A Shade Garden in Spokane

Garten Praxis – November 2004

Sherrie Guiles had thought about gardening at the house of her neighbor next door for eight years. The east-facing cottage was backed against a slope on the north side of a hill in her Spokane neighborhood. Built in 1917, the house belonged to a landscape architect who had constructed terraces from the local black basalt rock which rose in horizontal tiers behind the house. When she and her husband, Ron, finally had an opportunity, they bought the property, mainly for the chance to own the garden.

“My favorite area of this garden are the terraced beds in back,” Guiles says. ”They step up from the back of the house and are visible from our back windows. The house sits wonderfully down in a pocket at the bottom of the slope and the garden seems to wrap around it from behind.”

Today on those same terraces, Astilbes, hostas, peonies, Blue Oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens), yellow weeping grass ( Hakonechloa ‘Macra aurea’) Jupiter’s Beard (Centranthus ruber) and a host of other perennials create layered bands of color. A small open area in the middle terrace provides a quiet focal point featuring a simple bench surrounded by a circle of variegated boxwood (Virbunum carlessii) and a small ornamental dogwood ( Cornus alternatifolia ‘Varigata’.)

The first year she lived in the house, Guiles didn’t do any gardening at all. “I was intimidated by the fact that the garden had been designed and built by a landscape architect,” she confesses. “But after a while I realized that it didn’t represent me. What we all want is a garden that represents us,” she concludes. “And besides, things get old and die and you have to make some changes.” When a tall hedge of burning bush ( Euonymous elata) died, she felt free to take control of the garden and has never looked back.

Spokane has a vigorous gardening climate with the challenge of wildly varying temperatures. Winter lows can hit minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit, and summers may reach the 90’s. Rainfall is around fourteen inches, but as yet the city has few restrictions on water usage, so gardeners are free to take advantage of the growing popularity of gardening in the northwestern US and the large outpouring of new plants becoming available from many nurseries around the state.

Guiles’ garden has another feature that allows a wider range of growing conditions than many – the garden is overshadowed by a copse of tall Ponderosa pine trees whose produces many different types of shade. The garden is protected from the withering heat of the western sun by the crown of the high hill to the rear, and gets most of its light during the morning hours. “’Full sun’” for us means about six hours of direct light between 10 AM and 4 PM,“ Guiles reports. “‘Shade’” can mean a lot of different things too – deep shade with no direct sun, filtered light, half shade and hot shade.”

Guiles’ first major change to the old garden was the addition of 350 boxwood plants. outlining the paths and beds. These are pruned twice a year and have served as a unifying design element to tie the different sections of the garden together. She also ultimately reduced the lawn area to function as the strips of a soft green path way, which also provides a background that marries the garden’s different sections.

Guiles’ passion for perennials is as robust as that of any gardener, and with many different microclimates to work with, she can successfully grow a very large variety of plants in conditions ranging from deep shade to full sun, but she plants in a most things in shady situations.

Guiles has also worked at improving the soil. Her successful approach suggests that shade loving plants in general prefer a lighter soil that those growing in full sun. Her all-around shade plant soil recipe calls for two parts humus, one part builder’s sand, and one part loam. Soil must be well drained and friable (crumbly).

Spokane hosted the International Hosta Society Convention in 2002 and hostas are a mainstay on Guiles’ hillside. “I love Hostas and can grow just about any Hosta available,” Guiles claims. “Hostas are the great equalizer in the borders, blending together or highlighting the other plants. The gold and chartreuse types can be particularly effective. I grow ‘Golden Tiara’, ‘Gold Standard’, and H. ventricosa ‘Aureo-marginata’, to name a few.”

Other cultivars of Hosta in Guiles’ hillside collection range in size from the nearly hip-high Hosta sieboldiana to the more delicate varieties like H. ‘Sum and Substance’, or H.’Honeybells’. She also grows a wide variety of Geraniums such as G. ‘Rozanne’, G. ‘Summer Skies’, G. ‘Johnon’s Blue’, G. ibericum G. orientalicabidicum, G. macrorrhizum . The garden also features varities of Heuchera, Heucherella, Astilbe, Veronica, Campanula, Digitalis, Persicaria, Nepeta, Cerastium and more.

