tips for the shade gardener, from ken druse

THE OTHER NIGHT I hosted an online class about shade gardening, featuring Ken Druse, whom I met in 1992-ish, almost exactly 30 years ago to the day, when I interviewed him on the publication of his book “The Natural Shade Garden.” In 2015, Ken wrote a whole new shade book appropriately called “The New Shade Garden,” so I guess you can tell that shade gardening has been a consistent theme of his work and his own gardening efforts, and it’s our topic today.

You all know Ken Druse, author and photographer of 20 garden books and a daring gardener and plant propagator. He spoke to me from his garden among the trees in New Jersey to talk about oh-so-carefully tucking small things in among tree roots, about creating a bit more light with artful pruning, some favorite plants and more.

Plus: Enter to win a copy of his 2015 book “The New Shade Garden” (affiliate link) by commenting in the box near the bottom of the page.

Read along as you listen to the January 17, 2022 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

shade-garden tips with ken druse



Margaret Roach: Shade, shade, shade.

Ken Druse: We had fun with lots of people.

Margaret: Yeah, we should tell people. I guess we should maybe backtrack the history. We’ve both trotted around the country for decades giving garden lectures to garden clubs and botanical gardens and so forth. And that’s kind of vanished in these last two years, and so we’ve been learning to improvise, even at our advanced age [laughter]. And so we had a book club about your shade book.

Ken: A free book club.

Margaret: Yeah, it was fun.

Ken: It was fun. And how many people joined us, do you think?

Margaret: 360-ish, I think registered, And they can watch the recording, too, so about maybe 250, 275 were they’re live with us and yeah, it was fun. And the “ticket” was either you had to show us you had the book, send us a picture of the book, or show us that you’re reading it on Kindle or from the library or something, so that they could jump in and ask questions and stuff from the book. And yeah, so it was fun.

And so it got me thinking about how we met, it’s almost literally 30 years ago to the day as I said.

Ken: Well, that’s when the book came out. I don’t know if we met—and it certainly wasn’t in January.

Margaret: No, no, but it’s close because it was a new book at the time when we I reached you.

Ken: That’s true. You look the same.

Margaret: Yeah, right. Yeah. There you go. Isn’t he a flatterer, folks [laughter]? So I’d like to say we’ll have a giveaway of the shade book, but it’s sold out everywhere at the moment.

Ken: Everywhere, right.

Margaret: So we can have a giveaway of the book, but when I’ll put in the order for it, it may not arrive to the winner right away, because people bought it to do the class and so we ran out of books, but that’s a good thing.

So a lot of things that came up in the class, I thought it’d be fun to talk about with a larger group here, and drill into a few of them. And maybe we just start where you began in your presentation in the class. Many gardeners are like, “Oh, shade is so difficult and nothing’s growing.” You’re actually encouraging, in the newer book, the creation of more shade, so tell us why.

Ken: Well, I remember when, oh gosh, when that book came out, it was all about how shade is a curse. And people wanted to know how to deal with the curse of shade and I thought, “It’s a challenge, but also it can be a blessing.”

It’s funny, because I had the most kind of resistance when I spoke in the South [laughter], which is where they really need shade. I think a lot of people just go indoors at the end of May and that’s it.

But now because of climate change and everything, I think we need to plant more trees. Well, a lot of people think that, because they absorb CO2, and in every way they help. And we have to do our part, and our part may be adding trees, which adds shade.

And when I see beautiful cut flowers and I see other things that I can’t grow, I think they’re really wonderful, but I’m committed to shade, and I don’t really have a choice because of where I am. I also love woody plants [laughter]; I love trees.

Margaret: I know you do. Even propagating them even from seed and from cuttings and so forth. And I think you said the other night, you said that the temperature difference in the shade alone, and that’s the thing on a warm day, nothing like going and sitting in a couple chairs in the shade and having a chat.

Ken: It can be 10 to 20 degrees cooler in the shade.

Margaret: Right. Right.

Ken: And it’s getting hotter and hotter. That’s what people say, but that’s what I know.  We’ve been over 100 degrees, and 10 years ago that didn’t happen.

Margaret: So you’re encouraging us to not fear or loathe—no fear and loathing for the shade, but to even celebrate it and even maybe to make some more in some key spots. And part of your presentation that I loved, and I realized when you were talking about it and I was looking at the slides and so forth.

