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Gardening in the Shade: [Part3 of 3]

A wet mini-woodland under White Pines
by Susan Johnston
by Susan Johnston


Susan and her husband, Randy, garden on a 1/4 acre lot in a Zone 5b/6a garden in Oakville, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto.

The garden is just being created as all previous garden areas were destroyed as the result of major renovations to the house in 1999.

The garden is heavy on shade due to mature White Pines, a Green Ash and an adolescent red oak, so a primary focus of gardening efforts is an extensive shade/woodland/native plant garden.

(We are very proud to have Susan as our Librarian on the website)

September 5, 2010

Our backyard is made up of two distinctly different areas. The dry area under White Pines (discussed in a separate article) and a quite wet are which is also shaded by pines, although the pines are on the property behind us. As four properties slope down to this area, it is quite wet, particularly in the spring. The soil is also heavy clay so it holds the water. In the spring of 2000, our first year here, when we dug any holes in this area, they immediately filled up with water! Clearly, any plants being planted here needed to be tough, shade and moisture loving/tolerant. The area was dominated by a huge bed of pachysandra - not one of my favorite plants! We did some tentative plantings in 2000 but quickly concluded a major re-work was necessary.

The illustration below is my attempt to show the basic structure of the ‘wet corner’ of the garden as it is now (apologies for the quality of the illustration - it’s the best I can manage with a combination of hand drawings, Paint and scanner!) As in the dry side, the paths provide access for maintenance, planting and viewing the garden. They also follow the natural route our dog takes to bark at neighboring dogs! She almost always follows the paths and rarely damages plants in the garden. A small fence made from the inexpensive wire hoops one can buy in garden centres keeps her out of the wettest area so we don’t have to cope with muddy feet!

wetdrawingcolor.jpg (67324 bytes)
The area in this drawing is about 25’ in both directions. The wettest area is planted with Ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) and Silverleaf dogwood (Cornus alba 'Elegantissima'.) The shrubs along the back fence are Winterberry deciduous holly (Illex verticillata) and Carolina Allspice (Calycanthus floridus.) The large shrub shown in the front section nearest the shed is the Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia). A Hydrangea paniculata ‘Tardiva’ and an ‘Ivory Halo’ dogwood are on the other side with a Mahonia near the back on that side. The small black circles represent tree trunks - the one closest to the shed is a pussy willow; the one near the wettest area is a fir which has lost most of it’s branches; the one near the front on the bottom side is the remains of a flowering crabapple that is now the support for an ‘Issai’ kiwi vine. All three trees are old and came with the property. I would like to get rid of the fir but it would be tricky to remove so it remains. It is spindly and unhealthy (too wet for it…) and is insignificant to the garden - does not contribute much to the shade and certainly doesn’t cause any dry conditions! The large, dark green arc across the garden represents the future spread of the oak canopy - there is a Pin Oak (Quercus palustris) on the lawn that is currently a small tree but, at some distant future time, will be a factor in determining light levels in this area so I have included it on the drawing.

Starting point - August 2000:
ph4woodlandwetAug2000.jpg (1357967 bytes)
Y2000 Was the first summer we gardened here. In the ‘wet corner’ there was nothing but a swath of pachysandra plus some hostas we had brought with us from our previous house. In the spring 2000, I added an Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), some Ostrich Ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris), American Elder (Sambucus canadensis) along the shed and diciduous holly (Illex verticillata) along the back fence. The hostas and the oakleaf hydrangea are the clearly visible in this picture, along with the sea of pachysandra.

Starting over - May 2001:

ph5woodlandwetMay2001.jpg (883808 bytes)
Pachysandra, other than being evergreen and growing anywhere under any conditions, doesn’t have much to recommend itself in my opinion! So, in early 2001, we decided to start over in the ‘wet corner’ A neighbor took most of the pachysandra for us and we added several cubic yards of top dressing mix on top of the awful clay soil that made up the area. We made paths from 50/50 coarse sand and pine bark mulch. And then we started planting….


