September 2, 2011

Garden Consult

After several years of making design and installation mistakes in my landscape, I have been asked to make them in someone else's garden.

I have been hired to design and plant the space around a new patio at a condo complex.

The dirt in front is a newly seeded grassy slope, or it was until storm Irene passed through and washed away all the seed and some of the mud.  But that is condo common lawn that borders each unit's back patio, so it's not part of my design assignment.

The area I have been asked to plant is the narrow strip on the left, the slightly wider boxed garden on the right, and the areas deep under the overhanging deck.

The strip on the left is 2 feet wide and 11 feet long bordering the fence.  The boxed garden is 3 1/2 feet wide.  There is a lovely old rhododendron in the corner that is thankfully an architectural anchor plant to work with.  The plastic kids toys decorating the A/C unit. . .  well.  Large blue tarps, maybe.

It's shady, both from the building itself and from tall pines overhanging the area.  The area under the deck is deep shade.

The patio will be used as a play area for a toddler, an alternate entrance for coming and going through the lower level, and as something nice to look at from inside the condo.  It's not really a sitting or barbequeing area, that's done on the deck above.

So, designers . . .  what are the possibilities for shade plants in narrow strips?  Fence hiders?  A/C unit blockers?  I think the client wants flowering things, but they have to be no-care, low care.

Under the deck where it is too deeply shady and dry, I am thinking river rocks and decorative hardscaping.

And what to plant here?  There are struggling hostas and heucheras already, but they will perk up when I amend the soil.  The deadish shrubs will come out.  I can add astilbes and bergenia.  But what for height?  To hide the A/C?

And here?  The fence needs something on it.

Just to be clear, the client who hired me is my sister, and my entire fees will amount to lunches served when I am over there.  She promised me some excellent fish tacos.

This may be the start of a design and consulting career that will take off and make me reknowned and revered in the garden landscaping industry.  Or not.

But I am loving the new (to me) challenge of gardening in shade, in a tiny space, with fence and hardscape all around.  And I am flattered to be asked to do it.


  1. You're already reknowned and revered. And, I laughed right out loud at the first line of your post. Thanks for a good giggle. Have a great holiday weekend.

  2. how about a sandbox for the kids in the driest, shadiest part? also i've had luck with hellebores and ghost ferns adding a little height in dry shade. I think sumand substance or blue angel hosta may be your best bet for height. I agree, the fence needs a vine!

  3. You will have some fun. I am not sure about fish tacos though. Perhaps champagne and caviar.

  4. How exciting. I know you'll do a fabulous job, as I'm sure your sister knows that too. I rather like the sound of your fee ... I've never tried those before!

    I can't help much with plant suggestions. Over here there'd probably be hanging pots of Dragon Wing Begonias under the eaves and loads of Draceanas and Cordylines in the beds. I'll be looking forward to seeing what planting combinations you come up with!! Have fun!

  5. So have to see the site myself, but I would hide the AC with green for the whole year. Color in part shade could be hellebores which flower a long time or daylilies if there is some sun. Ferns for sure. I see color next door, can you take a hint from that garden? At least you know what is working elsewhere for ideas.

  6. Laurrie, A new career is launched...I'm glad to see you're thinking of height in those areas. Since the area will not be used for entertaining you have manymore options for layering and using more than just the defined planting spaces. Good luck & enjoy.

  7. Kate, thanks. Enjoy the weekend!

    Laura, I love the idea of a sandbox under the deck, and it could be an easy soution to the problem of hardscaping in that area.

    Layanee, when I am revered and reknowned I might demand caviar and champagne, but my landscaping talents right now are more fish taco level.

    Bernie, such a different climate from yours --- I'd love a patio like your courtyard! I have to find plants that can take a snow load, bloom in stages from spring to summer, and maybe have some fall color too.

    Donna, I found a smallish fernspray cypress (chamaecyparis) to hide the AC. It will be ok in shade and will stay small. And I am looking around at other patios, but am amazed at the struggling sun lovers that people have planted in these shady spaces. I got some ideas from the more successful ones though.

  8. A fountain under that deck would be nice. Kids love to play in water. You could see it from inside, hear it up on the entertaining deck too. Pencil hollies take some shade and don't take up much space. Akebia can hide a fence in no time. Looks pretty and takes shade and neglect. You are going to have fun doing this.

  9. I would like to add grass, perhaps a bunny tail or Hamlin for movement. Lots of lines with the fence and the patio. Grass would add movement and begin to soften the lines. Love the chamaecyparis! Another "soft" choice that will do the job all year round. For shade, I'd use some pachyrsandra for underplanting a few azealas. Evergreen and will take the abuse of a toddler dropping toys in it and stomping on it.
    What a great way to get you on your way to professional design!