Guiles also likes to grow some annuals and biennials. “I prefer annuals or biennials that look like perennials,” Guiles confesses. “I have a lot of Verbascums like V. blattaria, V. chiaxii and V. bombyciferm ‘ Arctic Summer’. I also let Dame’s Rocket (Hesperus matronalis ) spread throughout the garden, as I love the color in late spring,” she states. “I like Cosmos and Cleome as well as traditional foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea.)”

Guiles has also succumbed to the lure of maples, as they grow with great abandon in the cool northern Washington climate. She has about thirty varieties including Red Japanese maple (Acer palmatum dissectum atropurpurea), A.palmatum “Boskoop”, Full Moon Maple (A. japonicum ) and vine maple (A. ginalla). She also harvests many seedlings that appear in the garden, planting the ones that are especially appealing to her and passing the others off to friends.

In 1997, a major ice storm destroyed many of the trees in the garden, causing a creative crisis. “We lost every ornamental tree we had,” Guiles laments. ”I could not even try to count them. It was all I could bear to just clean them up. ” Nowdays, the garden features many ornamental trees, replanted since the ice storm disaster – Persian Parrotia, Stewartia, Katsura Tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum ) and Malus ‘ Red Jade’ to name just a few.

The loss of a 75 foot Thuja hedge resulted in piles of fifteen foot long Cedar limbs. Guiles took the limbs and created her ‘rose basket’, an item that invariably provokes the most interest and the greatest number of questions whenever she talks to visitors about the garden. She wove the limbs into the form of a giant basket and then planted roses there to make a whimsical outsized ornament.

“The rose basket is filled with roses like Rosa ‘Baron Girod d’Lien’, R. ‘Madame Pierre Oger’ and R. ‘Reine des Violettes’, and the handle is covered with the double Clematis Viticella Purupurea Plena Elegans,” Guiles explains. “I love our rose basket, but I do admit the roses require more care because of the lack of air flow. However, when the roses are in bloom, all is forgiven. I wish I could say we followed a pattern, but we just made a big double oval of metal stakes, and wove the branches back she reports.

A sunny area which had filled with Juniper chinensis ‘ Old Gold’ provided a backdrop for a bench surrounded with a thicket of sun-loving Shasta daisies, dayliles, Salvia nemerosa, Astilbe, Veronica, Balloon Flower (Platycodon) and other sun lovers.

Guiles has turned problems into pleasures when dealing with the typical nuisance of reseeding plants. Jupiter’s Beard ( Centranthus ruber), Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla mollis) and blue Veronica are some of the culprits.

“I just edit them or pot them up and give them to friends,” Guiles cheerfully confesses. “I hate to throw plants away. A blue Veronica seeded itself throughout and blooms right when the Astilbes do, and it’s wonderful. I don’t think I would have thought of this, but I’m happy to take the credit,” she laughs.

“I’ve learned many lessons in this garden” Guiles reflects. “Your garden should look good coming and going, so it pays to pretend you are a visitor and walk around and really ‘see’ your garden,” Guiles advises. “It also takes guts to make changes.” she observes. “I like to sketch and plan in winter, then take one step at a time when starting a project”.

Guiles also has some opinions about color. “I think red is a really difficult color to include in many planting schemes,” Guiles observes. “It catches your eye and holds it, diminishing the value for the adjacent flowers Blue is a universal fixer for me. It seems to work with all colors. White is a great filler and also works well to transition from one color to another.”

“In my view, texture and contrast of shapes is much more important than flowers. Trees, hedges, and hardscape are like a black dress and the infill is the jewelry. It’s best to do the structure first and the infill later, but it is not impossible to do it in reverse order,” she concludes..

Any visitor to Guiles’ garden in peak season will be compelled to agree that this little black dress is accessorized and ready for a big night on the town.

Charles Mann