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An interview with Jenny Rose Carey of Glorious Shade

by Timber Press on May 4, 2017

in Design, Gardening

Split-leaf Acer palmatum illuminated by the low light of the autumn sun. All included photos by the author.

“That is what I encourage gardeners to do—make a garden where you create spaces to live in the garden and enjoy times with family and friends.”

Glorious Shade encourages people to understand that in an ever-changing garden, shade is a reality that deserves to be optimized rather than avoided. You write, “rather than stress over your shady spaces, it is time to celebrate them and revel in the benefits that a glorious shade garden will bring to your life.” This is pretty revolutionary! Why have gardeners been resistant to shade gardening in the past, and what kinds of benefits can shade and shade gardens provide us?

I have always loved shady places in gardens and in nature. They are sheltered, cooler in summer, and often offer a secluded retreat. When I was growing up, we had one tree in our garden, a silver birch. We watched the birch grow over the years. It was the focal point of the garden, the place to sit beneath and play games around.

Tree canopies, especially those composed of deciduous trees, provide the ceiling to your outdoor room, and often the walls too. Unlike an indoor room, the leafy ceiling changes with the seasons as leaves emerge, expand, change color, and then fall. The winter tracery of branches is no less beautiful. I love this cyclical nature of a shade garden, as there is always something new to see and enjoy.

As a gardener who relishes these conditions, it is an obvious place to want to hang out and plant lovely understory plants to beautify the space. By observing shady places in nature, you can find out which plants grow best in the understory of trees or at the base of hedges. These are the plants that form the basis for your shady garden.

Shade gardening used to be the realm of the sophisticated gardener who would grow unusual plants from seed or obtain exotic plants from plant exchanges in their garden club or plant society. Even a couple of decades ago, we did not have nearly such a variety of plants available for us to use in shade gardens. One of the reasons that shade gardening is so much more possible and exciting now is that nurseries are offering different fun plants. Gardeners have expanded the plant palette by finding, selecting, and breeding cultivars and hybrids so we have a wider range of plants for our shade gardens. Now we are spoiled for choice!

While some resistance to shade gardening came from that lack of availability, so much hesitation has also come from not knowing how to plant for success in the shade. In a sunny garden, there are fewer variables to contend with. Many annual plants and some vegetables grow well in sun, so it is easy for a beginning gardener to see quick progress in one growing season. A garden around a tree varies in shadiness and in what you find below ground when you start to dig. Planting for success takes thought, observation, and the willingness to pay attention to details. A shade garden is also more likely to be a long-term garden. You may not yet have a tree, so you may have to plant one first to create a shady framework. Then you plant beneath it. This type of gardening means contending with more challenges, but is so rewarding for a gardener. It can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. It is just a different type of gardening.

You include a list of suggested trees and shrubs for designing shade gardens. What are some of your favorite trees in your home garden? How have they changed the landscape and ecosystem since they were saplings?

I have a fondness for small-to-medium flowering trees in the landscape, because even one tree makes a large impact when in bloom. These small-scale trees are suitable for any size of garden. The color of your tree’s flowers suggests what should be planted under and beside it to make a perfect shady picture. My two favorites are the redbud and the dogwood, specifically those that are native to the eastern United States.

In spring, the redbud has pinky-purple, pea-like blooms that come right out of the branch in a crazy-looking way. I remember the first time I really noticed this flower—I was truly amazed. It looked so weird! Right then I had to find out more about it. Its Latin name is Cercis canadensis, or Eastern redbud. After the blooms come beautiful heart-shaped leaves. It is an understory tree if you have other tall trees, but it is happy being the shade-maker itself.

The second small-to-medium tree I love is Cornus florida, the Eastern dogwood. This tree has four-parted spring blooms of white or pink. They look like flowers but are actually structures called bracts, and the true flower is hidden in the middle. The Eastern dogwood in bloom, especially the white one, is a vision. The show of white stands out against the emerging leaves of nearby trees. It has a graceful overall shape in the landscape. Another benefit of this tree is that in the autumn it has good fall color and shiny orange-red fruits that birds enjoy, especially migrating birds that need food for their journey.