But I don’t really think consciously about it, but of course, duh, it makes so much sense: The leaf structure of the trees and shrubs we choose to create shade, if we’re going to create shade, is going to dictate the nature, the sort of density, of the shade we have beneath them. So explain some examples of that.

Ken: Yeah. What I sort of refer to as the degrees of shade, from a kind of light shade with trees like honey locust, thornless honey locust, that have tiny leaves and make a very delicate shade, to trees like conifers and evergreens that maybe cast deeper shade. And if you put them in the right place, you can control how much shade there is, and all the plants in between, in between maybe a Southern magnolia, an evergreen with big leaves and all the way to that Gleditsia, to the thornless honey locust, and everything in between. [Above, foliage of the deciduous conifer Metasquoia is also light-textured. Ken photo.]

Ken: I’m thinking as I’m speaking, even of a tree that has very dense shade that nobody should plant, which is a Norway maple.

Margaret: Oh, boy.

Ken: Which has not only dense shade, but even puts a chemical into the soil that inhibits the growth of other trees. And it leafs out early and it drops its leaves late, so it’s really affecting… In the woodlands where it’s escaped, you can see when you go around in the fall and all the leaves have fallen on the trees, except there’s some yellow leaves on trees, dotted here and there. And those are the Norway maples, which were very popular trees to plant and have incredible, they’re like shingles overlapping, dark green. So now I’m ranting [laughter].

Margaret: So the finer-textured, almost ferny-ish foliage is going to let more light through and make a more filtered light, as opposed to a dense shade of… Yeah. So I think that’s important to think about, so a tree is not a tree is not a tree, so when we’re making our choices …

And then you also sort of espoused another idea for sort of modifying the shade, even with existing trees and large shrubs, which is limbing up things, sort of changing the density of some of the existing. And I think this is an opportunity really that gardeners miss, is working with… It has to be an artistic arborist pruner type a person, but someone who really gets it, not just a wood butcher [laughter]. But we can do a little editing, can’t we?

Ken: We’re not like cutting the tops off trees-

Margaret: No, no, no, no, no.

Ken: … which people do.

Margaret: But we can do some editing.

Ken: But yeah, editing, thinning, removing some branches. But limbing up is removing the lower branches to let more light in.

Margaret: Right. So that if, for instance, you had wanted to put a shrub layer, you maybe have your groundcover, and you wanted to put an intermediate layer. You might be able to do that a little more easily, right?

Ken: Yeah. And in the exhibit that I showed, it was Barbara Tiffany’s garden [above], and she had her trees limbed up. And then she could grow rhododendrons under them and they bloomed and looked great.

Margaret: Right. Right. So those are a few possibilities. And one thing that people wanted to know more about, and both you and I have done hands-on experiments in this over the years, is planting beneath established trees and also older, larger shrubs, where there’s already root  systems and so forth.

And you did a demo, a video, in your presentation. But describe—here we are, we want to have something growing underneath a tree, but we’re not going to take out a big old shovel. I mean, that’s not happening.

Ken: And especially if it’s a shallow-rooted tree, like a maple, or goodness forbid, a beech, if you have a beech, an older beech tree. I showed how you can make little holes either with a hori hori knife or a little trowel and just scratch a little opening and plant baby plants, maybe from plugs or from divisions of other plants that you have. [Above, from Ken’s video, a shot of his using a soil knife to make a tiny hole for a small plant near the big old roots of a tree.]

Or you can plant bulbs, and or you can plant bulbs like Galanthus, the minor bulbs, that bloom in the spring before the leaves on the trees leaf out and cast shade and have a pretty big show there. Even things like trillium, you can plant.

I don’t do that a lot, because I want the trees to be happy. And it ends up being a kind of a pretty thing. But what I did do when I started my woodland garden, is I planted under about a pie-wedge-shape quarter of the area under the tree just by adding some material, compost and some gravel, a very well-draining mix so I didn’t smother the roots, and planted woodland plants that are short, and wouldn’t really compete with the tree. But I was able to have a woodland garden under a very old established white pine.

Margaret: Right. So you didn’t… And I think it’s super-important to emphasize, you did not suffocate that tree’s roots by dumping a whole truckload of medium, of-

Ken: Or cutting-

Margaret: Or cutting any of the roots. You picked a wedge, a little as you say, a piece of pie, a little spot, and you put a little bit of medium, but you weren’t smothering it. [Ken’s drawing of how much of a tree he might underolant, above.]

