Shade Gardening



So many garden look great in spring, then enthusiasm wanes and the color’s gone. No need. I hope that this picture inspires you to extend your perennial garden’s range into fall.

This is my mother’s part-shade backyard garden in Stamford, CT. The eye-catching star is a white windflower (anemone) from White Flower Farms. You’ll also see ice pansies in deep red, plus every available shade of purple and blue.

While perennials are the best garden investment, a couple of flats of pansies (bi-annuals), to me, are a must. (See Issue 33). This batch came from the local supermarket.

The yellowing foliage and gold seed scapes are courtesy of the hosta clan. At the red in the lower right is one of my mother’s new (and very satisfactory) low-bush blue berries (Issue 56), that we planted last spring. In the rear are Leatherwood ferns, bog rosemarys, more hosta, assorted ground covers, and earlier-flowering perennials.

The area to the left of the pillar in the rear, now know as “Kal’s Garden”, used to be pachysandra, a/k/a the aluminum siding of home gardening. Last spring my friend Kal, with support from her husband Roger (who made us a great Indian lunch), helped me double-dig the patch to expand the garden strip designed for year-round close-up viewing from indoors and from the walk-way.

Between the blueberry and the astilbes (not pictured) is a collection shade ground covers, melded into a thick patchwork quilt.

The components are the yellow of hybrid creeping jenny, the purple of tri-color-variegated ajuga, and the green of ornamental strawberries. If you look carefully, you’ll also see a few brown oak leaves.

These spreading perennials look this good early spring to late fall and often hold their leaves and color all winter in a sheltered spot. Once established, all three ground covers are hardy, care-free, and choke out most of the weeds. While the contrasting foliage is more than enough to satisfy the eye, the strawberries bloom fuchsia from early spring to early fall; the ajuga chimes in by late spring; and the whole mess is under-planted with a collection of miniature spring bulbs that bloom March to June. This mix, which I first saw in a NYC churchyard, stands up to light foot traffic and can be very useful where the grass won’t grow under shade trees.

©Susan W. Sweeney 2003

What the readers said about last week’s FALL IN THE GARDEN and other things:

I’m so proud of my fall anemones — they proved to be very photogenic. Liz (CT)

If they [the shade ground covers] really choke out the weeds, I want some! Barbara (NY)

This and the fall leaves are an inspiration. Just yesterday we drove up state for the foliage. Lin (NY)

I took your advice, and fell in the garden. Instead of the color waning, the color waxed on the bruises, bringing an array of autumn color to my left thigh…. maybe I’m not falling right? I really need to know, because I have my movement class at Yale to consider. … Marc (CT) [you’re imaging a hard surface (ouch! no wonder the bruises); instead, dive into bottomless piles of crisp oak leaves …]

Fall Gardening


It’s “Fall in the Garden” again. Seems too soon, but here we are again. We’re definitely passed summer, no matter what anyone says.


I hope you brought the houseplants in two weeks ago. If you were in denial, do it now so that at least the plants, now properly washed, trimmed, and potted, will have had time to adjust to the change of seasons before the heat goes on in October. See Issue 76.

Stop fertilizing your indoor plants, expect tropical plants in active growth. Start cutting back on the water for your cacti and succulents. See Issue 32.

Use the cuttings to start holiday gift plants. (See Issue 28 )


It’s time to start the fall clean up. Leaving it all to the last minute works for some but you may prefer to do a little each week.

Leave the flower stalks, seed pods and crisp, dried foliage that will be good fall and winter interest and food for the birds. Issue 92

Remove softening, mushy dead leaves that could rot or build up a thick, air-tight coating to smother roots.

Be especially careful to remove the foliage that might be harboring diseases. For example, the leaves of the plants that had powdery mildew this summer. Iris leaves can harbor leaf borers so it’s good to remove these leaves. Roses get all kinds of diseases, so the more you rake up the leaves, the better off you are. Potentially infected material goes in a black bag; not the compost pile.

Leave the mulch! The point of mulch is to cover the ground year round. So don’t rake it up in the fall. You may need to add extra mulch for winter protection after the ground freezes but that’s a different story.


Now that the woody plants have completed their growth cycle, you can prune if you wish. Skip the spring bloomers – they get pruned after flowering next year. With flowering plants, always check to see if they flower on “old wood” – if so know that fall pruning is cutting off next year’s flowers so proceed with care. Dead and diseased branches should go. However, think carefully about pruning live wood now. Many think it best to wait until early spring (February and March), so that you can take into account any winter damage. See Issue 105.


Now, here’s the fun part. Fall gardens can have the best color of the year. See Issue 84

So make sure you’ve inter-planted your spring and summer bloomers with the treasures of fall. Boneset, goldenrod, asters, native sunflowers, grasses, cone flowers, hardy begonias, milkweed pods, leadwort, guara, winterberry, the list goes on and on. A quick trip to the garden center will usually reward you with a great plant or two.

