A shady urban oasis

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Dashing plants, with an emphasis on fresh greens, transform a gloomy garden into an enthusiast's paradise. Choose shade-loving species, many with pale flowers to stand out in the low light. This is interesting in all seasons, with evergreens for winter colour, hellebores and bergenia, whose blooms connect winter to spring, and climbers to decorate the overhanging foliage in summertime

OCTOBER IS the optimum month for planting in this sheltered garden, and will give plants a few weeks in which to establish their root systems before lower soil temperatures edge them into dormancy. This is also the right time to introduce spring bulbs all over the garden. White or cream hyacinths, pheasant's-eye narcissus, leucojums, white crocuses and star- of-Bethlehem are all examples of bulbs which pack in lots of the right colour - white and green - but which will take up precious little space. And they even have the good manners to disappear, once their blooming period is done, and will not be seen again until the following spring, by which time they should have doubled in number.

Town gardens tend to be narrow, often with high fences, walls or buildings casting more shade than is ideal and preventing enough rain from watering the soil. This can result in the most challenging of sites: dry shade. Getting your plants established may well be difficult in such conditions, and colour will always be at a premium. But with careful plant selection, and a good deal of trial and error, it is perfectly possible to develop and maintain a magnificent garden whose interest is sustained throughout the entire year. This garden has a strong framework, consisting of high walls furnished with climbing and wall plants, with ornamental shrubs set in front. The initial impression is one of overall greenery but these are flowering trees, conifers, climbers and broad-leaved, glossy evergreens working together to compose the varied and interesting outline. Within this plant framework, individual features are minimal but strong. A path and steps lead to a mysterious door behind which lies the street. Imagine the joy of opening the doorway from a hard concrete pavement and entering this cool oasis of green delights.

A SHADY URBAN OASIS from page 65


Every inch counts in this restricted space, so it is important that plants get the best possible conditions. The soil must be in perfect heart and since it is likely to be a dry spot, care must be taken to ensure moisture retention. The plant cover will help, but thick mulches are recommended.

Planting procedure

The outline plants need a headstart on the rest, to avoid being swamped. If this planting is phased over two years, begin with the conifers, clerodendrum, choisya and other skeleton shrubs such as the hydrangea. The remainder is really infill and can be added as and when it suits you or your pocket. Ferns, hellebores and some of the crevice plants may take longer to establish, so could benefit from a little extra attention in their first season, watering if necessary, and preventing neighbours swamping them.

The trick here is to tread that fine line between dense planting and overcrowding. Do not be afraid of planting too densely at first - you may have to, to ensure a good early display - but be ready to thin the planting down as soon as it becomes necessary. Do not feel obliged to stick to rigid positioning, but take in the planned juxtapositions: rounded contrasted with fussy foliage, coloured leaves against green and flowers against an uncluttered background. Add compost according to need.

It is often more difficult to coax plants into flowering in deep shade than in full light, and when they do bloom, their colours are not as rich. But most shade plants carry blooms in white or soft pastel shades and this is an advantage, since they show up better in low light.


Remove leaves as they die or become damaged and be ready to plant replacements to fill any noticeable gaps.


Small gardens become overgrown quickly, but they are easy to overhaul, either by rearranging all the plants or adjusting areas that are not quite working. Do not be afraid to try different plants: the best way to find out if a species will thrive in your garden conditions is to plant it and see.

