Shady Characters

Shade garden. It sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? When we think of flowers, most of us envision sun. But here’s the thing: shade gardens are some of the most beautiful around. Dappled with light, not blown out, the colors and textures are enhanced. Dramatic seasonal variations in leaf and bark replace the razzle-dazzle of flowers that are here today, gone tomorrow.

Take the North Kingstown garden belonging to Fred Silverblatt and his wife, Anna. Careful nurturing has produced a garden that is not only beautiful, but also ideally suited to the site. So integrated are the couple’s plantings with the natural landscape, it’s difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. The result? A woodland fantasy that appears to have almost created itself.

The sun knifes through trees showcasing now a stand of lacy ferns, then a clump of purple iris. As the day progresses, different shrubs and plants step into the limelight, fade away, reappear. Incidental? Not on your life. Nothing here — no plant, no stone — is random. Anna, who teaches at Brown University, is a dancer. The glorious two-and-a-half-acre garden she and her husband co-tend is as carefully choreographed as a holiday recital.

When the Silverblatts bought the property nineteen years ago, they gently weeded out a few of the tall pine and oak trees that were already in place and left the rest, carefully high-pruning (removing lower branches to lift the canopy) here and there as needed. As a result, beneficial light and air make their way in but the forest ambience remains.

“We took advantage of the trees, using them to help determine how and where the underplantings should go,” Anna explains.

A continual build-up of oak leaves and pine needles has helped to visually marry the garden with the woods and has also enriched the area with organic matter. Instead of having to compete with the trees for nutrients in soil that’s root-clogged, the plants are thriving in humus.  “It’s an eco-friendly garden. We use no pesticides, we continually amend the soil with compost and we do very little watering once a plant is established,” says Anna.

The Silverblatts installed a small pond toward the front of the garden, which can be seen from the house. Water lilies and parrot’s feather – aquatic plants — serve up oxygen for a handful of fish that come for dinner when called. Yellow and blue flags hug the shores. But this is primarily a dry shade garden. The compost helps retain what moisture there is.

Still, the gardeners don’t really pay much attention to labels. Their vision is ambitious. Primary inspiration comes from regular visits to Meccas such as the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. When the pair spy something they like, they track a source and, if they have a hunch it will work, order it despite what conditions are recommended. The experimentation has paid off. The Silverblatts are successfully nurturing a good many sun-loving recruits, including peonies and roses.

“Keep in mind,” Anna cautions, “not all sun-loving plants will tolerate less than a full amount but some will. They might not be quite as opulent or throw as many blossoms, but they are quite lovely to us nonetheless.”

The Silverblatts tend to arrange groups of similar colored plants together for greater visual impact instead of dotting them about. The roses, for instance, are corralled closer to the drive where the trees are less and the light is greater. To foster a natural theme, variegated plants are limited.

Native plants such as trillium, winterberry (ilex verticillata), viburnum and old fashioned fothergilla are the priorities. Their presence is another connection to the wild and a good segue to more familiar perennials including astilbes, bleeding hearts and daylilies. The last in several varieties, including late bloomers like August flame and autumn king, extend the blooming season. 

Groundcovers have a prominent role because they coexist contentedly with all kinds of neighbors and help form interesting patterns. Think brunnera (with its sweet blue forget-me-not-like flowers), wavy-leaved bergenia, sweet woodruff and wild ginger (asarum). Also native to New England but less familiar plants such as lungwort (the common name for plants of several genera such as  hellebore and pulmonaria)  and epimedium, sometimes dubbed the bishop’s cap, are among their favorites.

The middle-story layer, one that is often found missing in the average plan, is made up of larger specimens such as oakleaf hydrangea, dogwood, mountain laurel, rhododendron, azalea and skimmia.  Anna creates verticality, which she calls a must to break up the horizontal composition, by using a host of climbing vines: clematis, wisteria and silver chain vine for the three pergolas, dark green Boston ivy up some of the trees and an enthusiastic climbing hydrangea scaling the house.

A scattering of strategically placed evergreens brings some subtle structure to the design and provides winter interest. “We spend a great deal of time in the kitchen during the cold months. We like to look out and see something green,“ Anna tells me.  

Annuals? Yes, they also have those but only begonias and nasturtiums. The first because they will thrive in deep shade. The second for salads. Anna prefers to buy flats of these two plants every season and set them where they’re most needed rather than start them by seed.

Spend time with the Silverblatts and you quickly realize it’s perfection that counts, not show. Their prized toad lilies are an example. Toad lilies produce blossoms (from August into October) that look like miniature speckled orchids. A walker bent on speed might not notice the fragile flowers. But this conscientious pair stays in touch with their plants. Nothing — no tiny violet, no budding lilac leaf — passes without their scrutiny. “We walk in the garden with our dogs and coffee every morning year round. It’s a wonderful way to keep track of how things are doing and what needs to be done,” Anna, says. Indeed, garden journals full of photographs depict the two trudging through snow and rain undaunted. 

What we don’t see pictured is the team at work. And work they do, all themselves, to keep this garden thriving. Ten out of twelve months something is in bloom. While the rest of us are grumbling at ice on our windshields, the Silverblatts are admiring their winter-flowering jasmine and anticipating the pop of the thousands of spring-flowering bulbs. Bulbs, of course, they’ve carefully set one by one.

Not overzealous pruners, they seldom if ever pick anything including daffodils and narcissus, and cheerful forsythia grows at will. “I can’t bear to cut them,” Anna confesses. “I buy my flowers. And then every Friday, Fred brings me roses.”

There is an old adage that claims plants grow best for the people who love them. Certainly, the Silverblatts have that on their side. For them, gardening is, as the Czech writer Karl Capek once described it, “an insatiable passion” to which they’ve given their hearts. The fact that the tapestry they’ve woven is amid a galaxy of trees doesn’t seem to faze them. It just makes it all that much more wondrous for the rest of us.

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