And I think that’s really important and I think we have to be patient, depending on the plant we’re working with, but we have to be patient. I mean, I remember years ago, and you and I have talked about this before, but a friend gave me, this is like 20 years ago, a tray of hellebore seedlings. He was breeding, making deliberate crosses to get certain colors of hellebores, hellebore flowers. And he had big trays of them, this was a flat of 72 little plugs, and he sent them to me and I was like, “What the heck am I going to do with these things,” as I hadn’t grown hellebores.

These are the x hybridus or orientalis types [top of page, at Margaret’s] that bloom in late winter, and are mostly evergreen until late, early spring. And I was like, “What am I going to do?” And he said, because he knew my garden, and he said, “Well. Try under one of your old apples,” I have these 150-year-old apples. And he said, “Try under one of your apples.”

And he said exactly what you said. He said, “Now take practically a tablespoon, or a hori hori or something.” And these are little tiny seedlings and he said, “Put them a foot or 18 inches apart or whatever.”

And I thought, this is going to really look stupid [laughter]. And so for a couple years I had, it did look stupid. But I did also what you said, I put some trilliums in and some other things and some minor bulbs, some snowdrops as you suggested, and, in these teeny little holes every so often. And it’s become one of the showiest areas of the garden, because those were plants that because they were starting at a very young age in the spot, they either made it or they didn’t within that competitive root area of the trees. I mean, I didn’t give them an edge.

Ken: They established themselves.

Margaret: Correct. Correct.

Ken: It’s funny how you’re saying this, you looked under the apple tree, but a lot of times you do something like that and you go away [laughter] and you do something else. And you don’t stand there, tapping your feet, waiting for them to grow. Hellebores are kind of slow.

Margaret: They are, yeah.

Ken: They grow big enough to flower and look really great, but some other plants will do it in a year. And as I said, you’re not really there. Think of all the things you’ve planted, even trees; you go away, and before you know it, seven years later, you’ve been busy with other things and the tree’s blooming ,or it’s big, or it’s casting shade. It’s amazing how that happens.

Margaret: Yeah. And, for this purpose, if we’re going to tuck things in and carefully and respectfully of the elder statesman of the tree, we need to pick things that aren’t looking for a home in highly organic moist soil, because the roots of an established tree is generally speaking, and extremely speaking if we’re talking about a conifer, which is a whole other story, it’s not a place where a little plant is going to outcompete the big woody guy for resources. I mean, these have to be adaptable things. A lot of times, like the things that we would think of as either dry shade or are tough kind of little plants, I think.

Ken: And I must have said it 10 times the other day: water.

Margaret: Water. Exactly.

Ken: And that’s true for anything that you’re planting, especially woodland plants. People sometimes think that “Well, native plants get along all by themselves.” And they plant them and they expect them to get along all by themselves. But that first year they need help getting established.

And if they live, they’ll take much longer to get established. So that first year, if it doesn’t rain, at least an inch a week, you have to help, and water them. And they’re little plants, so you don’t have to water for hours or really deep. Just to keep your eye on them and help them along.

Margaret: Another thing that people asked about in the book club class was the shade garden in winter. And both of us, I think when they asked the question, it was on the spot and so forth, and it was evening, and so I couldn’t look out the window. I don’t know about you, but you probably couldn’t look out the window either [laughter]. And see anything, because it gets dark at what, like 4 o’clock now.

But, what are the things that make a shade garden work in winter? What are some of the things that you, since that class, maybe have taken a look around that-

Ken: I thought about this, and maybe I haven’t paid enough attention to winter, but when I look around, I think, “Oh, that’s pretty and that’s nice. And look how those hydrangea flowers are still persisting”-

Margaret: Faded, right.

Ken: …on this shrub, and they’re beautiful.

And so I certainly haven’t planted for winter, and I guess I should. But the hellebores are all green and looking pretty good. And as I said, the hydrangeas have their faded, dried flowers.

And then there are the evergreens, the conifers, and the shape of trees and the way the light is. And the paperbark maple [Acer griseum] at this time of year has exfoliating bark. And I planted it so that the setting sun will make it glow in the winter. It’s a different kind of winter interest, I guess.

Margaret: Right. And you just gave an example of bark and I was thinking, again in reflection after our class the other night, Stewartia. I have a Stewartia across the yard. Kousa dogwoods, I mean, and easy-to-grow, gorgeous exfoliating kind of camouflage-colored, patterned bark. Those are great.

