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Time: The Fourth Dimension of Gardening

hurley back yard 1984

Gardens are a unique creation of the gardener, and as the whims and circumstances of the gardener change over time, so does the garden.  When we moved to Maryland in 1984, we bought a suburban house that was built on a quarter-acre lot in the 1950’s.  The lot was heavily wooded, and in the back there were tall trees, a patch of bamboo, and the rest was bare soil.  The previous owners had tried to grow grass under the trees with no success.  Water from a number of yards drains down to our yard, which has a low spot.

Enter the Hurleys.  Working with perennials every day at Behnke’s, I was eager to try new things and convert the bare back yard (and much of the front) into gardens.  I’m more of a plant guy than a designer, so I use the “plant it where there’s a spot, and hope for the best” approach, which results in a hodgepodge.


Early on, I dug out the low area, raised the edge, and put in a garden pond.  I was fond of hostas and bought every variety that we carried.  (This was easy in the 1980’s, because they were still propagated by division instead of tissue culture. TC allowed the number of hostas on the wholesale market to explode to the thousands we see now.)  I planted a lot of ferns and tried everything else that was labelled as “shade plant.”  I got a few hellebore seedlings from Mr. Behnke’s gardens at Burtonsville.  With this and that, many years passed. The deer started visiting and they are very fond of hostas, and I learned the importance of gardening with deer-resistant plants.  We learned about the problems caused by invasive species and learned to plant native plants where possible.  So the invasive bamboo came out, to be replaced with native winterberry and spicebush.

With changes in the neighbor’s yards over the years, we seem to get more runoff into our yard than we used to, and some of the exits from the yard were blocked as other neighbors carried out their own garden projects.  Now in heavy rains, the runoff routinely overflows the edge of the pond and it has a layer of mud in the bottom.  We’ve also removed some trees over the years, and this winter our largest tree in the front, an oak that is probably 150 years old, will have to come down.  It’s a victim of root loss from excavations to replace a sewer line on one side, and continually soggy soil from the heavy rains of last year on the other.

larry hurley backtard now

So, several things are in the works.  After the big tree comes down, I will have a sunny area in my yard for the first time ever, so new plants to try.  I am taking out the pond and replacing it with a rain garden with an overflow pipe to the street if necessary.  This project will be done by a landscape company as it’s more than I want to do myself, so this will be my first experience working with a landscape designer. We are meeting for the first time this afternoon. More on that as the project moves forward.

What I have learned about shade gardens here in Maryland:

  • I have bright shade. The trees are tall with no lower limbs. Remember that shade plants need bright light and do best with a few hours of sun in the morning.  Most plants are “shade-tolerant” rather than “shade-loving.”  If the sign/label says “part-shade” it means they should have at least four hours of (preferably cooler morning) sun.  Talk to the salesperson in the perennial department of your local independent garden center.  They will know which plants are the most shade-tolerant.  Daylilies, for example, will live with just a couple of hours of sun and give you some flowers, but the more sun you give them, right up to sun all day, the more flowers you will get.


  • Ten perennials that have consistently done well for me and require little attention are:
    • Problems include deer, slugs, and a fungal disease called “Southern Blight”, but they come back year after year.
    • Some of my clumps are over 30 years old, including those originals from Mr. Behnke’s gardens.  And they seed out gently.
    • Ferns: Christmas fern, autumn fern, wood ferns, lady fern, sensitive fern, Japanese painted fern, royal fern, ghost fern, and cinnamon fern. Get them in the right spot and they come back year after year.  Ostrich ferns do well but they get pretty ratty by late summer as I can’t keep them wet enough.  I haven’t had much luck with the fancier cultivars of Japanese painted fern.
    • Japanese Forest Grass, Hakonechloa: expensive to start but they spread nicely over time.
    • River Oats (Chasmanthium). The only tall shade-tolerant grass.  It will seed out everywhere if you don’t remove the seedheads before the seed drops.
    • Sedges (Carex). For me, ‘Ice Dance’ and ‘Bunny Blue’ have worked out very well.
    • Wild ginger (Asarum canadensis) is a good native, non-evergreen ground cover.
    • Astilbe: morning sun and moist soil, ‘Deutschland’, a white variety, has been the most persistent.
    • Epimedium: tolerates dry shade and is nearly indestructible.

Larry Hurley, perennials specialist for Behnke Nurseries (now retired), started with Behnke’s in1984. Larry enjoys travel, food and photography. He and his wife Carolyn have visited Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Brazil, South Korea and much of Europe. Their home is on a shady lot where a lot of perennials have met their Maker over the years.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. I am a Master Gardener of PG county and enjoy talking about and learning more about plants,experiments in landscaping etc.

  2. Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too? To nurture a garden is to feed not just on the body, but the soul. I truly love this post! Thanks for amazing ideas.
    Do you have newsletter by email?

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