They're less showy than sunlit perennial beds, but I’d argue they are more appreciated. When flowers bloom in shade gardens, they are one-woman shows; singular glories against a background of tranquil tones. Whatever the bloom--dainty Solomon seal bells or shout-out-loud rhododendrons--they command your attention. Alternatively, full-sun gardens are glorious, but their poor blooms have to share the stage with a plethora of competing players. They have so much drama that Bedrock’s Jill Nooney named one of hers The Garish Garden.
This year’s welcome precipitation has enriched the colors of shade plants, deepening the greens, blues, grays, and browns. It's even added new splendor to the playful, ever present lichen, its crinkly texture and pale colors revived from a three-year drought.
All gardens offer interplay between shape, color, and texture. Shade gardens hit pay dirt with the stark contrast of light and dark. Plants of vastly different hues, textures and forms coalesce into one giant fabric, punctuated here and there by reflective white or light. Your eye flows along, subconsciously noting the multi-pointed leaves on one plant, the cascading form of another, a splash of blue, the dappling of sunlight that highlights the contrasts and heightens the perception of space. Despite shade gardens seeming neutrality, they are full of energy.
And yet, as they draw you in and settle about you, they are so very serene.
“Gone,” says Jill.
Both the Swaleway and Petit Pond are mature gardens now, which accounts for much of their charm. There are few bare patches of earth--every piece of real estate has been taken up by a willing (and for the most part, welcome) lodger.
“It now has become more of a process of stepping back and seeing how it all evolves,” Jill explains, “similar to watching your kids grow up and having fewer places to intervene. I have to pick my moves carefully. I do watch which plants tend to smother, like European ginger [Asarum Europaeum], but the delicate, quiet muscularity of the variegated disporum, which I brought back from Beth Chatto’s garden in England 18 years ago, makes an appearance nevertheless. The variegation (it has variegated flowers as well!) shows well against the shiny dark green of the asarum.
“Who knows, maybe next year the asarum will have choked it out. The variegated vinca also can smother, but some delicate-looking plants hang in there.”
Bedrock's new executive director, John Forti, recently wrote of his fondness for Solomon Seal, Polygonatum multiflorum, on his Facebook page, The Heirloom Gardener. Solomon Seal is blooming profusely at Bedrock. In case you missed John's post, here is an excerpt:
"It is one of my favorite edible flowers. They are like candy from the garden. They taste of garden peas and earthy floral goodness. The common name refers to the rhizome (which is also edible and similar in texture and flavor to a water chestnut). Folklore from the doctrine of signatures suggests that when the rhizome is broken, it looks like an old-fashioned seal that you (or King Solomon) might stamp a letter with.
The Latin Polygonatum comes from the ancient Greek for "many knees," referring to the multiple-jointed rhizome, and of course multiflorum comes from the paired flowers that dangle as they descend down along the lovely arching stems.
In 18th Century America, it was a well- loved landscape herb planted in shaded dooryard gardens and foundation plantings. Often it is still frequently found around old farmsteads and cellar holes.
(Left) The dainty bells of Solomon Seal, Polygonatum multiflorum blooming in the Swaleway.