When I last left off with my quest for the right shrub, I had narrowed down the choices to sweetspire (Itea virginica) and pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia). The particular front-runner was 'Golden Shadows' dogwood, whose yellow leaves would complement the purple and yellow color scheme of the newly planted border.
I received a number of encouraging comments with helpful recommendations! Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) and oakleaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia) came up repeatedly, and these are both certainly great shrubs. I had considered ninebark at the start of the search, but I'm concerned this site is too shady. I believe ninebark can thrive in partial shade, but this location leans to the "full" side of "partial-to-full shade." Oakleaf hydrangea is on my radar screen, but I wanted to consider some other options before going with a hydrangea. (I think I'm suffering from hydrangea overkill. I see them everywhere, and I'm feeling a little burnt out on them. That's not to impugn anyone else's love for hydrangeas, but for me it's a maybe...)
Some of you fabulous people even offered me shrub seedlings right away! And I intend to take you up on those offers of St. John's Wort (Hypericum frondosum) and species pagoda dogwood (you know who you are!). In fact, while evaluating those shrubs' chances in this location, I realized how many other places I could put flowering shrubs in my yard. (Isn't garden blogging great?) But I decided there are indeed other places for those shrubs: a sunnier spot for the Hypericum and another currently bland, shady border for the dogwood. (Bland shady borders are not lacking around here, apparently!) Those are topics for another day, however, and I still felt something else was needed for my problematic place by the fence.
So I started to think of other types of woody plants that could perhaps grow here...trees! Why just have a shrub when I could have a tree? But it would have to be a diminutive one; I don't think an oak or hickory would be appropriate for this little spot. But as I mentioned before, this site is very sheltered from the wind, so I wondered if I could indulge my desire for a Japanese maple?
Japanese maples are notoriously fussy, but perhaps this oddball location could work. Fortunately, Chicagoland Gardening magazine ran a cover story on Japanese maples in September (along with my piece on native sedges, sorry for the blatant self-promotion!). Deb Terrill's article stated, "A taller tree canopy, large evergreens, buildings and fences can all offer some protection." Perfect! I have all of those things here! My soil may need some amending with leaf mold or mulch to bring the pH down little, but this is a real breakthrough! With the Siberian irises I planted near this spot, I could have a little Eastern/Eurasian vignette going here.
Then I started to think of the downsides to a Japanese maple: What if it died? I would be horrified to have a tree die. A little perennial here and there is one thing, but a beautiful (and expensive) tree?? And what about wintertime? How interesting would more bare branches really be? If it's a tree I want, how about an evergreen? There's no better winter interest than that!
And I am sorely lacking good evergreens. There are my hated yews that I keep complaining about, and two scraggly spruces near the edge of my driveway that aren't aging gracefully. But what about this?
I could have purple cones to match my purple coneflowers! I am in close proximity to a nursery specializing in rare dwarf conifers. (Remember Rich's Foxwillow Pines, all you Spring Flingers?) I could finally have some delicious weeping conifer, preferably a Canadian hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). This photo is of a spruce (Picea spp.), but you get the idea:
It would have a unique shape, provide structure, and of course have the winter interest factor. But would it get enough sun?
That idea slowed me down. According to Rich's catalogs, Tsuga canadensis 'Pendula' can take partial shade and prefers protected sites. But what if this site is too shady and I end up with a midget conifer that looks really disproportionate? Oh, the risks of gardening! Why do I feel like I'm gambling?! So I set two tasks for myself before getting further confused. First, I need to research Japanese maple cultivars to see if there's one that might be happiest here. Second is to find out if my preferred Tsuga is even available and get some honest feedback about its sun requirements. And of course I could just go find that 'Golden Shadows' dogwood and be done with it, but I'm not quite ready to end the quest yet...