And then structure, too. I mean, I don’t know how many years ago, I had some shrub die on the north side of my house, and now, of course, I can’t even remember what it was, and I couldn’t figure out what to put there, couldn’t figure out what to put.

And then I went for something with structure, a shrub with winter structure because I thought, “Oh, that would be nice to well walk past, even on the winter days.” And what I picked was a filbert, a Corylus, it’s called ‘Red Dragon.’ It’s got kind of purple leaves in season.

It’s deciduous, but it’s all contorted and twisted. And this is a variety that has disease resistance built into it, because a lot of the older filberts had a lot of disease problems.

And it’s a part shade spot. I mean, it could be in a sunnier spot, but it’s a part shade, it’s purple foliage in the season. But what I really like much more than that is when it’s naked, half the year around here, from leaf drop in fall, it’s this twisty crazy looking thing, a real sculpture. And it’s just so fun. I get pleasure from it every day of the year.

So again, that’s not going to go in the deep woods, but in part shade, that’s a great one. And then what about twig dogwoods [above]? I mean, and twig willows. Again, not dense shade, but I have red and gold and all kinds of things going on outside right now, even in semi-shady places.

Hamamelis blooming in snow

Ken: And you’re reminding me, I think I have Hamamelis, a witch hazel, that bloom from, different ones, from fall to right now, and all the way through March. And you wouldn’t even notice them the summer because the flowers are almost insignificant, but a lot of them are very fragrant. But this time of year, when you see little yellow or red ribbons or purple ribbons, it catches your eye or your nose [laughter].

Margaret: Yeah. The witch hazels I saw, I noticed, maybe it was like January 3rd or fourth. I noticed that the first ones here were unfurling their little ribbon like flowers. And some years it’s much later and some years it’s right around now, so that’s the sort of mid-winter stuff. [Above, an already open witch hazel after a snowstorm.]

And I was thinking of, again, so there’s the opportunity for texture and structure—texture in the bark, and structure—and color like those twig dogwoods and twig willows. And also even in the conifer, such a range of color, that with some conscious thought; I have a couple around the yard of a gold conifer, a Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Cripsii,’ this gold Chamaecyparis, and at a distance, even in the winter, it really pulls your eye to that area of the garden. It’s a real beacon.

So some color in the conifers—not all just dark green. I think it is nice.

And then, up by one of them, up on the hill, I have some of this Salix, this willow. I think it has some crazy long name, like Salix alba

Ken: Alba ‘Britzensis.’

Margaret: …subspecies vitellina ‘Britzensis,’ but if you look for ‘Britzensis,’ you’ll… And I don’t prune it back. I just let it be. It’s like a million feet tall, straight up. And again, it’s like this punctuation, crazy gold thing up there and it calls my eye up the hill, even and it’s in a semi-shady… These are not again in the middle of the woods.

So evergreen groundcovers, you mentioned some. I mean the European ginger, the epimediums, those persist into the late winter, early spring, when they get cut back. Lots of possibilities.

So in the last couple minutes, are there any bulbs for shade? You mentioned something about where deciduous trees and shrubs are, we can do the early bloomers under those, but do you have luck with any other bulbs in shade, flowering bulbs in shade?

Ken: Not a whole lot. And I haven’t really tested it that much because I mean, the whole thing about bulbs is deciduous trees, that most of them are blooming so that they can gather as much light as possible before the trees leaf out. And bulbs like daffodils, they need sun to rebloom. But there are some summer-flowering bulbs. Oh gosh, we grow so many. You and I grow Eucomis, those are bulbs.

Margaret: Yes. The pineapple lilies. Right.

Ken: Right. And you grow the voodoo lily types.

Margaret: Yes. The Sauromatum and the Amorphophallus [above in pots in the shade at Margaret’s]. Now those I grow for their foliage. So those I put in pots and they’re in the shade and that’s fine. The Eucomis, I usually put in sunnier spots. I don’t know about you.

Ken: Well, I don’t have sunnier spots [laughter].

Margaret: Oh. So you’re saying in part shade, they’re doing fine. O.K.

Ken: They get probably, I don’t know, three and a half to four hours of direct sun.

Margaret: All right.

Ken: But then they’re in bright light or shade for the rest of the time. And I think I have at least 12 different ones. And they bloom, they’re doing fine.

