There is no urban retreat more appealing in the summer heat than a cool and private outside space. Town gardens that are both small and shady are often considered the ultimate green-fingered challenge but you would be amazed at just how attractive you can make them. I certainly was when I lived in Dulwich, south-east London.
The “problems” vary. Is your garden shady all day or does it get shafts of sunlight at certain times? Or perhaps it is only shady in the winter? Maybe it is in the lee of the house, or is the shade made by a tree that cannot or should not be removed? Whatever the conditions, there is always a solution. All you need is confidence and the most rudimentary knowledge of what will survive.
Here are 10 pointers that worked in my L-shaped, 37ft by 15ft town garden.
The low light-levels in shady gardens make things appear smaller. Boldness in everything from layout to planting and ornament redresses the balance. So, make borders deep, paved areas generous, and containers as big as space will allow – planted boldly with one or, at most, two varieties. In the ground, vary things a little, with one weird or wonderful plant occasionally taking the spotlight. Shady gardens, especially, need character as well as beauty.
If you have brick walls, power-jet or paint them (see no 4). Otherwise, consider covering fences with panels of split bamboo, woven reeds or the endlessly versatile trellis. Stylishly modern or grandly traditional, easy to install and inexpensive, trellis is the answer to an urban gardener’s prayer. I like to use the plain squared variety as exterior wallpaper, floor to ceiling, to disguise ugly walls and fences, and transform sunless places that the rain never reaches.
As a real boundary or a disguise, trellis gives a feeling of space beyond. Grey and cream marbled ivy, interspersed with different types of clematis (nearly all are shade-tolerant), soon creates a beautiful evergreen barrier. Top the supporting posts with ornamental balls, acorns or turned wooden pineapples.
3 Tree control
Never get rid of a tree unless absolutely necessary; once gone, all that beauty and maturity will take another 100 years to replace.
Under a deciduous tree, you can grow the choicest bulbs that thrive on spring sunshine and summer shade. Dry shade from a beech tree – the one really dense, deciduous tree – or an evergreen is more restrictive but there are still solutions. You could grow different varieties of wild cyclamen all year round or carpet the ground with variegated ivy. In the worst case, gravel the area and bring different pots to it to liven things up.
It is amazing how you can improve light levels by carefully pruning trees and shrubs that have grown too large or tangled into a more elegant, open shape. The great garden designer Russell Page called this “carving with air”.
I once turned a collapsed white willow into a huge bonsai tree by thinning out the branches. The tree did not seem to mind and underneath I created a raised bed, full of good soil, where smaller plants did not have to compete with the tree’s roots. If you do this, be sure not to bury the trunk.
4 Paint colour
Unless you live by the sea, white-washed walls look cold and gloomy – they seem to green up more quickly too. Instead, I find that Fowler Pink, a shell-pink/pale terracotta paint, manufactured by Farrow & Ball, brings the warmth and light of the Mediterranean to the gloomiest outlook.
In the man-made environment of a roof or courtyard, rich warm colours, like bright red, raspberry pink and Chinese yellow, can glow like embers on bonfire night if used boldly.
5 Sparkle and glamour
White flowers and silver foliage bring a unique sparkle and glamour to a garden. Many such plants will thrive with little or no sun, as do variegated varieties – too much sun on their delicate leaves can burn, bleach or fade them.
Urban gardens, even shady ones, are always a few degrees warmer than their country cousins, so take advantage of this protected micro-climate. Quite a few exotic-looking, architectural plants will be perfectly happy in the shade: cordylines (Torbay Palms), Trachycarpus (Chusan Palm), and Fatsia japonica (castor-oil fig), to name but three.
More glamorous still are those with grey and silver leaves: stunning Melianthus major (cut it to the ground each Easter ), Astelia nervosa (soft, sword-like leaves, two or three-feet long), Santolina pinnata subsp. neapolitana (clip into huge globes each spring for a change in texture and shape).
All silvers need sharp drainage, so mix in a couple of generous spadefuls of grit or gravel with the soil at planting time.
The legendary American fashion editor Diana Vreeland suggested decorating a room in nothing but different shades of green. Try this in your garden by mixing different leaf textures and shapes with some opulent white flowers – perhaps hydrangeas or tobacco flowers – and chic touches of black, silver and lime.
Viola ‘Molly Sanderson’ has jet-black flowers, as does V. ‘Bowles’ Black’ which seeds freely but never becomes a nuisance. Giant mop-heads of bay look wonderful in squares of easy-going black ophiopogon, underplanted with baby pink and white cyclamen, set in old flag-stones. And glamorous hostas are never so happy as when they are grown in a shady place.
In my view, all houses should be softened with climbing plants, but avoid sun-lovers which strive upwards towards the light, leaving their feet bare. Instead, concentrate on varieties that are happy in shade, such as Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris, Akebia quinata, clematis and camellias.
Always go for the largest containers possible. They will need watering less often, besides looking good. Square, wooden, Versailles tubs with mirrored panels bring another dimension to a small area – the reflections make a strongly patterned floor appear to go on forever.
Not only do plants grow well in naturally porous terracotta, but this takes the patina of age well and adds warmth. Terracotta is also a particularly effective foil for architectural box-wood shapes – globes, squares, pyramids and mop-heads – and for yew, which is best trained as a cone or pyramid. Bay, box, holly and yew will all be happy in shade, as long as they are not underneath dripping branches.
9 Ornament and vistas
The smaller the space, the more important it is to place things well.
In a shady garden, try to site benches, ornamental urns or wall-fountains in the light, so that they can be seen through the gloom. Think about the different views, not just from your window to the end of the garden, but also across the space and looking back at the house.
Apart from weekends, you probably use your garden most at night – to relax after a busy day or to entertain friends.
Do not be afraid of lighting your outside space. Uplighting is as effective in the garden as it is inside, so keep everything low down, and many small sources of light are much more atmospheric than a few large ones. Consider flares, strings of fairy-lights and thick candles in hurricane jars. And white flowers and heady scents should be added for maximum evening romance.