Garden Views: Beachers’ shady garden is a cool retreat that welcomes people, birds, bugs and wildlife

Ground-level flowers, like this purple coneflower, share space with Autumn Morn, an understory tree. Photo by Mary Fran McQuade.


Flowers and food are the stars of today’s gardens. But we tree-huggers, who cherish the peace and privacy our trees give us, have to find other things to fill our shaded spaces.

Beachers Ursula and Doug Eley have found the way to make the most of a shady garden. They’ve deliberately created a cool, shaded retreat where people, birds, bugs and wildlife are welcome.

Following nature’s path

They didn’t exactly intend that right from the start – you could say that the plants themselves led them in that direction. What was once a patch of giant weeds in a typical long, narrow backyard on a street north of Kingston Road is now a mini-forest of exquisite shade plants.

The pair didn’t follow the usual route of drawing things out on paper first. Their choices have followed nature’s own plan for woods and forests: A topmost “canopy” layer of tall trees, an “understory” layer of small trees and shrubs, and a “forest floor” layer of short plants and spreaders. It’s a brilliant idea anyone can use to deal with fairly dense shade.

Growing your own forest

“We started by mainly getting basic plants,” says Doug. One of the first was a dawn redwood that still anchors the back corner of the garden. Now a giant tree, it was only about a couple of metres when they brought it home, but “we didn’t know any better,” Ursula laughs.
Other canopy trees came and grew up, too – a lush green beech tree and a red Bloodgood Japanese maple. Over time, the forest grew, and the lawn shrank away to nothing.

“Every year, you do a little editing,” Doug explains. “Something dies or you need a spot of colour somewhere. Then, as you go on, you notice that there are all kinds of other things, all of these weird and wonderful, amazing plants to try.”

Understory favourites

In the understory, roughly at eye level, 20 or more Japanese maples are spaced throughout the width and depth of the garden. “We choose them for their small size, their different colours and foliage, and their form.”

Just a few examples:

• Inaba Shidare, a weeping form with deeply-cut burgundy leaves.
• Green Waterfall, a tall, fairly narrow tree with arching branches.
• Autumn Morn, with small green leaves daintily edged and tipped year-round with gentle red-orange.
• Kagiri Nishiki, with a slender, airy form and small, pale leaves.
• Mizuho Beni, a tiny filler next to the central path.

Down to earth

At ground level, ferns spring up in clumps among countless hostas. Variations in size, colour and foliage dominate. Feathery ferns wave here and there; in other areas, stiffer, metallic Japanese painted ferns sprout in clusters.

And what can you say about the hostas? Coloured blue-green or splashed with yellow or white, with big leaves or tiny leaves like the impossibly cute Dancing Mouse – they carpet the forest floor.

Mid-size green things also literally pop up above the green carpet. Several varieties of Solomon’s Seal, many with variegated leaves, arch over their smaller neighbours.

Trilliums, of course, glow white in the spring. And an unusual shrub-form clematis heracleifolia brings its blue flowers out in a small splash of sun.

Tips for success

Here are some of Ursula’s and Doug’s tips for success.

First, says Ursula, “You need an appreciation for plants, and then they grow on you.” Pay attention to plant tags, she adds. They have useful info on height, width, water and light needs.

Their fairly mature shade garden doesn’t take a huge amount of work, they say. Leave the leaves on the garden in fall. (They don’t have tough oak leaves to deal with). In spring, do a light leaf clean-up, hand-weed, and spread compost and worm castings before young plants come up.

Hit end-of-season sales for bargain plants, even if they’re not in top condition. Give them a little TLC, and they’ll survive.

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