Springtime's here but shady spots never seem to go away

Here are some specific plants to consider along with a little gardening philosophy


The great spring surge of growth is gathering momentum. Buds are opening, the grass is taller with every passing day, and every unpaved inch of earth – even the cracks in the pavement – are pushing up new vegetation. Going outside is a new experience every day. Even encased in a moving car, it’s thrilling to see street trees returning to new green life.

In fact, trees are leafing out so fast you’d better hurry if you want to catch a glimpse of last year’s birds’ nests in bare branches. Soon they will be hidden by leaves again. Those remaining birds’ nests survived snow, winds and rain; their architects and builders deserve our notice and admiration.

For gardeners, this is a time for observing and thinking as much as it is a time for digging and planting. What did we learn last year? What do we want to do differently? What thrived, what struggled, what failed? And maybe most important, what pleased us most?

There are so many changes to take into account. Trees may have grown enough to shade areas that used to be sunny. Or a tree may have been cut down, suddenly flooding a previously shady spot with sunlight. A tree that was tiny when it was planted may now be rubbing up against utility lines and lifting up a sidewalk. A new wooden fence may be casting shade and limiting air circulation.

Gardening is an endless process of change and adjustment from one year to the next. I will be the first to say I’ve often been a slow learner.

I’ve been fighting the shade from ever taller trees in my back yard for years, trying to grow a perennial border with barely enough sunlight for some flowers, and plainly not enough for others. I am getting over my adolescent rebellion against shade, but along the way I’ve discovered which plants (asters, lavender, nepeta/catmint, yarrow/achillea, linaria, rose campion, cupid’s dart) will bloom with less than full sun, and which won’t compromise (lavatera, delphiniums, echinacea, and dianthus, to name a few).

But just as I was taking a more mature attitude and planting shade-loving hostas, a neighbor to the north of me took out two gigantic poplars, so this year will be another experiment. How much will the sunlight change, especially around the solstice, when the sun is at its northernmost?

My intention for the perennial border this year is to just stand back and watch. Well, mostly. An optimistic lavatera has sprouted every year in spite of having been ripped out by the roots long ago. I moved it to the least shaded spot, and we’ll see how it does. And next time I’m in the nursery, I cannot promise to be immune from impulse purchases.

Over the years, the distance between my intentions and results has narrowed, but I don’t expect it will ever close. That’s a fact gardeners come to accept. There is a life lesson there, but I won’t belabor it. It’s enough to say that it’s worth cultivating the habit of thoughtful observation.

Jill Severn writes from her home in Olympia, where she grows vegetables, flowers and a small flock of chickens. She loves conversation among gardeners. Start one by emailing her at jill@theJOLTnews.com


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