As to how my garden has changed over time—I continue to plant more trees. I can’t help myself. Consequently, I now have more shade than before and more trees to plant beneath, so I am a happy shade gardener. My garden is now much more interesting. The trees and shrubs I have planted have divided the garden up into distinct garden areas, each with a unique feel. The same can be done in any small garden, just on a smaller scale. A small tree or large shrub can be planted in even a tiny garden, and it will enhance the space.

I also like to plant small trees or saplings to watch them grow, and I’ve found they are easier to establish. Some of my best trees arrived in a four-inch pot. I have a Katsura tree, Cercidiphyllum japonicum, that was a member benefit from a local arboretum and is now a large and graceful tree. Each fall as the leaves turn, this tree brings the added benefit of smelling rather like caramel or cooked sugar.

The other lovely thing about having more trees is that I have a lot more birds in the garden now. They perch on the branches, eat the fruit, nest in the branches, and bring the garden to life with their antics. I have loved watching this transformation happen over time.

An elegant pergola at Badminton Estate in Gloucestershire, England.

Your book is packed with practical information like how to attract wildlife and design family-friendly spaces, plus gorgeous inspiration like water, moss, tropical, and Mediterranean-themed gardens. Every shade gardener will appreciate this book as the new manual of style. What would you say to someone who is still unconvinced of the importance and rich potential of shade gardening?

I really want my readers to see how varied shade gardens can be and to get ideas to make their gardens their own. People want different things from their gardens according to who uses the garden, where they garden, and which plants they like. I am trying to encourage more thought about what our own gardens look like and how they function. Gardens are so multi-faceted, with so many choices to make about what they look like and how they function. By looking at what other people have done with their spaces, I hope to give gardeners a chance to bring their own creativity out in their spaces. The best and most satisfying gardens are the ones that really resonate with you and are very personal. So don’t be afraid to experiment and to put your own choices into your shade garden!

You are the senior director at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Meadowbrook Farm. Tell us about the rich community programming offered by PHS, and some of the exciting features of the garden that make it such a popular destination for visitors and locals alike.

The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society was founded in 1827 in Philadelphia. Since that time, gardeners have been getting together to show and tell about horticulture. PHS has been putting on flower shows since 1829, and we now put on the Philadelphia Flower Show every spring—which is the largest indoor flower show in the country. The profits from the show go back into community greening programs, tree planting, public landscapes, and other civic beautification projects for which PHS is well known. PHS and its members are actively involved in promoting horticulture both on a personal gardening level and also in helping people and communities connect through horticulture.

The site I am director of is Meadowbrook Farm in Jenkintown, just north of Philadelphia. J. Liddon Pennock, who had a long association with the Flower Show and PHS gave Meadowbrook Farm to PHS in 2004. At that site, we have greenhouses and hoop houses where we force the plants for the Flower Show and grow a wide range of other plants during the rest of the year.

Surrounding the 1936 stone house are the Pennock’s formal gardens, which were developed during the twentieth century as a space for them to entertain and educate their visitors about horticulture and design. We continue to use the garden areas for educational programming and as a place to enjoy a beautiful outdoor space. Some of the photos in Glorious Shade were taken at Meadowbrook Farm, as the old trees produce a variety of lovely shady spaces. Of particular interest are two wonderful paperbark maples (Acer griseum) with tawny, exfoliating bark pictured in the winter section of the book’s seasonal chapter.

Mr. Pennock loved to make topiaries and to espalier trees against the stone walls. There is an old southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) espaliered against the house that shows visitors that even in a small garden it is possible to keep small-scale trees by judicious pruning.

As an avid, hands-on gardener with experience in both England and the United States, what major differences have you noticed in landscape trends between the UK and the US?

Even though I have gardened in America for thirty years, I go to England regularly and visit gardens, so I do feel that I keep up with gardening on both sides of the Atlantic. It is interesting that the two countries have such a strong gardening connection and continue to take ideas from each other’s gardening traditions. Much of this current wave of interest in shade gardening came from the UK, where there has been and continues to be a large diversity of plants that are readily available for purchase. I am envious of the number of different snowdrop (Galanthus) cultivars that one can buy in the UK compared to the US, for example. We are lucky now with online shopping that we can find many more plants here in the US than we used to be able to. That fact alone now allows us to grow a wide variety of plants in our gardens.