  10. A water container feature would be very nice out there with a lot of containers and a few hanging baskets. Some vines on the fence and maybe a little garden art hanging on there too. Be careful about putting anything too close to the ac unit. It needs air circulation to work properly. We're stuck with looking at our AC and looking at the space available, your sister may be too. What fun to plan a space from scratch. I would go for a wide variety of plants in the long strip so something is always showing off. Have fun!!!

  11. Debbie, thanks. I'm finding it is fun to design for someone else.

    Lisa, I just bought a bubbler fountain in a big urn to put under her deck, so your suggestion was timely! I like your other plant suggestions too.

    Sissy, the space does need some movement, since it is all hard lines. I am thinking hakonechloa, which is fountainy and has movement. I like the idea of a bunny tail grass too.

    Gardener on Sherlock, great suggestions, and a fountain is definitely in the plans. The A/C unit is going to drive me nuts, there is no good way to hide it completely and still allow circulation around it.

  12. Hmmmm.... Wheels are turning... I'm sure Carolyn at would be extremely helpful. Be careful about blocking the a/c unit. Reduced air flow means increased energy usage = higher a/c bills. Porteranthus (aka Gillenia) does very well in dry shade,as long as you get the native species and not any water sucking hybrids. Epimediums LOVE dry shade and have very cool little UFO looking flowers that are at little kid height. Aster divarcatus, columbine, shasta daisies, kalimeris, and veronica all do well in my dry shade. I'm adding Northern Sea Oats this year because I've heard they are champions of drought and neglect, so you may want to consider those, too. I'd avoid hellebores, since they are toxic. The skinny strip by the patio would be a great place for pots, or maybe tall daylilies. Maybe you could hide the a/c unit behind a little trellis. That would give it air flow but hide it, too. What about creating a little pond garden? Kids would love that, esp. if you put tadpoles in it. I agree with the sandbox idea. Don't forget amsonia and dracocephalum. Both take dry shade beautifully. I'd stick some geranium sanguiniums and toadflax (Linaria) in the raised box. They're pretty tough. Have fun!!

  13. Chrysoganum (Green and Gold) is also an excellent ground cover for dry shade. It would also look great as an edger in the raised bed. Euphorbia does well, too, and is weird enough looking that the kids might think it's a fun plant. Yellow japanese salvia would be great in the raised bed, too. So would campanula lactiflora, if you can find it.

  14. Tammy, how I wish I had more space in this patio garden! You have given me so many great suggestions. I don't have any shade in my own garden and the area in my sister's is small. I do love epimediums! They will slowly spread out to cover a lot of ground I know. (I like the description of UFO flowers, that's so right on) Lots of great plants for me to check out!

  15. I read this post yesterday, Laurrie, but didn't leave a comment because I didn't have any suggestions off the top of my head. I still don't, but looks like you have lots of great ideas to consider here. Looks like a fun project!

  16. what a challenge to landscape someone else's garden. and how exciting to try out some new to you shade plants. I would suggest Mahonia for dry shade. It would also add some height. I liked Donna's suggestion of checking out what the neighbours are growing. If something is working for them it will likely work for your space too.

  17. Have you thought abut a climbing hydrangea vine on the fence? They take shade. I've never grown them before but they sure are pretty!

  18. Rose, I do think this will be a fun project. I'm ready to take it on!

    Marguerite, It's a challenge --- all the conditions are the exact opposite of what I have learned to garden in.

    Tammy, climbing hydrangea was one of the first vining plants I thought of for her fence, but with the size of the rhododendron that is there, I thought such a large woody vine would be too much, and have too much similar green foliage. I love my own climbing hydrangea, but it is quite large now and the foliage is dark green and glossy and full, and next to a tall rhody it might be too similar. I do love the plant though!

  19. I remember how overwhelmed I was when I did my first garden for a friend but I did cheat a little. My favorite nursery has a part time designer who helps with designs at no cost to me. I made accurate maps of the location with existing plants. I gave him a short listing of plants I wanted to use and my color pallet.In a few weeks i got a detailed drawing for a perfect garden. Maybe you could find something similar. At the least ask to see the manager of the nursery section and run your pix and map by them and the other
    employees. Choose a rainy day to get their full attention. Yes I cheated but I learned a ton for future projects when I get more confident. Good luck with your space.

  20. Patrick, thanks for the good suggestions. I did seek out some help at one place, and she was very knowledgeable about clematis for shade and advised me on the concept of a water feature and some other ideas. It really helped!


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