Coming along…-July 2001

ph6woodlandwetJune2001.jpg (910817 bytes)
The hostas are still the originals from our previous house. The Oakleaf Hydrangea remains but didn’t flower in 2001 as the flowerbuds winterkilled. The variegated shrub is ‘Ivory Halo’ dogwood. The ‘Silverleaf’ one is in the very back corner with the Ostrich ferns. The pots contain the Petasites and Astilboides as they would probably be far too aggressive to be planted in the ground in this area. They survived the winter in the pots in the garden shed; they will need repotting next year - in part because of growth and in part because the color of the pots is very wrong for the garden! The remains of the flowering crabapple tree has become a framework for ‘Issai’ Kiwi vine - I’m rather surprised the kiwi is surviving in this garden as the conditions are far from ideal. At the back of the garden are the primroses, foxgloves and perennial lobelias among other perennials. Behind the hostas is planted with a ‘mixed bag’ of daylilies. Violets have seeded themselves everywhere and need weeding out on a regular basis.

Growing nicely… - May 2002:

ph7WetwoodlandMay312002.jpg (829031 bytes)
I didn’t climb up a stepladder this time so no aerial view! The shrubs were just starting to leaf out but things are starting to look more substantial now….

The ‘wet’ side of the backyard looked the hardest to deal with initially but is turning out to be the nicest part. It’s the one area of my garden that doesn’t need soaker hoses, although I did end up watering with a sprinkler twice late last summer when things got really dry. Given a choice, I’d take a wet location over a dry one anytime! The range of plants that grow in this are is quite large. Foliage is a big factor in the planting as many of the moisture tolerant plants have either big, impressive leaves or delicate, ferny leaves. Quite a few are variegated. At present, the plants in this area include those in the table below although I’m still adding more plants when I find interesting ones that might be suitable. As in the dry woodland, the planting is a case of trial and error to see what will survive the conditions. The garden continues to be a fascinating undertaking and certainly a learning experience!


Botanical Name Common Name Plant type Hardiness (lowest zone)[1] Comments


Camassia esculenta quamash

Leucojum vernum

Puschkinia libanotica



Spring Snowflake

Striped Squill


Spring bulbs 4




Bulbs that can tolerate damp soil; all are in the upper half on the garden where it is slightly less wet; Cammasia is a very late bloomer - early June


Actinidia arguta ' Issai'


Hardy Kiwi Vine woody vine 5? self-fertile; small fruit


Acorus gramineus ‘ variegatus’ Sweet flag evergreen perennial/ornamental grass 6 can take very wet conditions


Adlumia fungosa Allegheny Vine biennial vine 4 climbing relative of Corydalis


Alchemilla mollis Lady's Mantle perennial 3 yellow-green flowers; attractive foliage


Aquilegia canadensis Columbine perennial 3 self seeds


Artemisia lactiflora ' Guizhou '


Guizou Mugwort perennial 5 tall, late summer flowers; needs more sun…


Aruncus dioicus Goatsbeard perennial 3 white summer flowers


Athyrium nipponicum ' Pictum' Japanese Painted Fern perennial 4 pretty silvery, multicolored foliage


Astilbe (varieties unknown) Astilbe   3 white flowered types


Astilboides tabularis


Shieldleaf perennial 4 invasive -  confined to pots - survives the winter in the garden shed


Bergenia cordifolia Pig Squeak evergreen perennial 3 grown from seed this year


Caltha palustris Marsh Marigold perennial 2? early spring yellow flowers -some of the plants were bought and some were already there…


Calycanthus floridus Carolina Allspice shrub 5 planted for the scented foliage


Carex siderostica 'Island Brocade' Carex sedge (grass-like) ?4-5? Green and gold variegated


Cimicifuga simplex Kamchatka Bugbane perennial 3-4? Flowers in October


Cimicifuga racemosa Snakeroot


perennial 3 late summer flowers


Convallaria majalis Lily of the Valley perennial 1-2 fragrant white flowers in spring; very invasive planted by side of shed and compost heap where invasiveness not as much of an issue.


Cornus alba ' Elegantisssima’ aka ‘ Silverleaf’, and  'Ivory Halo'


Variegated Dogwood shrub 3 green leaves edged with white.  Silverleaf is the nicer of the two


Corydalis ‘Blue Panda’ Corydalis perennial 5 blue flowers


Corydalis ‘ Dufu Temple Form’ Corydalis perennial 6 blue flowers


Corydalis ochroleuca Corydalis perennial 5 white  with yellow tips


Dicentra eximia 'Snowdrift' Fringed Bleeding heart perennial 3 white flowers; less inclined to go dormant



- grandiflora

-  ‘John Innes Tetra’

- mertonensis

-  ‘Foxy’ hybrids

- unknown varieties from seeds


Foxglove some perennial; some biennial 3-5 depending on variety objective is to establish a large self-seeding colony


Filipendula purpurea ' Elegans' Meadowsweet perennial 5 white flowers in summer


Filipendula vulgaris ' Plena' Meadowsweet perennial 5 white flowers in summer


Galium odoratum Sweet Woodruff perennial groundcover 3 fast spreader late spring white flowers; very invasive but grows in deep shade ain moderately moist as well as  very dry conditions; easy to rip out in spring


Hemerocallis - a mix of unknown and named  varieties Daylilies perennial various - generally very hardy some have been grown from seed; some are bulk ‘unidentified’ roots and some are named varieties - some re-bloom, some don’t - a big mixed bed….


Hydrangea paniculata ‘ Tardiva’ hydrangea shrub 3 panicles of white flowers in September


Hydrangea quercifolia Oak-leafed Hydrangea shrub 5 large oak-shaped leaves; peeling bark; old wood bloomer - buds prone to winterkill



‘Royal Standard’,

‘Alba marginalia’,

+ unidentified  variety from our previous house

Hostas perennial 2 white edged one beautiful in shade with variegated dogwood in background; unidentified ones came with us from previous house; Royal Standard for scented white flowers


Ilex verticillata

Winter Red Winterberry (female),

Southern Gentleman  Winterberry (male)


Native Holly 


Shrub 4 deciduous holly, needs both male and female plants for the female  to produce red berries


Iris ensata ' variegata'

Japanese Iris

variegated Japanese Iris perennial 5 purple flowers and striking green and creamy yellow striped foliage


Iris pseudacorus ‘ variegata’ Yellow Flag Iris perennial 2? yellow flowers, striped foliage


Iris siberica

'Caesar's Brother', 'Snow Queen' and other unknown varieties of

Siberian Irises

Siberian Irises perennial 3? Some seed-grown, some purchased


Kirengeshoma koreana Yellow Waxy Bells perennial that looks like a shrub by the end of the summer 5-6? Pale yellow flowers; leaves maple-like


Lamiastrum galeobdolon

'Herman's Pride'

False Laminium perennial 3 silver spotted leaves and yellow flowers; foliage has creamy yellow stripes


Luzula nivea Snowy Wood Rush grass 5 evergreen grass with white flower heads in early summer.  Slow spreader.


Lysimachia punctata


Variegated Loosestrife perennial 3 Green and white foliage with pink in the spring; yellow floers; invasive - planted in a root barrier and cut back after flowering


Lobelia cardinalis Cardinal Flower perennial 5 spikes of red flowers in mid summer


Lobelia x Gerardii perennial blue lobelia perennial 5-6? Spikes of blue flowers in mid summer continuing until late summer


Matteuccia struthiopteris Fiddleheads - Ostrich Ferns perennial 3 large, spreading fern, very tolerant of wet conditions


Myosotis sylvatica Forget-me-nots self-seeding biennial 4 will grow anywhere!


Oenothera Evening Primrose perennial 5 spreads; came with the property- is normally a full sun plants but will grow anywhere but with fewer flowers


Petasites japonicus ' variegatus' Butterburr perennial 5 invasive - confined to pots - survives the winter in the garden shed


Podophyllum peltatum Mayapple perennial 4 large lobed leaves; spreads


Polemonium caeruleum Jacob's Ladder perennial 4 planted in both wet and dry side to see which does better…


Primula florindae Himalyan Cowslip perennial 4? summer bloomer


Primula japonica

'Miller's Crimson'

Japanese Primrose perennial 6? Late spring/early summer candelabra type


Rogersia aesculfolia Fingerleaf Rogersia perennial 4 large leaves and white flowers


Sambucus canadensis


American Elder shrub 3 summer flowers, berries for the birds


Sisyrinchium ' California Skies' Blue-Eyed Grass evergreen perennial 6 too moist for it really but is hanging in for now….


Spigelia marilandica Indian Pink perennial 6 deep red/pink flowers in summer


Thalictrum relavayi ' Hewitts Double' Yunnan Meadow Rue perennial 5 summer flowers


Tiarella ‘ Slickrock’ Foamflower perennial 4 non-spreading type


Tiarella wherryi Foam flower perennial 4 non-spreading type


Trillium grandiflorum Trilliums - white perennial 3 spreading fast


Trillium erectum Trillium - burgundy perennial 3 not a fast spreader


Viola cucullata (?) Purple  violets perennial 5 were already in the wet woodland when we bought the house


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