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Complete Shade Gardenerby George Schenk
Shade for people, shade for houses, shade for plants, privacy, shelter from the wind, shelter for birds, purer air: Living trees provide all these practical benefits. Esthetically, trees stand as great works of curvilinear art, the main form containing the smaller artworks of flowers and seed structures, bark patterns, buds and leaves. In cities and suburbs, trees are an herbal remedy for visual ills: They cushion the hard, colliding geometry of architectural landscapes. In the country — they are the country.
The best trees for shade gardening are, for the most part, deciduous. The house enjoys the winter sun admitted by leafless trees. Most shade-loving plants prefer the lighter summer shade of deciduous trees; few will live in the densening shadows cast by maturing evergreens.
Actually, the shade of most trees in cultivation, deciduous or evergreen, densens as the trees grow and gradually impairs the vigor of shade garden plants. Gardening beneath trees is best understood in the light of knowledge of communities of wild plants in the woodland shade. Plants in the woodlands seem transitory to a dramatic degree when comapred with wild plants growing in the constant sun of prairies and deserts, where plant life may change almost imperceptibly over thousands of years, for changes among woodland plants are often measurable each year. As the woodland roof grows thicker and shadier, green plants beneath thin out because hardly any flowering plants abide. Ferns take their place and flourish for two or three decades. Then, as shade deepends into day-long twilight, even ferns give up, to be replaced by an apotheosis of mosses and mushrooms, with an occasional materialization of that flowering ghost, the Indian Pipe. The progress from the half shade of young trees to the mossy deep shade of the mature forest measures roughly fifty years. The garden planted in the shade of most kinds of trees would, if allowed, follow the same schedule of diminution. We can, however, forestall nature by first removing lower limbs, and later, thinning upper limbs or topping the tree, or even taking it out altogether.
All trees have roots that compete to some degree with underplanting. But a few remain throughout their lives as solicitous as a broody hen (in polite feeding competition with her chicks) toward plants growing at their bases. They shelter smaller forms of plant life dutifully, it seems, never robbing them of food or light. Plumeria rubra and Japanese Snowdrop Tree (Styrax japonicus) are two of these.
Some other trees behave as out-and-out thugs in most garden locations, especially in shade gardens where other plants are growing within about twenty feet of their trunks. Beech, Horse Chestnut, and White Pine (Pinus Strobus come first to mind, but there are at least a couple dozen terrible trees in gardening — many of them unaccountably popular. These are the ones that keep the ground hard by weaving into it roots that repel all competitors, by shading the ground blackly, and by smothering it with slowly decaying falling leaves or highly acid needles.
The powerful shade cast by a huge old tree may be beyond mitigation; I don't seriosly propose that you thin those thousand-pound limbs to bring in more light. It has been done, but on the whole it is better to cut down an outsize tree if it can't be lived with or, if it is valuable, to leave it alone and garden with it on its own terms. I wonder if coarse sand would fit into your garden as a cover for the bare dirt beneath a blackly shady old tree? The porous sand could be spread thickly and any eruptive roots smoothed over without harming the tree. Sand can be raked clean of leaves, and if light-colored, the sand will increase daylight beneath the tree and form an effective base for plants in containers. But if the tree is to go, cut the trunk as close to the ground as can be done: A skillful sawyer can get it down to within an inch of the soil surface. If the tree is of a stump-sprouting kind, obtain a hate poison from the apothecary shelves of the garden store and pour it over the cut base. Now, if you will spread at least an 8-inch depth of new soil over the trunk base and around it, you'll have a planting bed for new trees and for a garden in their young shade, all without having to get rid of the tremendous roots of the cut tree.
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