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A Well-Designed Shade Garden

garden tour: heather and daughter

Heather and her daughter enjoying the backyard gardens.

Heather and her husband Kevin bought their 19th century home in Vermont about ten years ago, and in that time have transformed the half-acre or so into truly picturesque perennial gardens - many of which solve bothersome landscape problems.

Everywhere you look on the property there is a garden with a different objective; whether it’s to reduce mowing and runoff on a slope by their mailbox, hide an unsightly oil cap by their house, or line the steep slope at the back of the property, each individual garden fits together perfectly to create a cozy, private oasis.

Heather let us take a garden tour of her property on an early morning in late July, which she says are the peak of her gardens.

garden tour: hydrangea, hosta

Hostas, Astilbe, Hydrangea, and other easy-to-grow shady perennials fill in the front gardens.

Re-Building A Shady Front Garden

As soon as you pull up to the front of the home, you’re greeted by a spectacular display of full, colorful perennial gardens. Heather says these gardens were original to the home, but have been through a few different iterations since they moved in. In the beginning they added a variety of shrubs to bring the garden up in height, including Juniper, Boxwood, and a Crabapple Tree. A few years later disaster hit and they lost their main plumbing line in the front of their home in the middle of the (Vermont) winter. “We had to rip out most of the front garden and you can’t do much with plants in January, so we made a pile to keep them warm in the vegetable garden,” says Heather. “We couldn’t plant until the following spring so we had no lawn and no garden. We essentially had to start over.”

garden tour: hydrangea clematis

This garden is one of the first things you see when you pull into Heather's driveaway: Geranium, Sedum, Astilbe, Clematis and Hydrangea.

They rebuilt the front garden using some of the plants that made it through the winter, a variety of purchased shrubs, and offshoots of divided perennials in other parts of their garden. Heather says that project took the entire summer and  involved hauling in a lot of soil and essentially rebuilding the garden from scratch.

Heather fills in the front gaps of her gardens with annual Begonias. These provide a season-long display of color and help reduce weeding.

garden tour: heather and daughter

Heather uses repetition throughout her gardens to make them cohesive: Hydrangea, Hostas, Begonias.

The results are stunning; several years later the shrubs and trees add just the right amount of height to the garden and perennials fill in underneath, leaving little room for weeds. The garden has a classic elegance about it and features a variety of easy-to-grow perennials that thrive in partial shade. This garden — like all of Heather’s property — doesn’t get full sun.

Front Garden Objective: To add interest, height, and color to the front of the home, as well as hide the foundation.

Front Garden Plant List:

garden tour: driveawy garden

The driveway garden is one of Sally's (the dog) favorite spots to run around in.

Planting Perennials to Reduce Mowing in the Driveway Garden

Heather says the garden by the driveway was one of the first projects they tackled when they moved into the home — out of necessity. “We started adding to this garden because we didn’t like to mow that area at all,” Heather explains. “It’s really hard to mow and it’s under a pine tree, so everything is hard to grow there and it’s on a slope, so all the water runs off.” They added a couple of retaining walls to the area to help hold the soil in and worked on connecting the existing Lilacs on one side of that bed to the existing creeping Phlox that elegantly hangs from a concrete retaining wall at the end.

garden tour: driveawy garden

Phlox, Sedum, Bearded Iris, Daylilies and more are planted in this sloped bed.

Several years later this garden is full, colorful, and one of Heather’s dog Sally’s favorite places to run around in. It’s a true testament to the easy-to-grow varieties in it; they seem to be holding up just fine

garden tour: driveawy garden

The garden by the mailbox connects to this garden at the end of the driveway: Creeping Phlox (that had passed blooming by the time I was there), and tomatoes in pots.

Driveway Garden Objective: To eliminate the need to mow a steep area on the side of the home, to add interest along the driveway and to reduce water runoff.

Driveway Garden Plant List:

Side garden

Heather lines the concrete steps of her side entryway with several tomato and herb plants.

Garden Tour: Side Garden With Raised Beds

Heather talks about how they haven’t been able to focus on the raised bed vegetable gardens this year, but as we turn the corner it’s obvious that when Heather says “they don’t look great,” it really means that they look better than most gardens I’ve seen. Tomatoes, beans, and some perennial herbs fill in the beds and she’s dotted the gardens with fun garden sculptures that her one-year-old daughter enjoys.

garden tour: side garden

Spiderwort, Daylilies, Hostas, Clematis in the side garden.

A perennial garden wraps along this side of the house, featuring more easy-to-grow perennials, and Heather has planted about a dozen pots with tomatoes and herbs that line the side entrance to their home. Everywhere you look on this side of the house there is something fun to discover.

garden tour: side garden

Side Garden Purpose: To grow vegetables in raised beds, add charm with pots lining the concrete staircase, and hide the foundation with easy-to-grow perennial plants.

