Emma Townshend: 'Who needs sun? I'm more than happy with my north-facing garden'
Sunday 04 August 2013
What you want, of course, is a bit of shade. It feels hot everywhere, even in the shade; but if you just had a patch of something sombre to sit in, for a moment at least, the pouring sweat would stop. At least that's the theory. I could also use a patch of shade for the small children. It's not even just my own small child, it's other people's.
The problem today is the summer holidays in working London, where every neighbourly childcare arrangement that can possibly be invoked has been cranked into action to avoid forcing grannies to work more hours than the European Union will legally permit. So now I'm trying to chide not just one child but several into the shade, due to my profound fear of brûlée-ing someone to whom I'm not genetically related. "Get out of the bright sunlight!" I sob, plaintively, finger right on the trigger of the Factor 50.
Plants, of course, take an entirely different view, and most of them are quite happy to dawdle for hours, all summer long, in sunshine so unremitting that even Chris Froome and his sun-resistant superlegs would probably get a bit wobbly. And we gardeners take advantage. But there do exist those apparently unlucky gardeners whose entire gardens are in shade. "Poor them," you will be thinking, "how will they ever get anything to grow in those rubbish conditions? Although, frankly, a bit of shade would be much nicer to sit in." Much nicer to sit in, yes, and as it turns out, perfectly OK for gardening, too. The idea that gardens cannot flourish with full-on south-facing sunshine is a total myth propounded by people who live on the south side of the street. We north-side dwellers can tell you that for nothing.
The best thing about a north-facing garden is the cool shade, but the second-best thing is all the lovely plants that you won't see in everyone else's gardens. Traditionally, gardeners always choose something south-facing, or at worst, south-west, but if I had to do it all again, I would once more plump for the north-facing garden. Here there are roses, yes, roses, in flower; honeysuckles and clematis and jasmine. We've had plenty of shady favourites in flower already, such as foxgloves, smart French-style hydrangeas (much better in French, I always think, where they are called a hortensia); and now Japanese anemones are in bud, happily about to stud the shadows with their soft-pink petals. Plenty of soft-species geraniums, too, for bright spots of blue that zing in the dusk.
The most important thing is to work out where in your garden you have the relatively flexible moist shade, and where you have the deeply feared "dry shade". Dry shade tends to occur under trees, next to high walls and anywhere sheltered from rain. In both cases, it's important to know whether the spot gets any sunshine at all during the day. (I keep having money-making daydreams of going on Dragons' Den to propose a solar-powered sun-timer that could be left on the soil for the day, which would then tell you the plants suitable for the hours of light available; but in the meantime, you need to sit out from dawn till dusk, checking.)
My biggest tip would be to use the specialists: David Austin provides lists of roses that will put up with four to six hours of sunlight a day, for example. Or settle down with the catalogue from Wincanton's Long Acre Nursery, beautifully entitled "Plants For Shade". There's nine pages on ferns alone, to cool even the sweatiest gardener.
Dig in: How to plant shady areas
Keep it moist
Many shade plants will do better in moist soil, so if you are trying to make a garden work in deep north-facing shadow, dig in lots of organic material first to ensure the earth holds as much water as it can. And consider installing irrigation: especially in small shady town gardens, this can allow your sun-starved beauties to flourish regardless.
Anemones are stars in the shade, managing glowing soft-white flowers in late summer even planted up against fences and car parks. "Honorine Jobert" AGM is a corker. £5.50
Aster frikartii "Monch" AGM has dazzling, floaty clouds of blue starbursts, which flower for weeks through August and September. A Piet Oudolf must-have, it combines well with other late Oudolf favourites such as wheaten grasses.
Geranium "Mount Olympus" AGM offers pure-white flowers above a bunchy, flourishing bump of green foliage, flowering for weeks in summer.
Finally, if all you have to play with, garden-wise, is a basement stairwell, turn to the ferns. Well-watered, these beautiful plants will make your dusty utility area a burst of heartening green. I love Dryopteris 'Cristata', the King Fern, with huge arching fronds when well irrigated.
Thalictrum "Black Stockings" is a willowy teenager of a plant that bears soft, hazy clusters of petals on deep-black stems up to 6ft tall. In my garden it does best with a bit of sun during the day, mostly in the shade, but planted in rich, moist soil.
Alchemilla mollis AGM is the ultimate National Trust path-edger: these hard-wearing blue-green leaves with the bright-lime flowers will cheer up shady corners – even those which don't do well water-wise.
All varieties are £5.50 (except Alchemilla mollis – £4.80; and Dryopteris 'Cristata – £6.80) from Long Acre Nurseries (plantsforshade.co.uk)
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