What plants to plant in an alleyway "secret garden?"
April 20, 2020 4:38 PM   Subscribe

We have a 3x20 shady space in our yard. It is bordered by a fence on one side and our barn wall on the other, so it is quite shady. I would like to turn it into a "secret garden" jungly type space for our daughter (she turns four tomorrow!!!). What plants should we plant there?

I would like to put down a series of stepstones leading back into the tunnel area, but I think it will be more magical with lots of greenery. What plants could grow in these conditions? I am thinking mostly ferns with maybe a taller shrub at the end, or something that climbs? I am not an experienced gardener. Nothing prickly poisonous, or that could attract deer ticks. We are in Zone 6A, western Mass.
posted by chaiminda to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Hydrangea!!! Oak leaf is the native US hydrangea, but for more magic you might want a more colorful standard variety.
posted by saladin at 4:53 PM on April 20, 2020

Oh man everything on this list looks amazing.
posted by saladin at 5:13 PM on April 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

Ivy-leaved toadflax is very 'fairy-like' and the tiny flowers are beautiful, and it's soft and harmless to the touch-- and it grows like mad, I have to rip it away from our hose bib regularly but I admire it every time I do.
posted by The otter lady at 5:17 PM on April 20, 2020 [3 favorites]

We have almost the exact same setup as well as a similarly-aged child, and I'm planning on planting a climbing hydrangea for the wall, starting from the back wall so the rest of the plant gets light. Now, that's a years-long proposition, but I think it's going to be great when it fills in. Looking forward to seeing others' suggestions for the rest of the scene!
posted by teremala at 5:19 PM on April 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

Why not get your daughter to help choose plants? Show her pictures from the suggestions above (once you check that they are locally available) and get her to select her favourite(s). Then get her to help with the planting too.

When I was her age and a little older I had no interest at all in the larger garden we had, but I was super invested in and excited by "my garden", which my mother let me choose, plant and water the plants for. Friends of mine with kids around that age are having similar experiences.
posted by lollusc at 5:32 PM on April 20, 2020 [6 favorites]

Hard to get more magical than spring ephemerals: Virginia bluebells, Dutchman's breeches, Spring Beauty, Trout Lily... true spring ephemerals (as opposed to many spring-blooming flowers that retain foliage throughout the growing season) will senesce and fade away completely by June-ish, so if you plant them, always plant a later-blooming companion plant with them, otherwise you end up with a bare spot through summer and autumn, and that just invites undesirable weedy stuff. Ferns make great companions, and I'd also strongly recommend a shade-tolerant aster and goldenrod set, they bloom in late summer and autumn at a time when you're desperately hoping to stretch out the warmth of summer a few weeks longer. Short's Aster and Zigzag Goldenrod are a great pairing, both are a tidy size, shade tolerant, and don't get particularly leggy. And if you like unusual bloomers, jack-in-the-pulpit is classic.
posted by Ornate Rocksnail at 5:50 PM on April 20, 2020 [3 favorites]

Morning glory is a vine that grows quickly and flowers beautifully. I think it needs sun- maybe at the entrance tho?
posted by nouvelle-personne at 8:50 PM on April 20, 2020

Lunaria annua are a little bit magical.

Should do excellent in Zone 6A, especially with shade. Might need supplemental watering.

They sometimes called "money trees" or "silver dollar trees."

In the spring have lots of small purple flowers, in the summer, they have weird puffy-looking round "leaves" (seed pods from the flowers), and in the fall-winter, the sides of the leaves fall off leaving a circular translucent pane.

Careful, though, in the right climate they can be a little bit of a pest and spread throughout the neighbourhood. But they're easy to control (pull out by the fairly sturdy/ non-break-y root). The seed pod halves can be a bit of a nuisance, but degrades ok (except for the edges) and isn't hard to rake up.

The dried fall-winter skeleton are really pretty and can really spice up dried-flower arrangements.

My mom won so many social-group points in the late 80's/ early 90's giving out dried-out "money trees" around the holidays for her friends to arrange with.

The seeds - abundant and easy to collect - that was gold to the seed-pod's silver.
posted by porpoise at 9:59 PM on April 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

A patch of wild strawberries as a ground cover! Then she can pick a little cup of super-flavorful tiny strawberries.
posted by abeja bicicleta at 1:27 AM on April 21, 2020 [2 favorites]

And remember that there are so many varieties of shade tolerant ferns.

And also soft mosses to go between stepping stones.

Think of sight, scent and touch. Add sound by chimes or a shallow water feature (or one that 'disapears' into rocks.) Your little one can celect the stones.

Important is visual texture.

