The shady side of planting

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, 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.

plants for shade
Dryopteris erythrosora

“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.

plants for shade
Polystichum setiferum ‘Plumosum Densum’

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.

plants for shade
Podophyllum versipelle ‘Spotty Dotty’

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.”

Impatiens omeiana ‘Pink Nerves’

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.

plants for shade
Arisaema are beginning to shoot

“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.

plants for shade
There’s something almost sinister about arisaema flowers

“I open up in the morning and get that smell,” he says. “The smell of growing plants.”

For more details about, visit the website. will be one of 21 nurseries, including Tortworth Plants, at a Rare Plant Fair at The Old Rectory, Quenington on Sunday April 9, 2017. More details, here

Rare plant fair at Quenington

An open garden event with plants to buy is most gardeners’ idea of a good day out. Add the chance of cake and the knowledge that you are helping a good cause and it becomes even more attractive. Perfection is the possibility of picking up some unusual horticultural treasure so combining a Rare Plant Fair with an open garden has masses of appeal.

The Old Rectory in Quenington is the ideal place for a gathering of horticultural enthusiasts. Not only does it have the space – important when you’re hosting around 20 nurseries – it is also a garden with a long history, not least in charity openings; it notches up 70 years with the National Gardens Scheme this year and opens regularly for other charities, this week for Cobalt.

rare plant fair
The couple commissioned this gate

Bought from the church in the late 1920s, it has been passed down through generations of gardeners and is currently run by Lucy and David Abel Smith, who took over in the early 1980s. They inherited a site with good bones: old yew hedges and some magnificent trees, including copper beech and sycamore. While they have added some features, the layout has remained largely unchanged with the more formal areas nearer the house, gradually moving out into more naturalistic planting.

Not that the formal areas are all clipped topiary and regimented planting. This is a country garden and the atmosphere is relaxed: the main lawn does have a wisteria, rose and clematis-covered pergola but it is bordered on one side by neatly mown lawn and on the other by longer grass, studded with tulips and snake’s head fritillaries.

The rustic pergola is in keeping with the country style

What makes it memorable though is its setting alongside a mill race, a feature that has been exploited to the full with bridges allowing access to an ‘island’ of garden set between the mill race and the River Coln, and sweeps of narcissi and Anemone blanda that enhance views across to the house in one direction and countryside in the other.

Within this framework, Lucy has concentrated on revitalising the planting, helped at first by Esmé Bradburne, one of the founder members of the Soil Association, who in turn trained the current gardener Robert Wyatt; the garden is still run organically.

rare plant fair
The waterside setting is memorable

“I have new ideas constantly,” she says, “just little bits, nothing dramatic.

“I think you have to keep thinking otherwise one’s garden does get very stale.”

Recently, these new ideas have included adding to the spring show by planting lots more bulbs, such as tulips.

“I just felt it need a bit of refreshing. We should have a show of tulips until the end of May.”

Tulips add spring colour

Some of these have gone into the long herbaceous border, others are beginning to colour up at the foot of the yew hedge, mingling with daffodils and muscari.

More drastic was the overhaul of the sunken garden, originally designed by Lucy’s mother-in-law. Here, she has taken out all the planting – “It had got too shrubby” – and replaced it with different varieties of thyme and Allium shubertii.

Nearby, a lily pond, designed to give the still conditions beloved of waterlilies, is a reminder of Lucy’s Scottish childhood home.

Daffodils are naturalised in the grass

Elsewhere, a shady area has been revamped with a winding path and the addition of shrubs, including cornus and cotinus, underplanted by drifts of hardy geraniums.

“I just wanted to make more of this wild bit.”

Every two years Fresh Air, an exhibition of sculpture, is held at The Old Rectory and some of the pieces have found a permanent home there, giving a modern twist to what is otherwise a traditional garden.

Artwork is found throughout the garden

Lanterns made from cupcake cases hang from the branches of a weeping silver lime in front of the house; the stations of the cross are marked out in lettering on stone that forms a trail through the garden, a quote from Goethe is a memorial to Esmé. Even one of the bridges doubles as art: made by Richard La Trobe-Bateman, it splits in the middle.

“It makes it very dramatic,” observes Lucy.

The Rare Plant fair at Quenington will feature 20 independent nurseries specialising in unusual plants. Those attending include Edulis, with a range that includes edibles, Shady Plants, The Cottage Herbery,  Whitehall Farmhouse Plants, with mainly herbaceous perennials, and Tortworth Plants, which is featured here

The Old Rectory, Quenington is open on Sunday April 10, 2016 from 11-4pm. Admission is £5 per adult, which includes entry to the garden. Admission is free for children under 16. Some of the proceeds will be donated to Cobalt.

Swans have made the garden their home