Gardens are a lot like our children, in that both quickly grow. That 7-pound baby now hovers over 6 feet tall. Or, the cute loropetalum has outgrown its space. The garden, which was planned in the sunlight, has become pretty shady. How did that happen?
Just as babies grow bigger, gardens get shadier with age. The once 2-foot shrub is now 8 feet tall and casting shadows we failed to anticipate. Camellias grow into substantial shrubs. Meanwhile, tree branches hog all the light.
We learned as children that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, but that is not strictly true. In the winter the sun rises in the southeast, setting in the southwest. The summer sun maintains a northeast to northwest path. It is only around March 21 and Sept. 21 that the sun actually rises in the east and sets in the west. Consequently, we have to know when a particular plant is programmed to bloom.
I have a wonderful climbing rose, Cl. Cécile Brünner, a species notable for blooming twice, though for me she blooms once during the season. For a long time I puzzled over her unwillingness to bloom again. She is such a healthy rose, who puts on an impressive April show. Then I looked up and saw that my neighbors had large trees looming in the southeast. When their leaves are off in January, February and March, Cécile receives plenty of energy from the sun, enough to allow her to bloom in April. The presence of these leaves in April, however, prevents direct sunlight from shining on her.
My backyard isn’t perfect. With its northern exposure, it rivals Antarctica in the winter and keeps a swimming pool cool in the summer. I have a volunteer redbud there that has never bloomed for me, and I suspect it never will. Redbuds bloom in March, so they need the sunlight in January and February for the energy to produce these flowers. At the same time, this area can support two crepe myrtles because they receive adequate sunlight in March, April, and May, allowing them to bloom at the end of June.
We should know those areas that are shady and those that are sunny, but these spaces have the disconcerting habit of changing throughout the year. Not only does the sun continually alter its path, leaves come out, turning sunny winter spaces into shady summer tracts. Similarly, it’s very difficult for us to know which areas in our garden get six, four, or two hours of sun. Typically, we’re not standing outside in one area with a stopwatch.
The best way to view your garden spaces is by photographing them. I am a dreadful photographer, so I cannot advise you to take award-winning pictures. What I’m advocating is to take pictures of what you see. If you can manage it, take a picture of one area at 9 a.m., noon, and 3 p.m., so you can detect how the sunlight is changing. You will probably be surprised. If you take this to heart, you’ll do this once a month. At the very least, do it on the solstices: approximately March 21, June 21, Sept. 21, and Dec. 21.
You’ll have to note when your plants bloom and plant them in appropriate places. For instance, daylilies bloom heavily in June-July, so they need lots of sun March-June in order to produce the desired flowers. Asters bloom in September, so their demand for sunlight begins in May. Here in the Piedmont, roses typically put out their first glorious flush in late April, so they need that energy beginning in February.
As the garden gets shadier, there will be areas that have to be reorganized. My perennial border sagged in the middle because of the growing shadow cast by the Japanese maple. This particular Japanese maple contributes a lovely maroon color to the garden in the spring and fall. I’m not going to get rid of it. Instead, I replaced the sun-loving perennials with shade tolerant plants like spigelia and polygonatum. I’ll fill in the holes from the two shrubs I moved with Brunner "Jack Frost," which will add silvery tones to the mixture.
Sometimes we can provide more light by taking down a tree limb with no detriment to the tree. And sometimes we have to make a choice. One rose might be more desirable than a young tree, for example. In my garden, sun-filled areas constitute prime real estate, so I must decide what will remain and what will go. One such plant that went was the rose, "Cl. Pinkie," a rose that went berserk in my garden, blooming so prolifically and messily that it reminded me of a blob of azaleas. Simply put, Pinkie was doing his thing in my garden, creating havoc and taking up lots of room. I didn’t even enjoy the flowers, so Pinkie had to go. In his place — yes, in my mind Pinkie was a turbulent male — I put the well-behaved climbing rose "Dublin Bay."
It’s okay to do that. After all, it is your garden.