And children still seem to enjoy fairy garden accessories (which are great for birthday gifting ideas, too.)
posted by mightshould at 3:56 AM on April 21, 2020

When I was little, bleeding hearts were my favorite in the garden - long stems with pink heart-shaped flowers like tiny lanterns. It tolerates shade well and will propogate itself if you let it!
posted by Otter_Handler at 4:47 AM on April 21, 2020 [3 favorites]

Hostas! So many sizes and colors.
posted by tmdonahue at 5:14 AM on April 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

Hostas (there are a million kinds, get a big blue leaved one and maybe some mouse ears which are so cute)
Heucheras (I like Heuchera villosa 'Autumn Bride' but there are a million out there in all sorts of colors, the Autumn bride one is fuzzy and will seed itself around but is super easy to get rid of if you want)
Epimediums (Lila Fee is super cute and has pink flowers that look like alien spaceships, sulphureum has great foliage and little yellow flowers)
Ferns (don't do ostrich fern unless you're willing to let it take over everything); Athyrium nipponicum 'Pictum' - japanese painted fern is fun.
Hakonechloa (Japanese forest grass) - one of the few grasses that does well in dry shade.
Jack in the pulpit
Viola labradorica (purple foliage violets)
Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens' - black mondo grass, might be expensive and spreads really really slowly but the color makes it worth it.
Acorus gramineus 'Ogon' or minimus - golden variegated sweet flag or golden mini sweet flag.
Lysimachia numularia 'Aurea' golden creeping Jenny - might not be entirely winter hardy in MA (ask MA people, I'm in NYC), but great between paving stones in shade.
Agree with the climbing hydrangea idea but suggest Schizophragma hydrangeoides 'Moonlight'
posted by sciencegeek at 7:03 AM on April 21, 2020

Hellebores ("Lenten Roses") do well in shade, and will be the first things that bloom in the late winter/early spring. Like, even in the snow.
posted by jquinby at 7:28 AM on April 21, 2020

Hellebores would indeed be great if they weren't toxic.
posted by sciencegeek at 8:21 AM on April 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

There are over 300 different varieties of Coleus, which comes in all sorts of colors and sizes, and is very easy to propagate and share with friends just by sticking in water. It's famously shade tolerant. I like this vendor a lot, order from them every year and always keep a bottle garden growing in my kitchen window over the w fall and winter.

Clematis is a flowering vine that thrives in the shade and comes in all different colors and comes back stronger every year.
posted by wowenthusiast at 9:23 AM on April 21, 2020

I’m newish to gardening in MA and am working with in a difficult shady site. Using what I’ve learned I started a similar area for my daughter and asked what she wanted. She’s requested bleeding hearts and azaleas. Lungwort and foam flowers have beautiful leaves even when not in bloom, Astilbe come in tons of colors, is a easy grower and has long lasting blooms. Pennsylvania sedge grows in the shade and is a lush grass alternative. I’d avoid Lily of the Valley and creeping jenny because they are too aggressive.

Shrubwise a compact Leucothoe (1/2- 2 foot height and spread) will change color and flower over the season, but keep its leaves over winter. An azalea would also stay green and I think you could also look at a mountain laurel. (https://www.bbg.org/gardening/article/mountain_laurel)

Since you’ve gotten lots of great advice and answers, I really came in to plug a Western MA source for native plants: Nasami Farm. The lists of available plants is in a separate document from the price sheet, but both are here. https://www.nativeplanttrust.org/for-your-garden/buy-native-plants/
They are scheduling no contact pick-ups.
posted by Phyllis keeps a tight rein at 6:58 PM on April 21, 2020 [2 favorites]

Vindaloo’s wife here. Lots of great suggestions!

3’ wide is not a lot of space for plants if you still need a path. I’d suggest some fast spreading groundcovers with a few more specimen plants and climbers to wind around. Maybe just trial a few plants the first year and see how they do? A narrow bed with structure shade on both sides will likely be tough growing conditions. Don’t forget to amend your soil with organic material.

I grow varieties of all the following in my much colder Toronto shade garden, and I’m not a master gardener by any means. Nurseries in my area are only open for online shopping/curb pickup, so you might want to make a plan based on commonly stocked plants like hostas, ferns, astilbes, heucheras, ajuga, a few climbers, and some flats of shade annuals.

Throw in some shiny reflective gazing balls, garden animal statues, fairy garden accessories. Give your daughter some paint and let her go to town on the fence or barn wall too if it’s hidden? Do a concrete stepping stone project with handprints or cute designs together? Definitely string up some outdoor fairy lights.

Groundcovers or fast spreaders
Bugleweed / ajuga
Sweet woodruff
Wild ginger
Lily of the valley
Goutweed (warning, very invasive. But good for some tough spots)

Astilbe (loads of colours)
Bleeding heart
Dwarf goatsbeard
Solomon’s seal
Japanese anemones (fall bloom)
Asters (fall)
Toad lilies (fall)
Epimediums (spring)
Pansies or violas (spring)

Jacobs ladder
Lady’s mantle
Tiarella / foamflower
Japanese forest grass

Impatiens (only mildew resistant species)
Fuchsias in wall baskets

Sweet autumn clematis
Virgins bower clematis
Virginia creeper
Climbing hydrangea (gorgeous but slow grower, your daughter will be 10 before it covers a fence)

I love spring bulbs, but if it’s structure shade and not tree canopy shade most won’t get that dose of spring sun to survive.

Have fun!
posted by Vindaloo at 7:00 PM on April 22, 2020

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