A relaxing garden has both restful places for your eyes and focal points to enjoy. Green is restful, but it can get monotonous if it’s all identical, as in a yard with a well-kept lawn, but nothing else. Texture is a good way to add interest without losing the restfulness of green. Massing, an application of the design principles of repetition and proximity, is a great way to develop texture that is sufficiently interesting to lead your eyes to an interesting larger plant or something in bloom.
In the Shade
Wild ginger, Solomon’s seal ‘Heronswood,’ and Pennsylvania sedge, are good relatively low-growing groundcovers for the shade.
Wild ginger works very well in full shade. It gets scorched easily in the sun, especially if it gets a little dry. It is shown here under a small magnolia, where it seems to be quite happy, overall. The swath that is under the smoke bushes is not as happy—it dries out and droops in protest—perhaps there is too much competition from the smoke bush roots.
Repetition and proximity play up the texture of the ginger, which contrasts well with the lawn that is next to it and the magnolia above it. A shadow line occurs over the bricks, and aligns the edges of the lawn and ginger very neatly. The two-course brick herringbone path keeps these two plants from encroaching upon each other easily, although I periodically check the edge while the lawn is actively growing and pull back any grass that starts advancing over the brick. In a wet spring, that can be every couple of weeks.
Another plant that likes quite a bit of shade, but can tolerate a little more sun, is a small Japanese Solomon’s seal, in this case, Heronswood. Like a vampire, it does not venture out into sunny spots, although it has filled its shady areas completely. Dappled shade is OK, as long as it’s more shade than dapple.
Pennsylvania sedge prefers dry shade; it lives happily under the huge silver maple that overhangs my yard. It can take some dappled sun. Carex pensylvanica, or Pennsylvania sedge, is a native that you will find in the woods near here. Despite the fact that it looks like soft swaths of long grass, it makes a nice contrast against a well-clipped lawn. It is different enough to work. The contrast is the long, smooth billows of sedge versus the clipped lawn, as well as the shades of green.
The final pair of plants for shade do not stick around until winter; In the lee of the house, on the north side, the bed of ostrich ferns has a row of white bleeding hearts pinned against the house. The bleeding hearts bloom while the ferns are still lengthening out. The contrast is in the greens and the leaf form. The bleeding heart flowers that are shooting horizontally across the bed are the break in alignment near the western end of the bed that shows there is alignment. The rest of the bleeding hearts stayed contained within the concrete boundary under the northern window.
As I write this in mid-August, the bleeding hearts shown below are yellowing, as are the ostrich ferns at the sunnier eastern edge of the bed. These are tall for groundcover—the ferns have a brief flirtation with being a yard high in June, until they find the heat and lack of rain sag-worthy.
Finally, there is the plain, old-fashioned Plantain Lily—Hosta plantaginea, a very fragrant hosta that is in full bloom by mid-August—a focal point when other plants around them become the texture. By the time the asters that are behind them start blooming, the hostas will be done and back to their role of supporting cast. They come up as the bluebells fade, hiding their messy foliage. This hosta is good edging for shady beds with big plants.
They do all right if they get touched by a little early morning sun, but they bleach out if they get anything stronger than that. They are at their best get shade all day—and they do not seem to mind the dryness under the silver maple too much. If it gets very dry, they have fewer flowers, but the plants look fine otherwise.
In the Sun
I’ve had mostly good luck with blue fescue, which edges a bed of deep purple tulips, allium, bleeding hearts, and a very large white peony. It’s a clumping grass, so the clumps get sad after a few seasons; fortunately, division rejuvenates them. Early spring is rough, though: the rabbits mow it avidly in late winter, and one spring we had a robin who worked vigorously on plucking out any long blades, presumably for a nest.
While it is fine-leaved and grassy, it has none of the softness of Pennsylvania sedge. However, the leaves are fine enough that the clumps do not manage to look bristly.
The last plant in this group insists on behaving like a groundcover even though it is really a little too tall for the role and is sold as a flowering perennial. It spreads and fills in, but not alarmingly. It’s at the front edge of a bed that contains some very large roses, near the edge of the floodplain in gravelly soil that has acquired plenty of organic matter over the years. Japanese anemone has a reputation for being a little too exuberant, but it’s easy enough to dig up the plants that start wandering off. On the other hand, it’s not a plant that I would put in a highly fertile, evenly moist spot.
These will bloom from mid-to-late September through early November, with the June roses serving as their green backdrop.
Commonalities and Conclusions
Plants that have interesting foliage and perhaps one well-defined blooming period are good candidates for restful swaths of texture that lead your eyes around your yard. If they do bloom, as do the bleeding hearts, hostas, and Japanese anemones, they will become focal points in their own right. The plants around them should be able to serve as rest for the eyes.
Massing plants works because of the repetition of form and color and the proximity of plants that are uniform in size. The most successful swaths have clean lines between them and good contrast in shape, size, or color.
I looked at some of these plants from a different angle—their edges—last year in: