Eternity: Sun Versus Shade

Recent news has included discoveries of new planets, supernovas and even changes in the rates of the contraction of the original expansion of the Big Bang. A few friends have shared that these various cosmic phenomena make them feel a bit weird, depressed or anxious. In contrast, it makes me feel better, not worse. I love the idea of infinity, for example. And eternity as well. I want more, not less. I believe that living in eternity is what I, for one, am doing, and this is especially true in my job. Starlight has witnessed the drama of our millions of years. I am happy playing a mega-bit part.

Every day, as we establish the expanded “Heronswood East” display gardens at Fordhook Farm in Doylestown, PA, we relearn the many profound truths in American horticulture, all of which express its essential feature: space. Our nation possesses a lot of it. So much diversity is found in nearly 3.8 million square miles that one must reduce it, literally, to its parts.

We may as well begin somewhere:

The two main parts—quite relevant to our nursery and your regard of it—are the eastern half of the US and the western half. For example, whenever we hold our Heronswood East Open Days at Fordhook and folks come from hundreds of miles around Southeast Pennsylvania, we find it hard to hold their attention to our shade gardens. Why? The reason is simple: we are covered with shade trees in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic areas. Also, we have a longish winter. Generally, the same is true of the Southeast. Therefore, most people in the eastern half of the US love full sun gardens with a deep passion, just as they adore the sky, as in the mountains or at the beach (called “the shore” in these parts). We like what we lack, so to speak. If you dwell in a forest, you like to get out in the open.

Contrast this to the western half of the US where—except for the mountains—there are relatively few trees and, generally, almost no forests. Mainly, the reason is lack of moisture. The primary sensation is of sun and cloudless sky—relentless and rarely broken by large stands of deciduous trees. Of course the Pacific Northwest is the exception, which is why millions flock there in the summer.

Therefore, gardeners in the western half of the US tend to prefer shade gardens. Thus, most ornamental gardens are generally shaded or semi-shaded in the plains states and due west, until you reach the narrow strip of the cool and cloudy Pacific coastline.

In the eastern half, meadow plants and full sun gardens are generally preferred. Easterners hunger for the sky, and the bigger, the better. It is amusing, since it mirrors somewhat the way that westerners edge their way out of the sun and into the shade. However, the Southeast does represent an exception to this rule, but only in midsummer when the outdoor focus is sitting beside a coleus, impatiens and hosta glowing under a very large shade tree. Otherwise, stay indoors!

With the exception of the Deep South (our “Pacific Northwest”) in the summer, this bifurcation has challenged us at Heronswood to make sure we “cover all the bases”. Do we wish to create a simulation of our original full shade garden at Kingston, WA, here in Doylestown, PA? OK, but we have also to “vary the line” as Bernard Berenson said to an aspiring young artist. Few Easterners gravitate happily to a deep shade garden. They’d rather enjoy open meadow gardens, borders and full sun rare shrubs and trees such as those we have established at Fordhook Farm. We’ll have several Open Houses and plant sales next spring and summer. Generally speaking, wild horses couldn’t drag visitors into our shade gardens, even though they are extraordinary. Only the better-experienced or well-travelled gardeners “dig” our shade gardens in PA.

However, in Kingston, WA, it’s like the recent Geico radio commercial: “Give me shade, give me shade and, oh yeah, give me shade!” During winter, full-sun ornamental gardening in the Southwest is fine, when you can pull it off, particularly in southern coastal California. From Santa Barbara to San Diego is like a waking dream in winter. But generally (and this includes the Deep South as well), give western folks the deep shade. They like to look at it as well as relax in it.

At our research gardens in Heronswood East, our focus is both shifting and expanding to include a bit more full-sun plants, which you will see also in our new 56 page catalogue coming to you in late December, and on our website even sooner.

Ironically, in our research gardens at Heronswood West we lost several large Douglas Firs, thereby gaining a few thousand square feet of direct sunlight smack dab in the middle of the “Big Bang”, our deepest shade collection garden. This should create genetic selection pressure (i.e., some will die) and new results and effects over the next few years—interesting especially to our traditional Pacific Northwest customers.

My mother was born in the pine woods of western South Carolina: flat and covered in full to partial shade except near the roads, on the farms and in town. Then she married Dad and moved up to Chicago’s western suburbs, which are full of tall oaks, maples and ironwoods. Dark, dark and, oh yeah, more dark. Very beautiful, but dark! Occasionally, she would drive us kids out to the middle of the gigantic parking lot of the new big shopping center when it finally came to town. “Just look at the sky—isn’t it wonderful?” And it truly was a unique sight, like we’d suddenly risen into the sky. She actually preferred the parking lot to the store. To this day, I love that parking lot.

The “New American Gardening” I referred to in my last post is based partly on this type of effect. Much of inhabited Europe was blown to smithereens—trees included—during World War II. There opened vast open spaces, either battlefields, ruined or obliterated villages and towns or now-empty fortresses, bases and airstrips. What to do? An entire garden industry emerged from the civic movement and parks projects that resulted. Often they filled the empty spaces with the wide palette of meadow grasses and tall perennials found in the US and Russian mid-continents. That’s the origin of Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’, Echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus’ and the designs of Oehme, Van Sweden and Oudolf. Hardly a deep shade plant to be found.

