Dwain Hebda is a regional writer and photojournalist in Little Rock. A Nebraskan by birth, he treasures his old-fashioned bleeding hearts, astilbes, hydrangeas and has been known to debate heuchera varieties over a couple of pints now and again.


Every Gardener’s Challenge
by Dwain Hebda - posted 10/31/18

This stunning example successfully draws together problem elements of a hillside with limited sunlight through effective use of hardscapes, mulch, strategically placed boulders, and smart planting.

Every yard has them – those troublesome spots that just don’t want to cooperate with your grand vision for the yard of your dreams. Maybe you live in a beautifully wooded area, where even at the peak of the afternoon, dappled sunlight is the best you can hope for.

Maybe your yard isn’t flat and level, where the natural slope of the yard drains off water and topsoil and makes it difficult for plants to take root.

Or maybe you overlooked the fact that the lovely second-story deck you wanted would create a dark and inhospitable area underneath where nothing will grow.

While there’s no miracle cure, there are steps the backyard gardener can take to bring life and interest to barren areas.

Red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is an easy-to-grow addition to shady areas in the yard. Under consistently moist, part-sunny conditions the plant colonizes to provide springtime color.

If you live in the woodlands, you revere your tall, stately trees. Trees are often the first step of yard design and are so versatile you can create a formal and manicured design just as easily as a natural, rustic one.

But trees also present challenges. Not only because of the shade they cast, but their roots compete for nutrients and can choke out other plants.

If you’re starting from scratch, you’re in a more advantageous position because you can ask all kinds of questions at the nursery and develop a strategy for companion plants before the tree ever goes in. Those living in established neighborhoods generally don’t have that luxury and must adapt landscapes to the trees that are already there.

One strategy is to go native – choosing plants would likely be there anyway if civilization hadn’t come along. Native plants are those indigenous to your area and therefore have adapted to the challenges of a particular region or ecosystem. There are hundreds of native plants to choose from and with a little homework, you’ll find several options to meet your needs.

A word about native plants: They don’t deliver the explosion of color of an Impatiens bed or the neat, manicured look of other plants. They do, however, bring a natural feel to any yard, and with a little experimentation and a good eye, can balance the other parts of the yard that are able to support your prized specimens.

You should also take special note of the less-desirable qualities of native plants; some are poisonous and some are so aggressive that they can be hard to contain.

That said, some suggested native plants for your wooded shady spots include columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) an easy-to grow, self-seeding plant that produces attractive foliage and will naturalize into large colonies given the right conditions. The plant will grow in full sun, but also works in a wooded setting provided it gets at least some sunlight. Blooming in April and May, it features 1-2-inch drooping bell-like flowers in red and yellow. Hummingbirds love them and after the bloom season, enjoy the attractive foliage. In some areas, it will go dormant during the heat of summer, but is still a great plant. Columbine will tolerate a range of soils, the key is keeping the ground moist, but well drained.

Lance-leaf tickseed (Coreopsis lanceolata) grows in small clumps 1-2½ feet tall featuring bright yellow, four-lobed flowers. A southern species, greater tickseed (C. major), grows slightly taller. The plant will grow in a variety of poor soils, poor light, and tolerates drought.

Reclaim a wooded hillside with a lovely collection of shade perennials including hostas and ferns. Note the subtle terracing effect created through use of larger rocks and the leveling effect of the hardscape path to control run-off.

If you’re struggling with a yard that has erosion problems and rocky soil, you might consider a retaining wall or terracing to correct the problem. Needless to say, this option can be quite expensive, depending on the size of your yard and the extent of your problem.

One lower-cost option is to create a rock garden, particularly if you live in a hilly area where erosion will have exposed the rocky terrain beneath. A rock garden will hold enough soil to support certain plants. Better still, you can control the quality and composition of the soil to best support the plants you plan to grow there.

If light isn’t a problem, consider bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii), which has an erect, clump-forming habit and blue flowers in the spring, feathery green summer foliage, and golden fall color. Eastern purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) and black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) are showy, flowering perennials that do well in sunny yards.

If the rock garden is also dealing with shade, think ferns. Autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora) is a great option, as is Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum), whose silvery leaves provide a nice contrast to neighboring plants.

Clockwise: Native plants are often ideal for hillsides and other poor-soil areas, and you can tame their sometimes-unkempt appearance by combining creeping and upright varieties. • Bluestem varieties, such as Amsonia hubrichtii seen here, are a showy and reliable addition to any southern rock garden. • Brighten rocky areas in your yard – natural or man-made – with a spray of coreopsis to fill in spaces and lend color to a problem area.

Growing plants under a raised deck or other structure is tricky, dependent entirely on the location and the ability of sun to penetrate the space at the appropriate angle. In a backyard where sunlight is already reduced due to many mature trees, for instance, the ability to grow plants under the deck may be severely limited.

Certain ground covers may be the gardener’s best bet in these situations. Among these are bugleweed (Ajuga reptans), which will send up tiny blue flower spikes in spring when planted in part sun, but will provide a dense mat of foliage even in full shade. There are countless cultivars, including solid green and variegated foliage.

Bigleaf vinca (Vinca major) is another versatile ground cover, especially since it is winter hardy in Zones 7-9. It prefers part shade, but will tolerate nearly full shade in moist, humus-rich soil. Once established the plant is aggressive, but is reliably used on slopes or banks to stabilize soils and curb erosion. Pale violet blue flowers appear in spring and continue intermittently into autumn.

Another plant to consider is Japanese pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis), a shrubby, evergreen ground cover that grows 8-12 inches high and spreads by rhizomes to form a dense carpet of rich, dark green foliage. The plant produces tiny white flowers and loves the shade; be sure to thin periodically to promote air circulation.


A version of this article appeared in a November/December 2016 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of ©Imran Ashraf/shutterstock.com, ©Hannamariah/shutterstock.com, ©Jon bilous/shutterstock.com, ©Elena elisseeva/shutterstock.com, ©eqroy/shutterstock.com, and ©civdis/shutterstock.com


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