The Garden Guru: Coping with a shady yard

I have a pretty good idea of gardeners' most-asked questions. And the winner is, without hesitation: "Neil, my trees have grown large, and I can't get grass to grow. What can I do?"

In response, I always try to comfort the caller. I assure each person that I understand fully -- that I myself "live in a pecan forest," and have walked the same journey.

So, that's why we've called this meeting today. Radio can take you only so far. At some point, it's nice to have a visual image to go along with the words, and so for this one time, I'm going to "show and tell" what I've done with one part of my yard.

The hard parts

We built our house about the same time I started my radio program, so we've been here 35 years. This area was wilderness then. Our house backed up to a wall of native red cedars. It was rustic and lovely, and that was perfect. Then the red cedars started to fade in the shade. As bare trunks made for bad views, I decided to open it all up. I removed the red cedars and planted groupings of shrubs. I tried a few pallets of St. Augustine sod, and I even tried fescue a few times, but grass just wouldn't grow. That's when I came up with the plan that you see here.

I knew I wouldn't be able to get many flowering plants to thrive in all the shade. I scoured antique malls and salvage yards, and I was lucky enough to find street pavers dating to the late 1890s and early 1900s. I bought enough to run a sweeping path through our garden, so the need for turf as a walking surface was replaced.

Next, I wanted a few strong focal points in my garden, so I built a wood church from really old salvaged lumber. Unfortunately, my church and its old lumber finally decayed, and it has made its final trip to another salvage pile. But I found a more modern replacement, and it became the star of its part of the garden. It's made of some type of concrete material, so it probably needs to go into the will.

Those ceramic "things" you see at the other end of the walk are antique English chimney pots. They topped rather ordinary chimneys on the south coast of England before those tall houses were razed and the pots were shipped around the world.

For a little variety, I've assembled river rock along a couple of sections of the walk. It brings a nice light tone to its surroundings, and it holds the soil well. It also is extremely bold-textured, and that's a nice contrast to all the fine-bladed mondo grass I use as ground cover.

Fine-ground pine bark mulch is my favorite for covering the soil. I use it as a true mulch and for less-traveled pathways. It's one of my prime soil amendments. For versatility and functionality at my place, it rivals King Duct Tape. Pine bark smells great when it's poured out. It lays flat, and it stays in place very well. Of course, it washes in heavy rains, so I don't use it on slopes. I replenish it annually.

What grows here

At this point, then, we've detailed all the nonliving parts of this garden. Let's wrap it all up with a description of the plants that have performed best for me over the years.

A few shrubs do flower, and two were actually blooming at the same time a few days ago. Mock orange ( Philadelphus) has small, semidouble white blooms in early May, and oakleaf hydrangeas bear their giant flower heads about the same time. White shows well in a shady garden, and each of these seems to be prospering.

Hollies, however, are the backbone of my shade (and sun) plantings. My choice for low hollies would be Carissas, but I also use dwarf yaupons and dwarf Chinese. Dwarf Burford hollies give me dark green plants to 4 feet in height, and Willowleaf (aka Needlepoint) grows to 5 or 6 feet. Mary Nell and Oakland hollies grow to 8 or 10 feet. Nellie R. Stevens, Warren's Red possumhaw and yaupons max out at 15 or 18 feet. Each of those types is in, or near, the parts of our landscape you see in the photos.

I've also used boxwoods (halfway between the church and the chimney pots, same side of the walk; also directly behind the two statues), nandinas of several types (slightly visible in upper right corner near the flowering shrubs) and liriope (grasslike plant in front and to the right of the statues). All three plants have comparatively fine textures. The garden needed that, after all the large-leafed hollies and oakleaf hydrangeas.

So, that's a short tour through one part of the Sperry home landscape. I can say with a clear conscience that having lots of shade isn't a liability -- it's a wonderful opportunity to do something different. Hope this proves useful.

Neil Sperry publishes Gardens magazine and hosts Texas Gardening 8-11 a.m. Sundays on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227 or 214-787-1820.