Garden Rx > Made for Shade

If you are struggling with a shady location or have a small in-town lot without much privacy, the garden options available to you may be wider than you imagined. In fact, author and landscape designer Robert Gillmore’s one-acre lot in a residential Goffstown neighborhood gives the impression of being a large, private woodland estate.

The house is nestled into the hillside; the view of the street screened by trees and broad-leaved evergreen shrubs. A narrow, gently graded path winds gracefully through the garden—called Evergreen. At times, the path is quite close to the road and neighboring houses, but because of Gillmore’s expert use of berms, all that is visible are natural-looking ridges planted with beautiful rhododendrons and shadeloving groundcovers—not houses, asphalt and utility poles. Piles of clay and sand fill (some as high as twelve feet), the berms are covered with topsoil and planted with evergreen shrubs to effectively screen out noise or views that detract from the garden’s privacy. Unlike expensive walls or fencing, the berms don’t require any maintenance and look like part of the landscape.

Working With Nature’s Gifts

“We moved here in 1983 and began work on the garden a few years later,” Gillmore says. “The garden was easy to design because the site was so interesting. I feel blessed to have these enormous white pines—they were an organizing element. They practically tell you what to do. You just have to listen to the cues.”

A firm believer in using what nature provides, Gillmore has carefully pruned a native witch hazel into an attractive specimen tree. “Along with selective pruning, we cleaned up the dead wood, and weeded out unwanted plants and brush. I call it gardening by subtraction. A woodland garden exists like Michelangelo said a sculpture exists within the stone—you reveal it by taking away the clutter,” Gillmore says.

Gillmore relies on the foliage of shade-tolerant shrubs and perennials to bring added color to the garden. Lighting up the heavy shade are large sweeps of euonymus. The green and white variegated ‘Emerald Gaiety’ as well as yellow and green ‘Emerald ‘n Gold’ hold their leaves year-round to provide continuous color, unlike perennials that bloom only briefly. Gillmore is a big fan of euonymus for its design value and jokes, “Whoever invents a red euonymus will have a seat at the right hand of God!”

The path winds cleverly around the lot, making the site seem much larger than one acre and providing different angles to view Gillmore’s work. “You don’t want to see the garden all at once,” he says. “‘Progressive realization’ is the technical term for it. It adds an element of mystery and makes the walk more entertaining.”

Visitors pass large drifts of hostas and budding mountain laurel. Alongside the path are ferns and pink ladyslippers, more of what Gillmore calls “gifts of nature.” Viewpoints overlooking the stream tumbling along the rear of the lot and the granite cliffs beyond it lend depth to the property.

“Your landscape is what you can see; not just what you own. Borrow the good stuff, like we’ve done here with these cliffs, and hide the bad, as we’ve done by using the berms. It is called controlling the view,” Gillmore says. “We removed the lower limbs of the trees to open up the view of the cliffs but left the crowns to screen the development on top of the cliffs.”

Outdoor Rooms

The large erratic boulders dotting the property are natural sculptures that act as focal points and help defi ne several outdoor rooms. The White Room is carpeted with green and white euonymus, and accented with white-edged hostas, white flowering rhododendrons and a white cast-iron bench. Highmaintenance fl owers are used sparingly. “Impatiens are the best annual for shade; they help fill in the bare spots,” says Gillmore.
The Gold Room is named for the ‘Gold Standard’ hostas, yellow coleus and pale-yellow ‘Hong Kong’ rhododendrons. A generous amount of green and gold euonymus edges the room as well as grows up the boulders and pine trees. Two ornate benches invite relaxing and contemplating the restful sound of the nearby brook as it tumbles over mosscovered rocks in the streambed.

There are many other plants at Evergreen, such as sweet woodruff, pachysandra, vinca, jack-in-the-pulpit, Canadian mayfl owers, forget-me-nots, lily-of-the-valley, day lilies and ajuga.

“Woodland gardens are extremely low maintenance,” Gillmore says. “The shade makes for a slow ecosystem; plants grow more slowly, and there are few if any weeds. The trees provide free mulch from needles and leaves, and nature even spreads it for me! The decaying leaves provide nutrients to the plants, so no extra fertilizer is needed. You don’t have to water, and spring cleanup is limited to picking up fallen branches and raking the paths. We have almost no lawn. Trees, shrubs and ground covers are the key to lowmaintenance gardening.”

Understanding Shade

Keep in mind that there are different types of shade. Evergreen has almost full shade and acidic soil under tall pine trees. The first step in planning your shade garden should be analyzing the amount of shade. If you have deciduous trees, this changes with the seasons. Part shade is between one hour and three hours of sunlight, or all-day dappled sun through a canopy of smallleaved trees. Light shade ranges between four hours and five hours of sun a day. Full shade is under a canopy of mature trees.

As trees grow and mature, the level of shade will change. Also, storms can take their toll, creating full sun when the treetops are broken by heavy ice or wind. Some plants, such as spring ephemerals, have evolved in woodland situations. They bloom early before trees leaf out and go dormant later in the season when it turns dry and shady. Gillmore urges gardeners to take advantage of native plants that are adapted to your degree of shade.

It’s up to you to decide if your shady location is an asset or a liability, but a visit to Evergreen is truly inspirational. Gillmore has transformed a shaded, rock-strewn hillside into an elegant woodland paradise. “I feel that Evergreen is one of the most important things I’ve ever done. Aspire to create something great!”

Touring Evergreen

Each year, author and landscape designer Robert Gillmore opens his remarkable in-town woodland garden to the public. This year, Evergreen is open for tours June 5-7 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. For more information, call 497-8020.

Gillmore suggests that when visiting gardens whose settings and growing conditions are similar to yours, look for inspiration rather than feeling overwhelmed by perfection, and notice practical planting ideas and successful gardening techniques you may be able to implement.

In addition to the tour, you can learn more about Gillmore’s philosophy in his book The Woodland Garden, which has many beautiful color photographs of Evergreen taken by his wife, photographer and artist Eileen Oktavec. Gillmore also is the author of Beauty All Around You, which goes into great detail on building and planting berms to create privacy as well as using lowmaintenance plants and natural features to create an impressive but easily maintained garden.