But fear not, partial-to-full-shade-plant lovers. We at Heronswood Nursery are conducting research in both shade and sun and doing so on both coasts. For our deep-fried southern friends, we test also in the heat and humidity of southern Delaware, so both you and my maternal ancestors will be happy. I have got to keep my maternal ancestors happy.

Keep watching for upcoming dates and thanks for gardening in “eternity”.

This entry was posted on Thursday, October 28th, 2010 at 3:02 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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14 Responses to “Eternity: Sun Versus Shade”

  1. bfish said:

    The trends and preferences you describe are interesting. I grew up in SoCal and yes, I like shade gardening. I’ve lived on the east coast for most of my life, however, and I still like shade gardening. The most important attribute of every house I’ve bought is that each had plentiful, large trees.

    While I like summer flowers (perennials and annuals) I am, admittedly, very partial to shade plants — both woody plants and perennials. A few sunny spots are good though, just to be able to branch out more into conifers.

  2. Holly Ross said:

    I adore how George Ball writes-I wish you had a book forthcoming…for it would be a beautiful and heartfelt lesson in all things really green.

  3. Keep working on those shade plants too. I’m a “shady” gardener. Love Heronswood’s shade plants these past few years: anemonopsis, arisaema, disporum, arisarum, begonis grandis DJH, etc., etc., etc. Sometimes impossible to find at local nurseries or other catalog houses.

  4. Joyce Bentley said:

    As one who has gardened all over the US, I prefer shade, and have always tried to surround my home with it. Presently gardening in N Atlanta, I continue to plant trees and large shrubs to provide the shade needed for my preferred plant list. Also, to us, shade just seems more energy efficient. I do love reading your articles. Thanks.

  5. gardenbug said:

    I love tree It must be my Western origins. but here in the East the neighbors trees have completely shaded our garden although the deer never gave our sunny garden a chance to die. They had it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and late night snacks, too. Unfortunately the trees are rather boring, mostly contractors specials, and, after many years, are now huge. So I patiently look for something special for shade, with flowers, and not on our deers dining list.

  6. Sarah said:

    Once again you leave out the real South. Deleware is NOT part of the South if you live near Houston, Texas. I am always amazed that you all consider the north east coast, the north west coast, glancing mentions of the Chicago area and almost nothing between but wish to sell your products to the whole USA.

  7. Susan Wallace said:

    George – you paint with a very broad brush. I purchased my current property partly because it was owned by non-gardeners who covered this city lot with scraggly grass. I’ve replaced it all with compost and shredded bark; have been filling it in with hardy xeric perennials and low shrubs. I specialize in salvias, and lavandulas, but not exclusively because some spaces are shady. Removing hawkweed seedling takes far less time and expense than mowing. Neighbors initially were shocked, then full of praise. Next spring: the back yard! Best, Sue Wallace, SHOREline, WA
    I’m sure you’ve read of early hominids’ craving for the comparative safety, open spaces and visibility of the African savanna [cf. the English geographer Jay Appleton]

  8. L. Geiger said:

    I have been a visitor to the Doylestown site on your open house day, and I ADORED your beautiful and lush shade gardens. I’ve incorporated some of your ideas (plant combinations) into my own small shade garden in Huntingdon Valley. Keep up the good work!

  9. randy said:

    George -I love reading these, it’s like getting a letter from a friend, and no one writes letters anymore

  10. Judy S said:

    I too, love shade gardening. And I love finding new plants that take to dry shade as well as epimediums and woodland phlox. Much of my shade comes from 60yr+ trees that don’t like to share their moisture requirements with hostas and the like.

    • George said:

      Thanks, Judy. You will probably enjoy our upcoming new Heronswood 2011 catalogue, due in late December. Lots of new cultivars, including over 40 exclusives. (Even I am getting excited!) Shade gardening is trickier, which I do not point out in this blog. However, most gardeners enjoy a challenge. Thanks again.

  11. Barbara Bogart said:

    Thank you for another interesting “read”. My background is having grown up in East Tennessee which has beautiful native trees and plants and historically a very high percentage of knowledgable gardeners. Having lived in four other states prior to discovering Port Townsend, it has been a pleasant surprise to enjoy the trees, shrubs, and plants of my childhood in addition to the new discoveries in the Northwest.

    • George said:

      Thank you, Barbara. I am jealous of anyone who lives in Port Townsend, one of my favorite towns. East Tennessee—that’s the mountains. Ralph Stanley country. Another secret passion of mine. Best regards.

  12. Donna Shaffer said:

    I just got word that Heronswood nursery is closing. I had to sit down to absorb the news!! my heart is broken! I love the site and have been planning to visit but, it is one of those things you ‘plan’ and never seem to get to. I told my husband I will make it there before the doors close or he will not be forgiven! I garden in the shade and can’t imagine life without it. Flowers come and go so quickly, but foliage is here to stay all year. with all the colors, texture, and shape of foliage the garden would be drab and boring! I’m praying you’ll keep the voice blog going as I look forward to the anecdotal insight of its wisdom. Thank you for the wonderful insight and thought provoking words.

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