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Notes from a Garden, June 2011

I always have mixed feelings at this time of year. Overhead, the trees are closing in, like shade cloth covering a greenhouse. In my garden that shade, as welcome as will be when it protects me and my garden from the hot Midwestern summer to come, means an end to the season of sunlight and bloom.

There may be wide open spaces a few miles away, but I garden in a distinctly urban spot — on the north side of a 4-story buildings with that row of trees overhead. This is shade city.

Only in springtime does the sunlight reach most of my garden. I plant to make the most of it: Bulbs everywhere — scilla, chionodoxa, grape hyacinths, wood hyacinths. Even in early spring, there’s enough sun for tulips and crocuses only at the western end, reached by the afternoon before the street trees leaf out. But everywhere I have daffodils.

My other springtime specialty is Midwestern native wildflowers. My shady garden is more like a woods than a prairie, and the plants I’ve collected are spring ephemerals, evolved to make the most of the spring sunlight beneath bare trees and then go dormant when the leaves close overhead. I’m quite vain of my trillium, jack-in-the-pulpit, bloodroot, spring beauty, hepatica, trout lilies, Virginia bluebells that open just in time to waltz among the daffodils.

By mid-May, those blooms are fading. In the sunniest part of my garden — part-sun at best — lilies are setting buds, but their tall stalks lean toward the sun from the west. The lid is almost on overhead. At ground level as well as on high, the time of leaves is upon me.

There are parts of my garden where it’s too shady for even begonias and impatiens to bloom. So I do what shade gardeners everywhere do: Depend on foliage for texture and subtle color. Half a dozen kinds of feathery ferns; grasslike sedges; wild ginger — both the shiny European kind and the velvety native; variegated Solomon’s seal; elephant ears in pots — and of course hostas.

I used to sneer at hostas. They’re so common. But the shade taught me manners, and humility. Now I am deeply grateful for hostas. As bloom fades, they unfurl, some shiny, some soft, white-streaked to blue-green, dainty to huge. These leaves light me up again and help me shift my mood to determination in the face of shade.