Creating and Enjoying Shade Gardens – Notes From the Old Ottawa South Garden Club

At the recent meeting of the Old Ottawa Garden club the presenter, Dave Dunn, spoke about “Shining a Light on Shade”. Dave has extensive experience as a creator of, and partner in, Rideau Woodland Ramble Inc., a garden centre and display gardens situated on seven acres of woodland near Merrickville. In 2015, the Ramble received the “Canadian Garden Centre Destination of the Year” award. Almost all the gardens at Rideau Woodland Ramble have some context of shade and woodland. Dave’s partner, Robert Caron, helped out by answering some gardening questions.
Shade does offer challenges: it can range from deep shade to light, and from dry to wet. Dave noted plants respond to and moisture and what to plant is driven by an awareness of those growing conditions. In fact Dave kept plants about one metre away from the house; it has a roof overhang preventing rain and light from reaching plants closer to the building.
Dave, gardener and artist, took the group on a shady walk through the ramble via a multitude of photos while he pointed out particular plants and features. In much of the forested area there is dense shade. There are many rare and unusual plants in the seven acres with trails leading to the different gardens. In natural shade colour and light are key. (great for damp shade) and hydrangeas (grow in both sun and shade) planted along the deeply-shaded side of a pathway through the woods added an accent of colour—with the hydrangeas repeated for artistic effect on the other, sunnier side of the path. Dave said the challenges of growing plants were always more extreme in the shade. To add interest he likes to include plants in pots and works of art. In an area of deep shade Dave pointed out two huge pots—with ferns, lamium, and the splash of colour from bright red . As one proceeds along the trails one can spy numerous sculptures. There was “Ted”, a giant red-and-yellow metallic rooster; in the morning one can hear a chorus of sound from roosters living on a nearby farm. A seven-foot high sculpture of a solitary grizzly catches the eye as it stands tall and straight. Dave pointed out how plants with golden, white, or variegated leaves added a spot of light against the darkness of the leaves of conifers and other evergreens. A patch of Rudbeckia, growing as far as they were adapted, added a splash of golden yellow under dark green conifers. Dave pointed out that Norway with red tips were a good choice of conifer for partial shade. In an area where plants did not thrive, Dave had a Zen garden, simply an expanse of —where a few shimmering blue balls added colour and interest. While grasses such as Miscanthus get lanky and may tend to flop in shade, they still add a subtle contrast of texture. Dave noted that helsinki varieties of rhododendrons were hardy as compared to English varieties and showed up nicely under trees. Hellebores don’t like being under large evergreens—the soil is too acidic—but also did well under maples. Dave pointed out the interest of the enormous compound leaves on a devil’s walking stick; the gigantic leaves attach to the stalk and, when they fall, what is left resembles a stick. Wildflowers are almost always good in shade; Dave thought of yellow lady’s slippers and red trilliums. Dave considered turtle heads great plants for areas with dry shade as they offered later blooms. Of course hostas are remarkable for doing well in shady areas and there are thousands of varieties—blue forms maintaining their colour in deep shade as they will green up in the sun. Dave noted ‘New Gold’ hemlock emerges yellow in the , and then changes to green. For fragrance one can include plants such as viburnum. Korean maples offer a similar feature of red leaves to add a pop of colour in the fall—while being hardier than the more familiar Japanese maples. A fall image showed and red fallen leaves covering a trail adding a sparkle of colour. The vistas Dave showed were lush and green—giving all something to dream about given the outdoor scenes these days. For Dave designing a garden could be considered like painting, with the plants the palette and the ground and sky the canvass.
The Rideau Woodland Ramble gardens are open to the public. Woven into this setting is a garden centre that showcases and sells the plants evident in the garden collections. Both Dave and Robert have a deep knowledge of their plants. The Ramble can be reached at 613-258-3797, or
The next meeting of the Old Ottawa South Garden Club will be on Monday 10 at 7:00 p.m. at the Old Ottawa South Community Centre (The Firehall), 260 Sunnyside Avenue when Rebecca Last will tell us how gardening for wildlife can be both a challenge and a joy—requiring different approaches (and even mindset) from those of regular gardening. Rebecca Last will take us through certification of, and strategies for managing native plants in, a wildlife garden.

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