Most people want gardens that look good all year, while needing little work and scanty water. Here in Seattle and the maritime PNW, two out of three of the above is pretty easy. Getting a really good-looking garden all year that is low maintenance and drought tolerant requires a lot more thought and planning.
The first thing to accept is that there is more to good looks than flowers. Foliage color and shape, the form and bark of shrubs and trees all play in to making a garden interesting. So too does the hardscaping, furniture and even the color of your house.
A yard along Kensington in Seattle’s Tangletown neighborhood has an excellent low maintenance grouping for shade. It could use some colored foliage and there are no summer flowers but it is still an easy, pleasant-looking planting, especially for a part of the yard where you never hang out.
- Viburnum davidii – Tough, drought tolerant, good in sun or shade, and thrives even in front of gas stations. The gas station success makes this Viburnum declassé, which is ridiculous. It is a useful, interesting plant and it’s tough, who can complain about that? It has big, leathery evergreen leaves with 3 prominent veins, which are a great foil for smaller leaved plants. It looks particularly great with pines in sunnier situations. The white flowers in spring are usually abundant if not too exciting. The berries if you get them are a luscious blue. Sizes listed for Viburnum davidii are frighteningly variable but quite a few put them at 3-4′ x 3′-4′. I’d say they are usually on the shorter side and quite possibly wider.
- Taxus sp., probably T cuspidata ‘Monloo’ aka Emerald Spreader Japanese Yew- Yews are part of the conifer clan but differ from the bulk of their brethren in one significant way – they take pruning well. They will break bud from old, needle-less wood which most conifers won’t do. Yews amenability to pruning is important given how wide many get. The low spreading yews found in sundry yards are likely T. cuspidata ‘Monloo’ (30″H x 8-10′W) or T. baccata ‘Repandens’ (3-4′H x 12-15′W). Monrovia lists another cultivar, T. x media ‘Dark Green Spreader’ that is much more height-width proportionate if that is what you seek being 3-4′ H x 4-6′ wide. It could be a nice choice for tight spots if the height is ok. If you’re looking for something shorter, look to ‘Monloo’. If you want something with a similar look but smaller, try Podocarpus nivalis (2-3′H x 5-6′). Both the Taxus and the Podocarpus can take sun to shade, and like well-drained soils. Podocarpus is quite drought tolerant when established.
- Pachysandra terminalis - An evergreen groundcover for shade with white flowers. I would use Saxifraga x urbium, London Pride, instead. Check out my description of London Pride in the Walks section (toward the end).
- Betula utilis var. jacquemontii, Himalayan White Birch – Definitely a birch and almost certainly jacquemonti with that white, white trunk. This is my favorite birch getting about 30′ tall. It prefers not to have hot sun or terribly droughty soils.
- Camellia sasanqua – The viburnum and pachysandra bloom in spring. The taxus blooms not at all and the birch flowers barely count, so the showiest bloom in this planting will be the camellias in the fall – at least in theory. In this situation, they may not get enough sun to set buds but they still give a nice vertical element to the planting.
One nice thing about this planting is its simplicity – only a few plant types are used and they are used in large groupings. The downside to the planting, a lack of color. Next blog – some shade plants that would work well with these plants and add more flowers and color.