The Shade Garden: Shade-Loving Plants for Year-Round Interest by Beth Chatto is a book with an ambitious project -- maybe a bit too ambitious for its own sake. Chatto tries to pack as many descriptions of shade-loving plants as possible into 183 pre-appendix pages. The result? All the information is there, but this book is hardly what I would call "a smooth read."
Early in the book, Chatto explains how she created her beautiful shade garden -- or rather, the separate sections that, taken together, comprise her overall shade garden. It is essentially a woodland garden, but some areas receive more sunlight than others. As for the plan of the book, it is organized with an eye to the four seasons of the year, illustrating how to achieve year-round interest in a yard with ample shade.
But it is very easy for readers to become disoriented and lose track of "where they are" (i.e. what month is being discussed or even what season) in the book at any given time. I think two other season-oriented books I reviewed recently did a better job in this regard; they broke up their coverage of the seasons into clearly-marked weeks. Consequently, these two works are smoother reads:
But my criticism of The Shade Garden: Shade-Loving Plants for Year-Round Interest is not restricted to format. While Chatto is clearly a gifted writer, I do not find her prose style well-suited to garden writing.
For one thing, it will be difficult for the general reader to navigate through the scientific plant names. I understand the necessity of incorporating them (for the purpose of precision), but Chatto breaks with convention somewhat by using (in places, at least) the botanical names of plants in lieu of the common names altogether. Most garden writers use both: the common to give readers an easy point of reference, followed by the scientific (in parentheses) to avoid any possible confusion.
Moreover, Chatto's prose style is marked by the use of long sentences. She jams as much information (flower color, leaf appearance, etc.) about a plant as possible into one sentence. It's as if she wants to say five things in a space suitable for only three but goes ahead and says the five anyway. Believe me, I can empathize with her affliction, because I have to force myself to write shorter sentences than what I would naturally write.
I also understand that writers do not always have the final say in such matters. Maybe her publisher (the Octopus Publishing Group) wished to save space, but without sacrificing information. I don't know. But if such were the case, I would suggest to this publisher that a better alternative is bulleted notations.
This much I know: the book would profit from some judicious editing and a different format. I read this book aloud to my wife (as is my wont), and often I was left scratching my head. In too many places, I would have to go back and make sense of a sentence I had just read, instead of proceeding smoothly to the next thought. Philosophical works can get away with being jarring, but not gardening books!
For all that, there's no question the book is informative (if you can stand the bumpy ride). And one of its redeeming features is its excellent appendix. I also like the fact that Chatto grows plants in her shade garden based on how useful she deems them, rather than on how popular they currently are in the gardening community.
Shade-Loving Plants for Spring
Just to give you a flavor of Chatto's wonderful shade garden in spring, let me mention a few of the plants she describes as her favorites during that season. Of course, as a gardener in East Anglia (U.K.), Chatto's seasonal observations will not necessarily match yours. But the idea is to suggest options for shade-loving plants (or plants that tolerate some light shade, at least), not to establish a strict chronology that is transferable to other regions:
Shade-Loving Plants for Summer
Chatto notes that, with the deepening shade brought by summer's thicker canopy, "light-green or variegated leaves become more important than flowers." One of the entries below can be a good example of a plant with such a quality; namely, hosta:
Shade-Loving Plants for Fall
While Chatto does not talk a lot about shrubs for fall color, she does mention redvein (Enkianthus) and a few others, as well as discussing the following:
Shade-Loving Plants for Winter
Chatto's shade garden lives in an area where winters are not nearly as severe as the winters I'm used to, as a native New Englander. Still, we share the following wintertime favorites: