Gardens - Shade Gardens

A European-style courtyard in the city

Liz Primeau
Photography by
Laura Arsie

A gardener with a painterly eye transforms a shady urban garden

A large wooden obelisk is set in the bed on the shadiest, northwest side of the garden, where low-growing plants such as Baltic ivy, periwinkle and self-seeding violets mix with white astilbe, ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) and Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum spp.). “I needed something tall and dramatic there for emphasis,” says Denise. A tracery of Baltic ivy grows through the obelisk, softening its lines and connecting it to the plants below.

On the east edge of the small central seating area, two metal tree cages that once graced a Paris street have been placed upside down, their swirled bases curving upward and outward toward the leafy treetops. A wild tumble of pinky mauve ‘Pink Chiffon’ clematis—a variety that takes some shade—climbs up one cage and spills out over the top, like a tree. The other cage supports more Baltic ivy.

european-style-inset2.jpgClematis are favourite plants of Denise and perform to her satisfaction because she doesn’t demand that they bloom their heads off, although she does try to choose varieties that can take some shade. She has several growing through shrubs and over triangular plant supports of varying sizes.
Denise has given all her plant supports—including the Parisian tree cages—a coat of dark green paint. Once they’re dry, she sprays them—“Lightly!” she admonishes. “Just a mist”—with a camouflage green paint. “Would you believe some of these supports are plastic?” Denise crows. “Once you’ve painted them, you’d never know. I choose the supports for their shape and height,” she explains.

To create impact and vary height and form in the composition of her garden, Denise masses plants such as ‘Annabelle’ hydrangeas, whose round, luminous, greenish white blooms last for weeks. Ten have been placed strategically along one fence and as a background to the bed in front of the garage.

She also makes the most of any rays of sun that sneak into her courtyard. “I take advantage of these small gifts,” says Denise. Near one side of the sitting area, an ‘Iceberg’ rose—growing with the dramatic ‘Star of India’ clematis, a mauve cultivar with magenta stripes that almost look iridescent—sports a few summer blossoms, but gives its best show in fall after the leaves have fallen from the trees. Across from it, a dark purple-blue ‘Black Knight’ butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii ‘Black Knight’) adds its spiky blooms along with the delicate flowers of several cranesbills. “They seed themselves around, and it’s quite fun to move the seedlings into new combinations,” says Denise.

Big pots of plants add colour, and can be moved to take advantage of sunny spots. Denise fills them with pale blue Chinese plumbago (Ceratostigma willmottianum), fairy fan-flower (Scaevola cvs.) and pale-coloured geraniums (Pelargonium peltatum cvs.). “[The geraniums] have to be the trailing kind with the waxy leaf,” she says, “in the off-white pinkish shade that’s hard to find.”

The deeply shaded space between the garage and the maple tree is Denise’s woodland corner. “But the tree sucks up everything from the soil, and the garage only adds to the shade,” says Denise regretfully. “Even ferns don’t do well here.” Still, valiant clumps of green and variegated Solomon’s seal, ‘White Lady Spotted’ hellebore (Helleborus x hybridus ‘White Lady Spotted’), euonymus, Baltic ivy, barrenwort (Epimedium spp.) and ostrich fern grow sparsely but gracefully, while a purple Jackmanii clematis offers up a handful of blooms each summer. In the corner is an old twig chair that’s covered with a twining of twigs—trimmings from Denise’s prunings—which she uses as supports when needed.

Pruning is a necessary part of Denise’s regimen. In a small, shady garden, it’s important to bring out the shapes of plants and keep them defined so different textures and shades of green stand out. The ‘Ivory Silk’ Japanese tree lilac (Syringa reticulata ‘Ivory Silk’) growing on one side of the deck would take over if it weren’t limbed up and pruned back every year; judicious trimming only enhances its presence.

On the fence behind the ornamental pear trees, which bring delicate blossoms to the garden each spring, grows a dense cover of euonymus. “I keep this crisply trimmed as a backdrop for the trees,” says Denise. “I like a clean, clipped top. It gives the garden an Italian Renaissance feel, wouldn’t you say?”

One has to agree. As in Renaissance gardens, colour is minimized here, but not missed. Nor is the sun.

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