On a Chalk Hillside March 2021

Published: March 6, 2021

Posted on 06.03.2021 |
Added in Sheila May's Blog

Gravel Garden Planting – The Shade Border
Before the pandemic broke and the first lockdown started in March last year I was about to tell you all about planting up the tiny shade border in the Gravel Garden.  So much has happened since, and so many different articles have been written on this blog that a whole year on, to remind you where the Shade border was in the layout I am describing I'll start with the plan photo again:-  

gravel garden planting20 reas letters 48

Area A:- Acer Walk
Area B:- Mediterranean Maquis
Area C:- Herbaceous planting for July on
Area D:- Subshrubs/shrubs and bulbs
Area E:- shade border (very small)
Area F:- Shrubbery

Area E as you might be able to see is in front of the groyne – in fact as the groyne is curved, it is the gap between the groyne and the straight deck step – as you can see from this construction picture from 31st October 2011:-

shadeborderarrow 98 1

You will also be able to see there is horticultural weed suppressing membrane for 20cm or so out from under the decking steps all the way round – this was designed to help stop the steps down getting overgrown with plants, and was covered with the same gravel mulch used on the beds.  Thus making this a bed maybe 30cm deep, and a couple of meters long at best.  As you can see from the steps it would be in deep shade, even if the planting in the bed above wasn't very tall.  Here it is showing the steep steps, gravel in place, with a wooden board at the front of the border to hold the gravel and soil in:-

shade20border20with20steps20close 49

My plan was that where the gravel flowed down the side of the steps I would plant clumps of Snowdrops () so they would look like a dry river bed, and intersperse it with Primroses.  Because of the weed suppressing membrane this wasn't possible, so the planting ended up being in the border and more clumpy, with clumps of snowdrops as near to the membrane as possible, with cultivated Primroses beside them above the groynes, and a clump below that spread right down to the wooden retainer with native Primroses (Primula vulgaris) next to them.  (There is one clump of Primroses already in there – the nearest green lump at the front to the steps and the tiny green leaves behind and around are native Violets (Viola riviniana) transplanted from the paths round the pond where they self-seed themselves. This little area was an homage to the steep banks below hedgerows round Hampshire between us and the New forest where snowdrops, primroses, violets and native ferns grow happily.   Here are some primroses and violets in a Hampshire hedgerow in April 2014:-

primrose and violet in hedgerow 35

I planted the Irish primrose Primula vulgaris ‘Carrigdale' in my border – it flowers for a lot of the year – last year one of the clumps in a pot was in flower by the end of January though the clumps in the border waited a few weeks to flower-:

carridgale 92

By mid-March it is a star plant – its blooms are beginning to be tinged with pink – can you see how many are coming on?:-

carrigdale march 32

Unlike some of my clumps, last year the snowdrops in this part of the garden were only just beginning to flower by the middle of February:-

shade border20 snowdrops 9

The more purplish leaves at the front of the picture of the original planting  by the steps and border above are a bit of ‘Mahogany' which was a very successful ground cover plant in our Harrow garden, loving the London clay.  I brought some with me when we moved, but it doesn't really do well in full sun on our hot dry chalk – I thought maybe the shade area would be more to its liking.   As you will all know the plant spreads (that is why it is called reptans) and has evergreen purple leaves.  Here is the plant in January 2020:-

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And here in flower in mid-April last year, (note the leaves are a more mottled colour here):-

ajuga in flower 70

As a contrast to the purple leaves of the Ajuga I also have silver-leafed Lamium, ‘Beacon Silver', threading through this border – as you can see here from the March last year next to the :-

lamium rumex20 hade 17

The picture below shows the bed from the front showing the plants that went in at the end of November 2011:-

shade border early planting close 19

Two and an equally spaced out along I remember, but it is funny, but in my memory the ‘Palace Purple' that is clearly planted at the end of the bed furthest from the camera was a , as that is what is there now, and the Rumex sanguineus that is above the groyne at the top right of the picture was planted in the shade border (where it also is now, as you saw above).
The Tellima Grandiflora came from my sister – she dug me a clump up from under her apple tree so I assumed it would be good in shade.  I rarely seem to get an in focus picture of the Tellima grandiflora in flower, so I was delighted to capture it in May 2018, though it does clearly show the poor plant sprawling forward onto the decking steps in an effort to grow out from the canopy of the tall plants above:-