Side Garden Plant List:

A Shady and Relaxing Backyard Garden Hides Eyesores

garden tour: back garden

The back garden calls to you from every part of the property.

As you walk around the front and side of Heather’s home, the colorful backyard gardens peek out and call to you. Although you would never guess, these are actually the newest gardens on the property. Heather says she started just two years ago with gardens along the house to hide the foundation and an oil cap. After that, things just took off.

“I just kept expanding,” says Heather. “I tested to see if Astilbe would do well, then Hostas, then Geranium and Lamium -- all the things that I figured would grow but you never know because we have clay soil.” Heather says they mixed in several yards of compost with their existing clay soil and things are growing just fine.

garden tour: back garden

This long, colorful shady garden bed is framed by an arbor on the right.

As she finished the gardens by the back of the house, Heather set her eyes on the steep bank at the back of their yard. The long garden along this steep bank is the showpiece of their landscape. Framed by an arbor (that her dad built) on one side and tall Hostas on the other, the garden spans the entire length of their backyard. Heather says this garden was a lot of work, but that she finished it all in one season. The garden design is simple and repetitious, which is what makes it such a calming feature in their shaded back yard.

garden tour: side garden

More repitition with Lamium, Hostas, and Hydrangea.

After several seasons the plants had mostly outgrown the area, so early this spring Heather expanded the garden by several feet in towards the house and pulled off the daunting task of moving all of the plants (!) forward several feet. “It only took me a weekend,” she says with a laugh.

garden tour: back garden

The garden spans the entire back of their property, lining a steep bank.

At the same time she built the back garden, she also added perennials to a garden in front of their red barn. This was the last new garden that Heather has built and essentially makes it so each building on the property is softened with landscaping. The bright red barn is the perfect backdrop for a variety of Hydrangea, Daisies, and Echinacea. A gorgeous Trumpet vine climbs up the structure and adds height and interest.

garden tour: back garden

Sally poses next to the red barn garden: Begonias, Lavender, Balloon Flower, Lilies, and Daisies.

Backyard Garden Objective: To hide the foundation and oil cap along the house, as well as provide a sense of intimacy and beauty in the backyard (which is where they spend a lot of time).

Side Garden Plant List:

Heather's Rules for a Well-Designed Shade Garden

Heather has been in the garden industry for over a decade, so it’s no surprise that her landscapes are as spectacular as they are. I asked her what her design rules are. She says a lot of the ease of designing the gardens at her home are that they all serve a purpose and abutt something (a structure, embankment, the house). She also had inspiration from a client’s garden she worked on several years ago. “A client’s garden in town was so cute, cozy and private, you wouldn’t even know there was a main road right next to it,” says Heather. “ I loved the texture and feel of the garden, and it looked really polished. I was her gardener and I didn’t have to weed it; so I loved that it was easy but looked really nice.”

garden tour: design

Heather chooses plants she knows will work in her shade garden: Hostas, Daylilies, Begonias, and Bee Balm.

Heather is quick to say that she wouldn’t necessarily call her gardens “easy,” which I think is pretty apparent after several hours of photographing without a weed in sight. But she does say they are easier than others. “I only like to garden in the shade so for me it’s  fun to work in the backyard. It gets about 4 hours of sun per day, so most of the day is shaded and easy to work. It’s just enough sun that we can pretty much grow most things,” she says.

Heather’s Design Process:

  • Choose easy-to-grow plants first. Heather likes to choose plants first and sticks with proven success stories like Daylilies, Hostas, Bee Balm, and more.
  • Decide the purpose of the garden. All of Heather’s garden serve a purpose (to line the back of a steep bank, cover an oil cap, hide the foundation, or even as simple as to look nice).
  • Plant. 
  • Divide, move, and replant. Nothing is ever permanent in Heather’s garden. She digs things up and move them every year.
garden tour: back garden

Heather and her family enjoy the gardens at their picnic table and floating adirondack chairs.

Why Does Heather Garden?

“It’s absolutely my passion and my hobby. People always ask me, “why do you have so many gardens? How do you keep up with them?” I garden because it’s easy for me and I don’t find it stressful. It’s my number one thing I do every week. My husband likes riding bikes, I like to spend hours hanging out in the garden. And I have pet hummingbirds so I love sitting out there and watching the hummingbirds. Gardening also feeds into my cut flower addiction.

Heather’s love of gardening is obvious as you walk around her property and her family enjoys the fruits of her labor often, sitting at the picnic table out back or on the floating adirondack chairs. “It’s just so private and cozy,” says Heather, “it’s a great place to sit out and have a cocktail at the end of the day.”

Browse Perennial Plants for Shade

  • Virginia Bluebells

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  • Patriot Hosta

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  • Maggie Daley Astilbe

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  • Visions Astilbe

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