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Made in the Shade Garden

Julie Abranson

Julie Abramson

Julie Abramson now lives with a graceful shade garden, but it was not always so. Like so many of us, Julie never had much interest in her mother’s garden when she was young, but over the years she has tended three very different gardens of her own. Her first garden in Albany was cheerful. “I was inexperienced, but this garden was very floriferous. I knew nothing about trees and shrubs,” she told me as we sat admiring her very green garden filled with trees and shrubs in Northampton.

Her second garden was on a hillside with a cascade of plants including a cottonwood tree that filled the air with cotton-y fluff when it was the tree’s time to carry seeds off to produce more cottonwood trees.

I was especially interested in this, her third garden, because it is a mostly a shade garden. Julie moved to her Northampton house 12 years ago and began her garden a year later by removing 25 trees. Even so, this half acre garden grows beneath the shade of maples and conifers, and smaller sculptural trees like the pagoda dogwood.

As I struggle with creating a garden design, I asked Julie for her advice. She explained that there are certain principles that can guide plant selection and placement. “Repetition, and echoing or contrasting of foliage types are basic rules. I look for relationships between the plants, looking for arrangements that please me,” she said. “Respond to the site. My garden turns out to be a series of large triangles dictated by the landscape.”

As we walked around the house and into the gardens, she pointed out examples of these principles. The sunniest garden on the gentle south slope has shrubbery including Little Devil ninebark, arctic willow and spirea which give weight to the repetition of garlic chives, nepeta and blue caryopteris. A boulder adds to that weight and the natural feel of this garden.

Pieris, Leuchothoe and geranium

Foundation planting: Pieris, Leuchothoe and geranium

Julie edited the foundation planting she inherited to make it less dense and more interesting by layering. One section starts with tall pieris that blooms in the spring, and in front of that is the graceful broadleaf evergreen leucothoe which also blooms in the spring. Hugging the ground is geranium macrorrhizum with its paler foliage. These layers contrast different foliage forms, textures and color.

I loved the long daylily border on the sunny side of the house which was ending its bloom season. Julie told me a secret. This border has an early bloom season when the daffodils planted  in and among the daylilies bloom. After bloom the daffodil foliage gets lost in the early daylily foliage and the gardener never needs to endure browning straggle, or worry about cutting back the foliage too early depriving the bulbs of new energy.

Of course, it was the shade garden that was of particular interest to me.  It is the shade garden that Julie admires from her study, the dining room and the screened porch. This is a more natural woodland garden planted with many natives and other shade-loving plants. Earlier in the season there is more color when shrubs like fragrant clethera and perennials like astilbe, heucherella and others are in bloom.

Right now the garden is mostly green. “I am a collector and have many different plants, but I also like calmness. I try to integrate the two sides of who I am with two sides of the garden.” She pointed out that the entry to the shade garden is a kind of tapestry where one groundcover blends into another. “This is a calm way to taper the garden,” she said.

Julie confesses to a love of mounding plants like the caryopteris and garlic chives in the sunny garden and arctic willow, hostas and heucherellas in the shade garden. There is a repetition of burgundy, and green and white foliage. “The mounds are distinct but they relate to each other. Your eye keeps moving because you can see a repeat of color or form just beyond,” she said.

Shade Garden Path

Shade garden path

She has curving paths edged by mass plantings of ajuga, hostas and bergenia that keep leading the eye along. There is a sense of movement. “The curve makes me very happy,” she said.

She struggles with the dry, root-y soil. Her first year she spread 6 inches of compost and planted in that, which is not recommended practice, but she said it worked well for her.

Julie has a simple routine for maintaining the garden. In the spring she gives her garden a thorough weeding. Then, with some help, she spreads a layer of compost over the whole garden, followed by spreading layer of wood chip mulch, again with some help. After the mulch is applied she considers the main work of the garden done. In the fall she edits the garden, dividing, removing or adding plants. “It is not just the garden itself, but the whole process of gardening that gives me pleasure,” she said.

Our style, our approach, to our gardens carries through from the way we choose and arrange our plants to the way we care for it. Although Julie gives great thought and care to the arrangements of plants the effect is of unstudied grace. Gardeners are very generous and share knowledge and experience, as well as plants, but somehow no two gardens are ever the same.

I came away from Julie Abramson’s garden with new ideas and examples of how to arrange the plants in my new garden, but we can both be confident that my garden will not be a copy of hers.

Between the Rows September 5, 2015

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