tiarella not 89
tiarella20redflower not 56

At least I DO remember the positions of the two Dryopteris filix-mas ferns I put in – both grown from seed by my Dracaena marginata pot plant.  I have never actually TRIED to grow ferns from seed – the description of how to do it seems extremely complicated especially as my pot plants in the glass lean to at the back of the house manage to grow baby ferns in their soil from spores of the Dryopteris filix-mas plants growing round the base of the lean to without any help from me at all (well I do water the pot plants, does that count?)   In fact, my pot plants in the porch at the front of the house do the same so the spores must travel a long way as there isn't a fern in the front garden.  You don't believe me?   See my Money Tree (Crassula ovata) in August 2018 growing a Dryopteris filix-mas at its base:-

money tree growing20 erns 40

These two ferns, a Harts Tongue Fern (Asplenium scolopendrium) and the Tellima were to be the main foliage/evergreen components of the bed, with more floriferous shade lovers in between.   But as you can see from this shot from above on 26 April last year – one of the Dryopteris felix-mas is too big, you can't see the other two ferns, and the Tellima is invisible against a sprawling Teucrium chamaedrys which is forced forward onto the path:-

shade border overwhelmed 10

The same border taken from the side on the same day – showing the height of the new crosiers of the fern:-

dryopteris side on 64

You can clearly see the Snowdrop leaves at the bottom, and the Lamium weaving round.  You wouldn't believe there is a Harts Tongue Fern (Asplenium scolopendrium) at the other end by the Tellima would you – here on 10 May last year, cuddled by the Lamium also:-

harts tounge20 ern shade bed 5

 A plant I wanted to have in this border was Quaking Grass – .  My step-Mother sent me a couple of seedheads from her garden in the post, and I grew seedlings in pots from these and planted them into the border:- 

briza maxima 13

However by the following year they had migrated out of the actual bed into the gravel mulch on top of the weed suppressing membrane beside the steps as you can see from this photo from June 2013 when the was in flower:-

ref shade border y2 front 99

Which was fine.  The ferns were not too big at this point either, but as the years passed the grass vanished from this area – I know some people worry that Briza Maxima might be invasive, but not in this garden.  It has not survived long in the gravel garden, or under the Pear Trees with the Cowslips, another area I where I sought to establish it.  
The floriferous plants were the Geranium nodosum, and the Wall Germander (Teucrium chamaedrys) – in that last photo you might be able to see the small slightly glaucous foliage of the Wall Germander to the right of the bed?  Teucrium chamaedrys is a very happy evergreen plant here in this garden, planted in this instance near the steps so that brushing past the aromatic leaves will release the lovely scent, and show the garden wanderer the bees enjoying the pinky purple flowers. 

Here's a shot from mid-July 17 showing a bee enjoying the beautiful flowers:-

germander flower bee 9

Because of the shade in this bed it has got particularly leggy, as you saw above, and even in 2017 was sprawled over the decking, as you can see:-

germander flower onto decking 68

Now it is overwhelming all the other planting.  (It has caused the Geranium to vanish from this bed.)  This month I shall prune the Wall Germander (Teucrium chamaedrys) back severely.

I have long had a hankering for a knot garden planted with Teucrium chamaedrys as I saw part of a knot garden planted with it at the Malmesbury Abbey gardens when we visited many years ago, but I understand from talking to the then owners, Ian and Barbara Pollard, that it needed frequent clipping to keep it neat, and as you can probably tell from the photos of my garden frequent clipping/pruning is not something I manage to do consistently here!
The main problem with this border is the slope combined with the bed above it – I really had not taken into account how tall and overbearing some of the plants I put in the bed above it were and apart from deep shade lovers like the ferns, and the winter or spring flowering bulbs or primula, most other plants struggle to compete, getting either lanky and sprawling onto the path, or etiolated and fading away.  So next month I am going to talk to you about what I planted in the bed above this.

Sheila May

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