Gardening 102: How I Made My Garden Grow In Impossible Conditions

Gardening is hard work. It wreaks havoc on backs, knees, manicures and muscles you never knew you had. But the results (your own little paradise!) are well worth the effort and expense. That’s why I slaved away on my yard, a nice piece of land but gets little sun, for years. I spent thousands on hardy perennials. Yet everything died—until landscape architect Doug Hoerr came up with a brilliant way to make my garden grow.

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My garden as it looks today from my back door, with my garage at the far end. Image courtesy of Jayson DeGeeter.

Annuals. That was the magic word that turned my garden around. Specifically, tropical annuals. Doug explained to me that my yard’s combination of almost total shade and nutrient-poor soil created killer conditions, literally. The lush, vibrant garden I craved was an impossible goal. But a gorgeous shade garden wasn’t out of the question, according to Doug—with the right plants, an innovative plan and ingenuity.

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A view from of the garden from the opposite end; most of the shade comes from a serviceberry, a Washington hawthorn and a Japanese tree lilac. Image courtesy of Jayson DeGeeter.

The right plants for my shady little patch of land were tropical ferns. This huge class of plants is filled with endless options. Think soaring, sprawling, arching, rippled, frothy, lacy, robust, sculptural and more, in so many interesting shades of green that I have new respect for this hue. Best of all, they’re hardy (as long as the weather is warm, which is not a problem in Chicago during the summer), accessible in the summer (every garden center carries them) and inexpensive (music to my ears). The Home Depot right near my home carries an astonishing and downright inspiring range of options.

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A glorious assortment of tropical ferns have turned my yard into my personal paradise. Here an Australian tree fern stands above container plantings of foxtail and bird’s nest ferns and rex begonias. Image courtesy of Jayson DeGeeter.

My innovative plan came from landscape designer Jayson DeGeeter, a member of Doug’s team at the time but now on his own. Ingenuity is Jayson’s middle name. Corny but true. He’s full of solutions, and for the past four years my once-barren yard has become a lush, leafy, verdant paradise where I spend most of my time in the summer when I’m at home. It’s the first place my family and friends head when they come over because it’s soothing, refreshing and enchanting thanks to Jayson’s skill and resourcefulness. Here’s what he does each year:

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An efficient layout leaves room for relaxing, eating alfresco and entertaining—even large parties if necessary. Image courtesy of Jayson DeGeeter.

Create an efficient layout: Lounging in the sun or under the stars, and eating alfresco, are life’s two greatest pleasures. The layout is permanent, and Jayson designed it to accommodate both these activities, with a chaise right near my back door and a dining table in the center of the yard. And he left plenty of room if I want to set up more tables for a party.

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The dining table is framed by blue Browallia (aka bush violets) and Kimberly Queen ferns. Image courtesy of Jayson DeGeeter.

Establish a foundation: The only foliage in the space when we started were three trees (a Washington hawthorne, a Japanese tree lilac and a serviceberry), evergreen shrub along my house and Boston ivy on my garden walls. Now we added fern beds surrounding the limestone pavers, and Browallia, a nightshade with pretty purple flowers, underneath the trees.

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Layers of potted tropicals, impatience and philodendrons add color, texture and depth to the yard. Image courtesy of Jayson DeGeeter.

Add layers for texture and intrigue: To add more texture, color and depth, Jayson brings in potted tropicals that are bolder and more vibrant (think white impatience and philodendrons). We also bring in five Australian tree ferns that average five feet high and intersperse them against the walls.

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For glamorous extras, we mounted Staghorn ferns (a true splurge) on the back wall of my yard, and all sorts of hurricanes and lanterns. Image courtesy of Jayson DeGeeter.

Bring on some luxurious extras: Just as a room needs a special piece to up its glamor quotient, so does a garden. For me, its a staghorn ferns; I’ve collected (almost two dozen…three dozen over the last four years). Like their name implies, they look like stag horns, and I have them mounted in trophy-worthy frames and installed on the back wall of my garden (which is my garage). The are truly trophies given their beauty, drama and expense, so this is the one element from my garden that I store at a nursery over the winter. I also have an incredible collection of lanterns that I store (where) every year.

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Make it maintenance-free: My big sticking point is watering. Ferns need to have moist soil, and keeping them adequately most that first year took so much time we added a drip irrigation system. It was worth every penny, and is permanent.

26 Jul 2018

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