English gardens, apart from the grand estates, tend to be smaller than American gardens, but they are more plant-packed. I hope that that trend comes to America. In America, there has been a tendency to space plants out and then surround them with heavy wood-based mulch. This practice does not help the plants or the gardener. In Glorious Shade, I show lots of garden areas that are so packed with plants that the plants support each other and intermingle with a natural, flowing look. I encourage people to allow self-sowing plants, which is another hallmark of a traditional English cottage garden. Think of a small space under an apple tree that is jam-packed with a diverse group of plants—that is my ideal. There is very little soil showing. and if it does, something is planted there.

Small English gardens use hedges or fences to enclose and divide up the garden into different spaces. I think that some American gardens could benefit from hedges or fences. It provides more privacy as well as a shady side of the structure for planting.

On both sides of the Atlantic I see a trend in wildlife gardening. I think that if anything, American gardeners have been talking about this for longer. Due to increased building and continued use of intensive farming methods, wildlife habitat for nesting and foraging has been vastly reduced. This is where gardeners can play an important part by planting trees and shrubs for cover, places to nest, and sources of fruit, nuts, and insects. We are realizing that the network of gardens is a corridor of little havens for wildlife. Especially if we garden organically with wildlife in mind, our gardens can become sanctuaries for birds and other small animals.

I think Beth Chatto has been leading the way with shade gardening for years. Her garden in Essex and her gardening books have been an inspiration to so many gardeners. She was one of the first to insist that gardeners pay attention to planting the right plant in the right place. In America, Ken Druse has been a big advocate for shade gardening, as has Rick Darke. Rick has also put shade gardening into its historical context, based on the “wild gardening” ideas of William Robinson, an Irish gardener who gardened in the south of England and who wrote extensively about the use of hardy plants in our gardens.

Lily-of-the-valley has green leaves that shelter white, bell-shaped spring-blooming flowers. The iconic fragrance can be best enjoyed when planted near a walkway, or when picked and put in a vase.

You’ve done research into the history of women in horticulture, especially the pioneering women at Temple University, where you previously worked for over a decade, first as an adjunct professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Horticulture and then as director of the Ambler Arboretum. Can you tell us some of the insights about early women in the field, and how you may take inspiration from their stories?

I am the oldest of four girls, and we all have girls ourselves—ten of them between us. I think because of that, I have always been interested in what girls and women did and continue to do in the world. Being at Temple University Ambler, which is a women’s history site, with a state historic marker, led me into study the impact of women in the fields of horticulture and landscape design.

In 1911, Jane Bowne Haines and a group of her friends founded the School of Horticulture for Women, which later became Temple University Ambler. In the next few years, other women’s organizations such as the Garden Club of America and the Woman’s National Farm and Garden Association were also founded in Philadelphia. There was a movement for self-education, but also for civic improvement that was an echo of the Progressive movement prevalent in America at the time. These women have been and continue to be my role models. They started movements that had not been thought of before, and they used the power of association to bring about change in their lives and in those of their communities.

Some of the first popular gardening books were written in America at this time, which encouraged women to get gardening. Helena Rutherfurd Ely’s book A Woman’s Hardy Garden was one of the first, and then came books by Mrs. Francis King, whose The Well-Considered Garden inspired a whole generation to plant perennials and bulbs where before there were many swaths of colorful but temporary annuals. I still read these books and use quotes from them in lectures like “Ladies in the Landscape.” Mary Anne Fry (a fellow Temple alumna) and I also co-authored a book called A Century of Cultivation to tell the story of some of these ladies and especially the School of Horticulture for Women.

Your gardens have been featured on the PBS series The Victory Garden, in the Wall Street Journal, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Green Scene magazine, and the Pennsylvania Gardener. What has been the greatest honor in your work?

I love having people coming to visit the garden and have had guests from all over the world. We had a lovely group of gardeners from Australia here last year who were very appreciative. I have quite a few students who come through the garden who are eager to learn and full of questions. I like that a lot.