Planting Plan

























Astilbe simplicifolia 'Alba'

Bergenia ciliata

Bergenia cordifolia

Campanula trachelium

Chamaecyparis lawsoniana

Choisya ternata

Clematis 'Etoile Rose'

Clerodendrum trichotomum

Duchesne indica

Euphorbia characias

Gentiana asclepiadea var alba

Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola'

Hedera helix 'Heise'

Helleborus foetidus 'Wester Flisk'

Hydrangea arborescens 'Grandiflora'

Onoclea sensibilis

Osmunda regia

Polystichum setiferum 'Plumosomultilobum'

Pulmonaria saccharata

Saxifraga fortunei

Soleirolia soleirolii
























A 'Sprite'

B purpurascens

B crassifolia

C persicifolia

any medium conifer

C 'Aztec Pearl'

C 'Minuet'

Eucryphia 'Nymansay'

Persicaria vaccinifolia

E mellifera

Polygonatum adoratum

Milium effusum 'Aureum'

H h 'Adam'

H argutifolius

H quercifolia

Blechnum tabulare

Dryopteris erythrosora

Athyrium niponicum var pictum

P officinalis

S x urbium

Raoulia australis


Bergenia cordifolia

Tough enough to survive in its native Siberia, this perennial has broad, leathery evergreen leaves with a shiny surface, puckered and creased when young. In autumn, in hard weather, these are burnished with purplish bronze. The pink flowers start to open in late winter, down in the base of the plant, and continue, on lengthening stems, well into summer.

Choisya ternata

Mexican orange. An evergreen shrub with aromatic glossy leaves and fragrant, waxy white flowers in spring and summer. It is capable of growing 2.5m (8ft) across, but is better if you prune it to shape from time to time. The flowers are sometimes spoilt by late frosts.

Clerodendrum trichotomum

A small, shapely tree whose branches tend to form natural tiers; it has large, dark green leaves and creamy-white, spider-like flowers. The fruits, when they form, are a brilliant blue-black, making an exciting contrast with the calyces which become rosy-red as they ripen. The form 'Fargesii' has darker foliage, purple in bud, turning green as it matures.

Gentiana asclepiadea

Tallish herbaceous gentian from Asia Minor with willow-like foliage produced on arching 75cm (2ft 6in) long stems. The flowers, which develop both along the stems and at the tips, are dusky blue and tube-shaped, with five-rayed stars at their openings. The white form G a var alba is as lovely, but there is also a gorgeous hybrid, 'Knightshayes', whose dark blue flowers have white throats.

Helleborus foetidus

The stinking hellebore. A plant with an unfortunate name, it is a striking, evergreen perennial, growing almost like a shrub to 60cm (2ft) with distinctive, dark green palmate leaves (far left in picture), slightly toothed along their margins, and with a bitter, pungent smell when crushed. The small cup-shaped flowers, which appear in late winter, are pale green, often with maroon or reddened edges to their sepals. They are borne on much branched, fleshy stems which are noticeably paler than the leaves. The plant is poisonous in all its parts.

Polystichum setiferum

Soft-shield fern. One of the most draught-proof of the ferns, long cultivated in a wide number of garden forms. P s 'Plumosomultilobum' is even lovelier than the wild form, having extra divisions in its foliage and creating a softer, more feathery effect. These ferns are evergreens.

Saxifraga fortunei

Though it has the prettiest of the saxifrage flowers, this plant is grown chiefly for its handsome foliage. Rounded, toothed leaves about 8cm (3in) across are green above and purplish below, and often have leaf markings. The autumn flowers, produced in loose panicles, are a soft white, with short upper but long lower petals that give an impression of dancing insects.


Nigel Colborn's Garden Magic contains 20 inspiring planting recipes - from a dry gravel garden to a flower meadow - which are each fully explained with a colour plan and list of ingredients, along with advice on colour, choice, seasonal changes and how to handle problem areas. The book is published by Quadrille at pounds 20, and is available to Independent on Sunday readers at the special price of pounds 15 (including p&p). Simply call the credit card hotline on 01256 302 699 and quote reference GLR 895.


Forget the formal route of clipped hedges and carefully controlled borders and get into the relaxed look with a romantic garden full of cascading grasses that sway and hiss in the slightest breeze. In the second of our extracts from his book, Nigel Colborn explains which grasses are right for which environments, what you should be doing now in preparation for the coming year, and advises on the plants that will complement your selection to create guaranteed all-year-round visual interest.