A shady border is rarely the one a gardener is eager to show me when I’m out garden visiting. Areas that get little sun or, in some cases, none at all are usually viewed as difficult and often overlooked. Yet, by choosing the right plants for shade you can make something beautiful and interesting.
Just how much choice there can be is obvious when I visit ShadyPlants, a Cotswold nursery run by Tony and Sylvia Marden. Glasshouses and polytunnels behind their Painswick home are stuffed with plants suitable for the full range of shade from dark, dry spots through to those with dappled light and moist soil.
“There are some wonderful plants that can make a really nice garden,” says Tony. “You just need to think of woodland plants.”
One of the top choices is ferns and the beautiful pink-bronze tinged new growth on Dryopteris erythrosora is one that catches my eye.
“It has that colour all summer not just in spring,” comments Tony, adding that it would be ideal for a couple of challenging areas in my dry-as-a-bone sandy soil.
Dryopteris affinis ‘Cristata The King’, which can get to around 3ft tall, is another that would cope with deep, dry shade and Tony also suggests Polystichum setiferum ‘Plumosum Densum’, which has more delicate foliage.
Adding plenty of humus when they are planted and top dressing with leaf mould or old compost in the autumn will help keep them in good shape.
“Don’t bother to dig it in,” advises Tony. “Put it around the plant at the end of the season and the worms will do the work.”
When it comes to more dappled shade and soil with more moisture there’s a greater choice.
Podophyllum versipelle ‘Spotty Dotty’ is a particular favourite and, despite its exotic-looking mottled foliage, is quite hardy in a garden.
Tony also has several polygonatum, or Solomon’s Seal, including a variegated variety and one with a deep red stem.
There are Anemonella thalictroides with dainty flowers – white, pale pink and a lilac double – Impatiens omeiana ‘Pink Nerves’ from China with curiously veined leaves, trilliums, hostas and pots of Lilium ‘Kusha Maya’ just beginning to break through the soil.
“They have got beautiful flowers with a lime-green throat on maroon and are good for woodland.”
He began growing plants for shade about 20 years ago because he couldn’t find what he wanted for landscaping jobs. Then, about five years ago he retired but kept growing the plants.
Today, the couple sell their plants for shade mainly through plant fairs – they attend around 50 a year including Plant Hunters Fairs and Rare Plant Fairs – and also from the nursery, which is open by appointment.
Not everything I saw is available to buy yet; it’s taken several years to get some plants to either a big enough size or to have enough of them to put on the sales table; one that has taken Tony years to propagate successfully is Podophyllum pleianthum.
“You get them to germinate by putting them in the fridge over winter and then they germinate in February at about three degrees,” he explained.
He’s busy potting up arisaema that are just coming out of winter dormancy and beginning to shoot. One, that he’s had for around 12 years, is several centimetres in diameter. Nearby are some that were done earlier and are already showing their rather sinister hooded flowers.
Everywhere there are signs of new shoots and fresh green leaves appearing. It’s a time of year Tony loves.
“I open up in the morning and get that smell,” he says. “The smell of growing plants.”
For more details about ShadyPlants, visit the website.
I first met Roy Lancaster when he led a guided tour of Plas Cadnant gardens as part of the North Wales Garden Festival. It was a slow procession not because the 80-year-old is unsteady – far from it – but because every time we moved a few feet along the path he found something else to talk about. Latin and common names, cultivation needs and where to find things in the wild were all delivered with such fervour I was left wondering what his reaction had been the first time he’d seen them.
This enthusiasm for his subject colours every page of My Life With Plants, which follows his life from a childhood roaming the countryside around Bolton to becoming one of the country’s most respected plantsmen. It seems that far from being a mere job, hunting out plants and then cultivating them is an all-consuming passion.
Such is his obsession he dried plant samples under his mother’s carpet, turned down a ‘safe’ teaching job during National Service instead opting to fight in the Malayan jungle because of “its rich tropical flora and fauna” and once there turned his Bren gun ammunition pouches into collecting vessels, stuffing ammunition into his trouser pockets.
Yet, as we discover, it all came about by chance. His first love was bird-watching and on a trip led by a teacher he “spotted a strange plant growing as a weed in a potato patch”. It was eventually identified by the British Museum as the Mexican tobacco (Nicotiana rustica), the first found growing wild in Lancashire and only the second recorded in Britain.
More importantly it sparked an interest in the young Roy that has led to him obsessively plant-hunting all over the world with many leading horticulturalists and the book is as much a who’s who of the plant world as it is about his life.
Although technically an autobiography, My Life With Plants doesn’t follow the usual style. True it charts his progress from an apprenticeship with Bolton Parks Department, through work at Kew, and Hillier Nurseries to television, radio and a successful freelance career but it doesn’t follow a strict chronological line. Nor is there a lot of the personal life that occupies many autobiographies. His wife, Sue, does feature and their children are mentioned in passing but it is the plants that are foremost.
Thanks presumably to the journals he has kept since childhood, he is able to recall exactly where and when he first saw a shrub or tree be it in cultivation or in the wild, while his descriptions bring the scenes he encounters to life.
He describes himself as “a plantsman who loves storytelling” and the book is a series of plant-based anecdotes: the Norwegian taxi driver who refused to stop in a storm when Roy spotted some saxifrage; lying in wait up a tree for thieves at Hillier; battling to give a talk against a séance. All are delivered with the same enthusiasm I encountered in Wales.
And his curiosity about plants is still as strong. I next encountered him the following morning at Crûg Farm, the nursery home of respected planthunters Sue and Bleddyn Wynn-Jones, where he and his wife were guests. Breakfast was on the table but Roy was in the nursery garden, eventually stepping through the French doors, eager to tell us what he’d seen.
• My Life With Plants by Roy Lancaster is available now, published by Filbert Press in association with the RHS, priced £25 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy through the link, I receive a small fee. The price you pay is not affected.)
• Review copy supplied by Filbert Press.