade (or at least brighten spots that have grown too shady even for shade plants as trees mature). Where are you at in your shade-garden adventures?

I’m doing some of both: Pruning some spots that had become total darkness; adding trees and shrubs in others–including where winter took away some of my shade-creating old woody things. I find that the longer I garden, the more I appreciate the woodland wildflowers, and want more homes for them.

Feeling shy, or have no answer? Just say, “Count me in” or something to that effect, and I will, but an answer is better. I’ll pick I picked a winner U.S. or Canada) after entries closed at midnight Sunday, May 31, 2015. Good luck to all

(All photos copyright Ken Druse, used with permission. Disclosure: Purchases from Amazon links may yield a small commission.)

  1. margaret says:

    And the winner (who has been notified by email) is: Tom Rozier.

    Thanks for all your great answers, as ever.

  2. Kandy says:

    I just made a new shade garden on the side of my house. We have a lot of trees and this is the area where I can’t even get grass to grow. It is rather large and I have a few plants so far, but I would love suggestions. Also, 3 years ago I made a heucheura, (coral bells) garden. It consists of 12 plants (10 different varieties). It is in it’s leaping year now. I have a Berry Smoothie and a Midnight Rose that I would like to switch places with each other simply because of the natural size of the plants and space. My question is; they are both flowering now, should I wait until they are done flowering to move them or would it be ok to move them now? I’m in zone 5 in the midwest. Thanks, Kandy

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