Don’t forget to set out some pansies for late season color. See Issue 33.

Think about planting some shrubs, now or in the spring, Issue 78. And of course, put in your bulbs. See Issues 29, 51, and 71.

Container Gardening


Lots of pots get bought in April. Purists favor terra cotta . …. Serene as old stone, it’s porous, promoting air circulation and moisture balance. Downside, it’s heavy and breakable. Also, chemical salts (you see a whitish streaking or crust) can build up to harmful levels. Remove by soaking empty pots in vinegar. “Clay” is the same thing, only cheaper. Terra cotta glazed on the outside is almost as healthy and looks cleaner.

Plastic is cheap, lightweight, durable, and retains moisturize. However, it doesn’t let the roots breathe and can retain too much moisture. And it’s, er, plastic. I like it for hanging vines. Clear plastic (e.g. disposable cups) is good for hanging orchids, very light and the roots get sun.

China is pretty but is functionally like plastic only heavier, more expensive, and breakable. It’s not good outdoors in winter. If you like china, use decorative “cashe pots” (e.g. no drainage hole) j big enough to fit a clay pot holding your plant, with some gravel underneath for drainage. Ferns, particularly, like double potting as it keeps their roots cool and damp.

Outdoors, foam containers are lightweight and good insulators but the styles tend to be too ornate. Wood’s good but can rot over time unless treated with chemicals (potentially very dangerous). Concrete planters are wonderful but very heavy. In the right place, plastic’s OK too. Reduce weight and increase drainage and insulation by filing the pot’s bottom with Styrofoam packing “peanuts”. Black pots, of course, absorb more heat than light ones.

I like terra cotta indoors and out. My secret: terra cotta’s most likely to break by freezing in its first winter, so get “pre-tested” pots by buying last year’s stock in early spring from nurseries that store their pots outdoors. When a pot breaks, use “Quick Grab” glue or tie it together with decorative string.

Whatever pot you’re buying, make sure it has a drainage hole. And size matters: don’t pot up more than an inch or two in diameter at a time. Overwatering in the number one houseplant killer and over-potting is a key cause of overwatering.

Aesthetically, make your pots a consistent part of the décor. Use similar color, shape, material, and/or size to unify groupings. Pick size, shape, and color to compliment the plant. (Some people have lots of shoes; I confess to a closet full of pots but often still don’t have just the right one.)

Winterizing Container Plants

“In My Garden” is Braveness, my little Japanese Maple tree, just before moving into his winter home — a cold frame made out of two orange crates covered in bubble wrap. In the background are ivies under-planted with spring bulbs that will stay out all winter as is. Some people are surprised that I have year-round outdoor plants on a balcony but

any plant that will survive in the ground year-round in your hardiness zone can also survive in a container with a little help.

Temperate-climate plants like Braveness die in the house; they need summer sun and winter domrnacy. In winter, the sleeping plants need protection against short–term temperature fluctuations but must also have circulating air and just enough moisture to stay alive but not rot. A plant that keeps its leaves through the winter also needs light.

Insulators: There are many ways to insulate container pots. Generally you either wrap the pot with an insulator like bubble wrap and/or place it in a cold frame or unheated garage. A couple of inches of bark chips or other sterilized mulch on top of the soil helps too. It’s good to keep the pot off the frozen ground — elevating it on wooden slats is ideal. As a rule of thumb, pots over 14”in diameter can be left outside without protection other than two or three inches of top mulch. (Note to Maureen and Kim: I won’t try this in Canada!)

Water: A dash of water should be added every week or so to replace that lost to evaporation but be very careful. The right watering balance in winter is tricky. Both over- and under-watering can kill the roots

Air circulation:The wrapping or cold frame should have small openings at the top and bottom to allow air movement. Likewise, top mulch should be loose and airy. An open bottom also assures drainage.

Pots: Almost all types of pots can stay outside. However, most pots can be broken by the expansion of excess water freezing into ice. The best way to prevent breakage is to remove the saucers before first frost and to elevate the pots so that all excess water drains away. If the pot cracks anyway, wrap heavy string around it several times to hold it together. The band of string then adds a decorative element.

Sub-zero temperatures:Braveness likes a cold winter – temperatures in the 20’s and 30’s are fine but below zero temperatures can kill him. I live in a zone 6, so our winter temperatures rarely fall below the teens. However, it can happen. The cold frame will insulate Braveness from the extra cold for a few days. If a longer cold snap is predicted, I wrap several extra layers of insulation around him before the temperatures fell and hope for the best. If necessary, as a last-ditch effort, I’d bring the whole cold frame indoors for short periods – just enough to warm it up to 20F and back outside before defrosting occurs.