Wednesday 26 October 2016

Gardening - Diarmuid Gavin... Shady character

How you can turn a damp, dark garden into a lush planted paradise

Diarmuid Gavin

Published 24/05/2015 | 02:30

Shaded garden
Shaded garden
American Skunk cabbage
Hanging basket

Gardeners can often be scared of places which don't benefit from full sun and apprehensive about choosing plants appropriate for these spots. But the natural world has many shady places where plants thrive, the most obvious one being under the canopy of woodland trees. Deciduous woodlands especially are full of species which thrive under the umbrella of layered leaves.

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Many of our gardens have damp or shady spots. That may be due to bad drainage, a stream running through the plot or a wall or building casting a shadow. Gardens which are north or east facing may be shady simply because of their orientation.

None of these factors should cause despair - there a plethora of wonderful plants for which these are natural situations. This week we will look at suitable species for damp shady spots.

Damp shady sites are often characterised by being cool, wet and rich conditions where plants such as Astilbe, some Ferns, and Astrantia do well. And Japanese Maples do wonderfully in the shade of a woodland canopy with their feet in moist soil.

Many of the plants suitable for these conditions are looking great at the moment so it's a good time to be inspired and plan some garden visits.

Candelabra Primulas are perfect for a moist but partial shady situation and look superb planted in groups by a stream or pond. A lovely variety is bulleyana which can grow up to 60cm in height and produces rings of flowers on central stems. The flowers start as a rich crimson colour but fade to orange as summer approaches.

American Skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus, pictured right), produces a dramatic yellow sheath or flame-like flower and loves to be given a home by a stream or pond. Its rosette of lime green leaves can reach lengths of up to a metre. To add to the visual drama, if you lean in close the flower smells like skunk scent - not very pleasant but intriguing for children.

Another damp lover that fascinates kids are Giant Rhubarb (Gunnera manicata). Famed for its vast leaves which are deep veined, it will thrive in either full sun or partial shade as long as it has plenty of moisture. Its perfect site is at the edge of a pond so the majesty of the foliage can be reflected in the water. It's quite wonderful when the leaves are back-lit by the sun. I've even seen it do well in containers and raised beds when treated to regular drinks. It flowers, again dramatically, in June and grows extremely fast so allow plenty of space. The foliage dies off in the autumn, and in cold places it may be best to protect the crown of the plant with straw during winter.

Yellow foxglove (Digitalis grandiflora) is tolerant of the dry shade, but given some moisture its roots will bed in and the plant will thrive. In spring it wakes up from a long slumber, jumps out of the soil with a long arching form, dressed along the stem with soft billowing leaves and topped with a succession of yellow open bells, speckled brown inside. It will reach a height of 3ft and self seed if it likes the situation.

For a choice of moisture-loving tree you could be tempted by one of the Willow species, but be careful as, although the Weeping Willow is graceful, they can get very large and require the regular intervention of a tree surgeon. They also have a tendency to lift patios or garden paths with roots which can be near to the surface.

Some shrubs that are good for these conditions include Cornus alba and Cornus sericea. These don't mind what type of soil they grow in, as long as it's nice and moist. Those of the species grown for the vivid winter colour of their stems are best, however, in open sun. The more dramatic of the family, C florida and C kousa love the damp but also require a soil that's rich in nutrients.


Mount Usher Gardens in Ashford, Wicklow has some lovely examples of shaded planting. It always has an excellent primula display if you wish to be inspired. mount

This week in the garden:


It's time to brighten up the entrance to your home by preparing your hanging baskets.

1. Start by gathering your basket (traditionally wire mesh), liner or some sphagnum moss, water absorbing gel and compost.

2. Plants that are appropriate for this situation include Lobelia (ordinary and trailing), Petunia, Zinnia, Marigold, Fibrous rooted begonias, Ageratum, and as centre pieces trailing Geranium or Fuchsia (pictured below). Ivy makes an excellent garnish. Use roughly 12 plants per 12in basket unless you are using a big central specimen such as the Geranium or Fuchsia.

3. Place the basket on a bucket to keep it stable, carefully line with damp moss (available from many florists and garden centres).

4. Trailing plants can be pushed through finger-sized openings made in the sphagnum, dotted evenly around the circumference.

5. Add compost and the gel which will absorb water and slowly release it when required by the plants.

6. Build up your planting scheme. Either go with single colours or enjoy yourself and clash madly.

7. Dunk the basket in a sink of water briefly, let it drain, and then hang it.

8. Water carefully every second day, deadhead the flowers regularly and enjoy!

Great garden reads

It’s summer in Dublin and Dalkey’s gardeners have been preening their gardens to within an inch of their lives for the annual Best Garden Competition. What better time to eavesdrop on a lively conversation between myself and another keen horticulturist? On Sunday June 14 at noon I’m joining Vandra Costello, a garden historian, columnist and six-time winner of Dalkey’s Best Front Garden competition. We will be discussing all things garden-related from our gardening heroes to what and who inspired our interest in gardening, and what continues to feed our obsession. Most importantly we will be sharing our picks of the best garden writing. From Pliny the Younger (whose description of his Ancient Roman garden still survives) to out-of-print classics and the latest titles, this will hopefully be an informative discussion about gardening trends past and present. Admission €10, see

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