Shade Gardening at Chickadee Gardens

The shade garden at Chickadee Gardens is rarely a blog subject because it is the most difficult area to garden. Its many Douglas firs are water hogs soaking up nearly every drop. For this reason it has taken much longer for plants to establish and grow to a decent size in super-dry shade. This year, however, our record wet spring helped move things along and for that I am grateful. Here then is the shade garden as it looks in early July with its loosey-goosey, perpetually-in-process style, having had a good amount of spring moisture.

The lay of the land: This northwest corner of the garden was the first area planted and is the most mature. When we bought the property there was literally nothing here save for the trees, blackberries and a few sword ferns so we started from scratch. All told the shade garden spans 250', the full northern edge of the property (our land goes on for another 115' which makes up the chicken garden to the east), and at the shade garden's widest it is about 50'. That's pretty long and has been a gradual move eastward for me each year. This also makes it challenging to photograph - its linear nature, a second reason I don't often post about it. 

Little by little I've added, moved, cleared, fixed, weeded, removed, pruned, primped, made paths, filled in, graveled and composted. The resulting garden you see here comprises survivors that can withstand a little summer dry and neglect (although this is FM's favorite garden, thus irrigating weekly during our driest summer months). We have only had to water once recently, the first time since last autumn, a refreshing break.

This is the exact same view as the previous photo, taken in January 2016 just after the fence was installed.

Ferns, Oxalis oregana, a Chamaecyparis 'Barry's Silver' form the cornerstone of this part of the garden.

While working for Joy Creek Nursery for so long I acquired many throw-away plants, little pots of dirt with seemingly nothing in them that would never sell. I planted so many Athyrium nipponicum or Japanese painted ferns that were taken for dead, I can't keep track of them all. These are especially beautiful ferns to me, but they resent my dry garden. This year they look better than ever.

Textures along a gravel path that peters out into a mossy one. I try to plant in many layers from groundcovers to small trees - the shrubs and trees have been especially slow growing in dry conditions. The first summer I worked for Joy Creek Nursey we were throwing out hundreds of root-bound small pots of hydrangeas. I grabbed a dozen Hydrangea serrata 'Shiro-Gaku' for their clean white flowers and stuck them throughout the length of what would become the shade garden. It was an experiment to see if they would survive and flower in such a lot of shade. I'm pleased to report that although they are not huge and not overly floriferous, they are alive and healthy without excessive extra water. They do bloom every summer. The broad leaved shrub in this photo is one of them.

A turn in the mossy path with Oxalis oregana filling in. The path came about sometime after we had a deer fence put in immediately after moving in. The heavy equipment used to clear land for the fence caused intense compaction as it had been the wettest December on record. I used this to my advantage and made the compacted ground the basis for my mossy path.

A fun little conifer - Chamaceyparis lawsoniana 'Treasure Island' - has golden new growth and a dwarf  habit at only a couple of feet tall. 

Adiantum venustum, Himalayan maidenhair fern, has spread to form a lovely little clump. It can take over as far as I'm concerned I like it so much.

Podophyllum 'Spotty Dotty' is the centerpiece of the oldest part of the garden. It used to be Podophyllum pleianthum, but Dotty has stolen the crown.

A pulled back view looking westward with some of the gravel path. Pittosporum tenuifolium 'Irene Patterson' is the variegated shrub on the left; it came with me from the old garden. It has been through a lot without complaint. 

A little more pulled in view. The area in the foreground center was reworked last year. I had three Rhododendron occidentalis, a native deciduous azalea along this path. They were not happy, attacked by chewing insects and also moles at their roots. They have been moved to a happier locale and I planted Carex 'Snowline' and Athyrium nipponicum in their stead. Mostly whites and silvers in this part of the garden.

Moving a little bit eastward (but still facing west) the gravel path continues with a second pittosporum, Cyrtomium falcatum - Japanese holly fern, more oxalis and Carex 'Snowline'. I tend to repeat plants I like.

Sweet white astrantia seedling rises above a sea of oxalis.

