Gardening: Shady characters

In the first of a series on planting in problem places, Sarah Raven offers some imaginative solutions for filling shady beds. You don't need to stick with boring evergreens: there are plenty of radiant white, yellow and acid green plants that will thrive
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The Independent Culture
HAVE YOU got one of those black holes in your garden? One of those strips against a north-facing wall or hedge; a bed down a dark alley next to the house; or a grassless, bald patch under a deciduous tree? Often these are full of boring, glossy-leaved evergreens, planted by someone who thought nothing else would grow. Beneath them is a carpet of dark- green ivy and an occasional periwinkle or hellebore. I'm not talking about the dark shade you get underneath an evergreen yew or rhododendron. There is some light getting in here, but no direct sun, and it's classic to resign yourself to the dull. But things don't have to be this bad.

Go out into the garden now with a critical eye. With plants fully grown in summer, it's easy to see the blank spots. In the autum when things are dying down, you never remember what was or wasn't there. Redesign it now, so it's ready for planting in the autumn, taking careful notes about where new plants need to go. But as you do so, keep a couple of things in mind.

The first is to avoid planting one of anything unless it grows huge. You should go for three or, better still, clumps of five or seven plants all together if you have room. In the shade, your eye can take in less; the simpler the planting the better. So go for bigger swathes. Shade is the place more than any other where less is more, so pick your plants carefully and then be bold.

It's important to restrict your colours, as well as the range of plants. Go for radiant, bright whites, silvers, acid and yellow greens. These all throw the light back out again, rather than absorbing it, and transform a dingy spot into an almost fluorescent patch when it's looking its best.

Silver is difficult in the shade. Many silver-leaved plants such as artemisias originate in the Mediterranean and will not grow even in partial shade. There's a wonderful silver-leaved hellebore that would do well here, Helleborus x sternii. Plant a big clump of this. It is covered in pale apple-green flowers for much of the spring, but you want it more for its bright evergreen foliage, which goes on looking good all year. It's fantastic in a big sweep beneath a deciduous tree.

Look out for the improved strains such as `Boughton Beauty' or `Ashwood strain' with marbled, silvery-green toothed foliage. `Ashwood strain' has midribs, veins and leaf undersides stained a deep, rich red. This hellebore needs more light than most of its family and good drainage, but it does well in light shade. Dig in two or three handfuls of grit before you plant it.

For white, you can't do better than the bleeding heart, Dicentra spectabilis `Alba', with its flowers like a line of heart- shaped pendants hanging below the stem. It has fresh green arching leaves, but only blooms for a couple of months in the spring. The leaves age quickly, too. You must plant it surrounded by a bold-leaved foliage plant which can fill its space.

Matteuccia struthiopteris, a brilliant apple-green fern, is the perfect neighbouring plant. It is late to emerge from the ground, so will give the Dicentra time to flower before it erupts and unfurls. You want this planted in a generous drift. Its leaves are just the sharp green you're after and have a bold, architectural shape that won't get lost in the dark. Dicentra and fern thrive in the shade, but need a moist, well-drained soil to do their best.

For a smaller plant in a brighter, more yellow green, plant tracts of Milium effusum `Aureum', Bowles Golden Grass, lacing it through from the front to the back of the bed. This looks good for much of the year, standing less than 1ft tall, making a brilliant carpet in the spring and flowering in early summer. You should cut it back to keep it tidy in June or July, but it will fill out again in less than a month.

To give your bed an extra zap, you want to scatter some self-seeding plants right through the Milium and Matteuccia. The biennial Lunaria annua, or honesty, has brilliant purple flowers in the spring which shine out strongly against acid-green. There is a white form, L. `Alba Variegata', which is just as good and you should plant plenty of these this autumn. They will flower, then die next year, but will scatter their seed all over your grimmest spots.

Smyrnium perfoliatum behaves in a similar way. It has airy whorls of yellow-green flowers and grows most happily in the shade. This is a triennial, rather than a biennial plant. You need to get hold of one or two now as the flowers are going over. They will scatter their seed, but you won't have flowers from your own plants for a couple of years. In the meantime the seedlings look boring and inconspicuous, rather like ground elder, so try not to weed them out as you are planting other things.

You might want to go for one shrub for this dark patch, particularly if it is against a wall. I'd choose Hydrangea arborescens `Annabelle' or `Grandiflora'. They are deciduous shrubs, with bright green, healthy foliage in the spring and early summer. By mid-summer the whole bush is covered in round green pompoms, buds for the huge flowers, which are greeny- white and last well into the autumn.

Before digging in your new plants, clear all the old ones that have to go. Dig these out thoroughly, roots and all. Periwinkles and comfrey can be invasive and are often planted to carpet the ground in shade. Make sure you have got rid of their roots or they will recolonise the area.

It's also worth spending time preparing your soil. Shade is often very dry. A tree's roots cover the same area as the leaf canopy and draw lots of the fertility and moisture from of the soil. Walls and hedges are almost as bad. A wall acts like a sponge, sucking up all the moisture within 12 to 18in of its base. Add lots of organic matter before you plant, to help the soil retain moisture. Use leaf mould or mushroom compost, and mulch the patch as everything dies down in the autumn. Your plants will be twice the size in a couple of years.

Ashwood Nurseries Ltd, Greensforge, Kingswinford, West Midlands (01384 401996) supply mail order hellebore seeds, including `Helleborus x sternii' and its cultivars. Fibrex Nurseries Ltd, Pebworth, Stratford upon Avon (01789 720788) supply mail order ferns, including `Matteuccia struthiopteris'

If you want to make a hedge of box (Buxus sempervirens) around one of your flower beds, or an avenue of mini topiary, now is the time to plan it. It is expensive to buy box in hedging quantities, where you are unlikely to need less than twenty or thirty plants, but it's easy to grow from cuttings.

If you have some box in the garden already, or know someone that has, take your cuttings in the next few weeks. Snip off a 2-3 inch end shoot. One with a bushy end seems to form roots just as quickly as those with less leaf, and give you a larger plant to start off with, so I tend to look around for these. Strip the bottom leaves that would be below the compost level on planting, and poke the stem into a gritty mix of compost, spacing them 1.5-2 inches apart. One third multipurpose potting compost, to two thirds grit is the right balance. The cuttings may take several months to root, so you should keep the compost moist and the plants in a shady place, giving them a liquid seaweed feed once a fortnight to keep the cuttings healthy until they root. Check a pot or two of cuttings in a couple of months time. If they've rooted, pot them on into individual pots, or put them straight out into the garden.

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1 If you want to make a hedge of box (`Buxus sempervirens') around one of your flower beds, or an avenue of mini topiary, now is the time to plan it. It is expensive to buy box in hedging quantities, where you are unlikely to need less than 20 or 30 plants, but it's easy to grow from cuttings. If you have some box in the garden already, or know someone that has, take your cuttings in the next few weeks. Snip off a 2 to 3in end shoot. One with a bushy end seems to form roots just as quickly as those with less leaf, and give you a larger plant to start off with, so I tend to look around for these. Strip the bottom leaves that would be below the compost level on planting, and poke the stem into a gritty mix of compost, spacing them 1.5 to 2in apart. One-third multi-purpose potting compost to two-thirds grit is the right balance. The cuttings may take several months to root, so you should keep the compost moist and the plants in a shady place, giving them a liquid seaweed feed once a fortnight to keep the cuttings healthy until they root. Check a pot or two of cuttings in a couple of months time. If they've rooted, pot them on into individual pots, or put them straight out into the garden

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