The southwest corner of the backyard is shaded by those two big walnut trees, so I knew it was going to be hard to grow any food crops in that area. In addition, the black walnut trees leach a toxin called juglone from their roots, and most tender, non-native annuals (which most vegetables happen to be) in the area are slowly killed off. 

After a spring hike at Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve, I got inspired to recreate a native wildflower landscape as best I could. This bit of natural beauty about halfway between Columbus and Dayton really comes alive with wildflowers  in the springtime. The Little Miami River cascades through a steep walled gorge, and everything at the bottom is damp, green and alive. I saw white bleeding hearts, lots of ferns, mosses, tiny trout lilies, triliums and some wild geranium. And of course, there are the giant pancakes at Clifton Mill, just a few mintues’ walk away. Midwest Native Plants has a nice post about the plant life at Clifton Gorge, and there are some beautiful photos at Natural Born Hikers.

Without getting too techincal about it, I headed to a few local garden centers to gather up some shade plants that were tolerant of juglone and had some of the same shapes as the native plants I had seen at Clifton Gorge. To anchor the corner bed, I chose a purple lilac (which reminds me of the giant bush that grew outside of my great aunt’s house next door to where I grew up,) two white viburnums for their fragrance and fall color, and an oakleaf hydrangea. Interspersed among these, I planted several varieties of ferns, astilbe, some hostas, columbine, forget-me-nots, wild geraniums, a white bleeding heart and a showstopper Lenten rose. Not all of the plants are native to my region, but most of them are. I kept the color palate mostly to white and light blue to focus on the foliage of each plant.

Plants are laid out, but sod has to come up!

I enriched the soil with peat moss and composted manure, and then grouped the plantings closer together than recommened to ensure a lush look. I’ll have to fertilize a bit more than if I had spaced them apart, but the denseness and a thick cover of mulch discouraged weeds.

In all, the shade garden took off really well the first year. The lilac bloomed just a few weeks after planting, and the ferns and hostas took off like wildfire. A few of the more tender flowering plants seemed to languish a little, and the hydrangea and viburnums didn’t bloom last year.

Last fall, I dug in a few tulips, crocuses and anemones that had been sitting in my basement since the spring before. I don’t think all of them will sprout, but the few that do will add a nice early splash of color.

More mature, but obscured shade garden (right rear) at our 4th of July Party

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