Athyrium otophorum 'Okanum' mixing with Helleborus foetidus.

This is Aucuba japonica 'Gold Variegated Sport' - a great medium to large evergreen shrub for part to full shade. It also takes dry conditions quite well. Aucuba's ability to withstand dry soils makes them especially useful for me, although they have been slow-growing. This is also true of osmanthus - another highly adaptable evergreen shrub that is slow growing but fabulous.

The western end of the garden looking east with the gravel path in sight. The berm garden in full sun is just visible on the right. These Douglas firs were planted here by the first owner of this property years ago in straight rows to one day harvest for wood. We have had to remove several of them because they were planted so closely together and have not fared well. 

This is roughly the same view as the previous photograph. This was taken in January 2016.

At the eastern end of the shade garden, you can just see the chicken coop in the background. Although I am not a huge fan of garden decor, I do love my green man made locally by H and I Stone Casting here in Saint Helens.

Asplenium trichomanes, maidenhair spleenwort mixing with Carex 'Snowline'. I've finally been semi-successful with these favorite ferns as I planted them with a lot of gravel which not only aides in drainage but might help by keeping the soil a little more alkaline. 

Fatsia japonica 'Spider's Web' is an evergreen bright spot that has taken some rough conditions. I am enjoying watching this shrub gain height blocking the view of the neighboring property behind ours which is full of blackberries and ratty trees, not a nice backdrop so I wait for our evergreen shrubs to grow. 

Geranium macrorrhizum is one of my favorite perennials for its usefulness. It handles shade or some sun and dry conditions. It is pretty much evergreen, has spicy scented foliage, grows under trees and spreads politely. For its dry garden tolerance alone, it's a winner.

One of two Pittosporum tenuifolium 'Irene Patterson' with Geranium x cantabrigiense 'Boikovo' at its feet. 

The mossy path at sunset.

A second very short gravel path with groundcovers on either side.

A little bit down the path an area that was especially weedy (and is in a transition area between the shade garden and sunny areas) got a dressing of wood chips this winter. Here, Hydrangea aspera 'Plum Passion' contrasts with our native goatsbeard Aruncus dioicus behind it.

The far western side of the shade garden on the right, the top of the berm garden on the left.

I do happen to know the cultivar of this Japanese painted fern, it is Athyrium 'Ghost'.

Another shot of Podophyllum 'Spotty Dotty' because why not? Ophiopogon 'Nigrescens' and Carex 'Snowline' at her feet. Also more Asplenium trichomanes lower right side.

This is not the shade garden per se, rather it is what we refer to as the western woodland. It is an area running north/south on the western edge of the property. It is still woodsy but primarily planted with shrubs and trees and is much wilder. I have been consistently adding wood chips, and that is finally paying off by retaining lots of moisture and keeping weeds down. It's a large area so it takes a lot of chips and several years. Here many native plants such as salal, oxalis, sword ferns, hazelnuts and more form islands that I merely keep weeded, but I do add hardy fuchsias and other shrubs here and there.

A parting shot of sunset over a berm of Oxalis oregana and Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola' along the far western edge of the shade garden with Polystichum munitum (our native sword fern) on the top of this berm saved from another part of the garden and moved here years ago. Cyrtomium falcatum on the lower right.

We grow a large variety of plants in the shade garden besides the few highlighted here. It's a wonderful opportunity to add many Pacific Northwest native plants that thrive in our woodlands; most have done remarkably well in this rather difficult environment. 

I love shade gardens and envy those that are incredibly lush, full of textures and surprises and are flat. I wish mine had more structure, more hardscaping or large boulders but it's just not practical financially. Our property is a decent slope so that makes the top of the property, precisely where the shade garden is located, even drier than it would be if it were on level ground. Having said all that, we are very happy with it and enjoy spending hours up here when the weather turns hot. Of course this is a mere sampling of the many square feet of land dedicated to this specific biome, I can't fit it all in one post and frankly, not all of it is photo worthy.