However, the compliments that mean the most to me come from my own family, especially my girls. They grew up in the garden and now as they are older, they appreciate the experiences they shared here. Some of their favorite experiences were quiet reading in the hammock or in the Japanese maple. But there were many different activities involving a lot of running around, climbing up the treehouse, soccer, and baseball, along with teddy bear tea parties. That is what I encourage gardeners to do—make a garden where you create spaces to live in the garden and enjoy times with family and friends.

A shelf fungus is actively breaking down this log, but the only visible sign is its layered fruiting body.

How have your gardening strategies changed over time?

When you first start gardening, you have to learn what plants you like but also what plants will grow well in your garden. Early in my gardening career I tended to buy only one of a plant. One of my gardening mentors visited the garden and asked me if I deliberately had a garden with only one of every plant. Now, I try to buy at least three of each plant or I buy a large plant and divide it so that it has more presence in the garden. But it was a good way to begin to learn which plants would grow here.

Another strategy I pay attention to more now is planting with the right techniques and in the right place—thinking where in the garden each plant should go and looking at the amount of shade and the soil requirements especially. I wander around the garden with the plants in a wheelbarrow until I find the perfect spot. Then I’m careful to give the plant the best chance of success with good planting techniques and soil preparation. We joke about the “million-dollar hole,” meaning you make the soil just right for the type of plant you are planting. But it is the only time that you will be down there with the roots to give them exactly what they need. I have realized that doing this right the first time means that you are less likely to have to dig it up and do it again or move the plant.

The other strategy I have changed during my gardening career is gardening with mulch. I gardened in England to start off with, and we did not use mulch. We added compost to the soil as an amendment, but I did not use mulch in my garden. When I moved to America in the 1980s, I saw people using mulch on top of their garden beds and I learned about it. Since then, mulching has become a real rite of spring for many gardeners, especially with ground wood mulch.  Too often mulching becomes a big, expensive job. I suppose that it freshens up the garden beds and adds organic matter to the soil, but there is so much of it, and some of it is an unnatural looking reddish-orange color. I have been through phases of mulching. I do use mulch, but in some garden areas I add river gravel instead of ground wood. In the shady areas, it tends to be leaf mold. Gardens under trees would naturally have a layer of leaves that fall from above. I think that approach is much more beneficial to the plants and it looks more aesthetically pleasing to me. Too much mulch also prevents the self-sown plants from germinating and growing into the loose, more natural look that I love.

What is the most recent addition to your home garden?

The most recent garden at Northview is a waterfall with a large pond that we call “Lake Carey.” The main reason for adding this water feature was to reflect the 102-year-old Japanese maple that was planted by the original owner of the garden, Wilmer Atkinson, the founder and thirty-year editor of The Farm Journal. It is a beautiful tree, and together with its reflection, you get double the pleasure. There are stepping-stones that look like they are floating in the water leading to a patio where you can sit and look back at the reflection. The garden was finished just before my oldest daughter got married in the garden and the wedding photos were taken there.

The waterfall is a great addition to the garden. It adds movement, coolness, and a variety of pleasant sounds. The water is a magnet for birds that love to splash in the shallow water flowing over the rocks. Somehow frogs found the water before we had even finished the garden. Their croaking and hopping antics are sources of great pleasure. Surrounding the water are diverse planting areas that are wet or dry. I am trialing some small beardless iris like Iris verna, the dwarf violet iris, which has just bloomed for me. It is native to the mid-eastern and southeastern US. There are spots for some new primula, (such as Primula kisoana ‘Alba’) Fritillaria, Leucojum, and some unusual ferns. The water feature has been a lovely new addition to the garden where it frames the stumpery and the moss garden.

Jenny Rose Carey is a renowned educator, historian, and author, and the senior director at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Meadowbrook Farm in Jenkintown. Her gardens have been featured on the PBS series The Victory Garden, in the Wall Street Journal, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Green Scene magazine, and the Pennsylvania Gardener.



Click image for a look inside this book.


“Approachable, well-illustrated, thorough guide to shade planting. . . . especially recommended for collections lacking shade-gardening titles.” —Booklist

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