Margaret: Yeah. And Dave Culp, who’s written a number of books, and we’ve known him for a long time, both of us, the Brandywine Cottage books. He has a whole collection from fall until well into spring, including a lot of winter bloomers, of the snowdrops, of the Galanthus. I mean, you can really study a genus and see which ones do the best.

What are the Colchicum? Is that a word I’m trying to say? What are the ones that have the pretty leaves? Colchicums?

Ken: No. You think they’re pretty [laughter]? They have leaves. They have they bloom in the fall. Most of them. And then in the spring they have very big leaves.

Margaret: Oh, O.K.

Ken: They are nice. But you have to really think about where you’re going to put them.
Because they’ll shade out even the plants around them, and those big leaves last for a while. But if you do think about that, it’s O.K. And I think that now in January, I think that I’ve seen some of them just beginning to show. They’re very, very early that they come up.

Margaret: Well, lots of possibilities. We just touched on a few.

Ken: I’ve got Galanthus blooming now actually.

Margaret: Oh, you do? Oh, cool. Cool. I’ll have to go march around and see if I do up here. So thank you, Ken. It’s always good to talk. And as like I said, we’re going to have a book giveaway of “The New Shade Garden,” but it’s going to be a delayed receipt of the book because we’re a little out of stock [laughter], but that’s O.K. [Update: The publisher restocked the book!] Thanks again for the class the other night. And I’ll talk to you soon.

enter to win ‘the new shade garden’

I’LL BUY A COPY of Ken’s popular 2015 book “The New Shade Garden” for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box below:

Have you ever underplanted the root zone of an established tree, and if so, with what? Tell us.

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, January 25, 2022. Good luck to all.

(Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)

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 11th year in March 2020. 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 January 17, 2022 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. Sorrel Devine says:

    My back yard is essentially an arboretum and I love it, because I love the share. Howver, I have always had difficulty getting anything to grow besides the trees. I am particularly interested in groundcover and plants that have texture and various shades of green, but even my ferns seem to give up after a few months. I would love to own your book! Thanks for the opportunity to win it!

  2. Kay says:

    I’ve never underplanted trees, but it sounds like a good thing to try to add some color there before the trees leaf out. I never thought to put Spring flowering bulbs there, was unsure if it would hurt even a well established tree.

  3. Tim Kozicki says:

    If anyone is reading this article trying to figure out a good place to get a bunch of little hellebores, I’ve been hunting for somewhere to get a whole bunch of tiny ones reasonably priced and I finally found somewhere. Barry Glick from Sunshine Farm and Gardens in WV.

    He called (he’s a bit eccentric, but in a fun way it seems), and I mentioned a way to garden, he said he was on the show years back, he sent me the episode.. talking about hellebores and other things. It is hard to tell from the site but I think the episode was from 2013.

  4. Kristy Chambers says:

    That you for your talk. I have under planted so many trees . The one that surprised me was crocrosmia lucifer. It is expanding wonderfully. Just lovely! Japanese forest grass has been a nice addition also.

  5. Robin Reason says:

    I planted Veronica reptans “Georgia Blue” under my Doug Fir. This low grower loves it there. Gorgeous violet-blue blooms in summer and when the temps drop, the foliage turns a reddish-bronze. The texture of the tree bark supports a few flowering stems as the plant creeps along, so it looks like the base of my tree has begun to bloom. So pretty!

  6. George Koulomzin says:

    How can I get you, Ken or Margaret, to try my new app? I’ve tried and tried, to no avail. Yet the app is so well suited to your interest in shade gardens!!! It will help all those people who don’t have as much experience as you to determine if their new plant will get the right amount of sun!
    “A new Android app called “Sun And Shade Analyzer” will accurately compute the average hours of direct sunlight a plant will receive during any part of the year. The app is predictive: it knows the sun’s daily and seasonal movements, and uses your device’s camera to “see” all obstructions (trees, buildings, etc.) which would throw shade on your plant. It can even simulate foliage if necessary, to compensate for fallen leaves.”

  7. George Koulomzin says:

    If you are not sure exactly how much sun your plant will get in your desired location, you might want to get an Android app called “Sun And Shade Analyzer”. It will accurately compute the average hours of direct sunlight a plant will receive during any part of the year. The app is predictive: it knows the sun’s daily and seasonal movements, and uses your device’s camera to “see” all obstructions (trees, buildings, etc.) which would throw shade on your plant. It can even simulate foliage if necessary, to compensate for fallen leaves.

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