If I had to do it over: I would maybe just plant Oxalis oregana and Polystichum munitum and stand back as the oxalis is currently taking over. I might also add Geranium macrorrhizum everywhere. I would have created more tiers to help retain moisture and made more areas to accommodate seating. I might also remove some overgrown and unstable Acer macrophyllum as they are the worst for seedlings and also broken branches. They don't look entirely healthy either.

There are a lot of ferns here at Chickadee Gardens most of which can be seen on this post I wrote a while back. Ferns are hard in terms of identification! But I love them and have a lot, thus the post dedicated entirely to them. 

Other plants that do well in dryish shade but are not included in photographs here are epimediums, of course, Iris foetidissima, Lonicera nitida 'Briloni', luzula sp., Polystichum munitum, osmanthus, hellebores and Garrya elliptica, Vaccinium ovatum and sarcococca among others.

 That's a wrap for this week at Chickadee Gardens. As always thank you so much for reading and commenting, we love hearing from fellow garden enthusiasts. Happy gardening one and all.


  1. Jeanne DeBenedetti Keyes10:46 AM PDT

    The shade garden looks fantastic, Tamara! Love your mossy path. Glad I got to see it during your HPSO Open Garden. Western bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa) and mahonia nervosa would love this location. Although maybe you wouldn't want these spreaders in the shade garden? Great additions to your Western Woodland though.

    1. Hi Jeanne, great suggestions! I actually have a lot of Mahonia nervosa and over in the chicken garden Gaultheria shallon is creeping in from neighboring properties, which I welcome. I can't seem to get Dicentra formosa to take hold - but I do have Dicentra formosa 'Langtrees' which has spread a little and I adore.

  2. Well, for an area that has been challenging with its difficult plant conditions, you have worked wonders. It was an absolutely lovely tour - the only thing wrong is that it was not in person. That'll teach me to live in Alabama! I thoroughly enjoyed this post.

    1. Thank you Barbara! Gosh, if you are ever out this way..... ;) come on over! Always welcome!

  3. How I would love to have a shade garden like that, Tamara. While it may fall short of your expectations in some respects, I think you've made great use of the conditions, space, and the plants you had to work with. I've always admired Japanese painted ferns but they - and virtually all ferns - but they have a hard time surviving in my climate.

    1. Thank you Kris, we do love it. I hope I don't complain too much, it's wonderful and all, just extra hard work to make it special. Your words are most kind and thoughtful. Oh yes, the painted ferns are a favorite but this may be the only year they look good! ha haha....well, I'll take what I can get. Cheers.

  4. Anonymous10:33 AM PDT

    Lovely! But where is/are the Evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium Ovatum)?
    If you thought it couldn't handle dry shade, try it again, they are tough!

    1. Ooh, great observation! We love them and have many in the shade garden and other areas. They slipped my mind as adding to the list for dry shade and in the photographs, they are a fabulous native plant (and evergreen too!). Thank you for mentioning it!

  5. Anonymous7:07 PM PDT

    Shade gardens and woodland gardens... it doesn't get any better than that in my book. Tough plants that survive in those conditions are more rewarding. Yes, they take longer to get established but once they do... its sweet reword for the gardener. Keeping at it year in and year out is kind of the point of all this, isn't it. I grow both Spider's Web Fatsia and Japanese Painter fern. Jealous of your magnificent Spotty Dotty. I have astrantia too, but cut off faded blooms before it goes to seed. Did you find it reseeding much? Probably a plus in your humongous shade garden...

    1. Shade and woodland - I'm with you, Chavli. Thank you for the gentle reminder that they do indeed take time. A sweet reward at the end of the tunnel. Yes, keeping year in and year out is the point and the process is what's grounding.

      My astrantia do seed around but not too badly, there is so much other plant material where they grow they have a hard time getting enough light! But yes, a little bit.

  6. I have such fond memories of your shade garden, it's beautiful!

    1. Thank you Danger! It's getting there, not quite Danger Garden level yet but we're striving!


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