Right Plant, Right Place

by Ann Barnes, EMGV

If Master Gardeners had a mantra, it might be “Right plant, right place”. Following this rule helps plants to thrive, can decrease diseases and pests, and may cut down on the time you spend in watering, pruning, and doing other kinds of yard maintenance.

Flower garden1
Photo: Ann Barnes

Before you can choose the right plant, we need to take a good look at the “place”. Yes, gardeners need to do a little homework. Look at the area you wish to plant. How much sun does the area get per day? Is the soil rich in organic material, or high in clay or rocks? (Remember, you can add organic material less desirable soil to improve it.) After a rain, does the area drain well or stay moist for a long time? Will plants have a wind break from a house, fence, or hedge? Are there tree roots that will compete with your new plants for water or moisture? Do you have deer, rabbits, or other animals that may forage in your yard? Don’t forget to take measurements of your space and do a soil test!

Next, think about what the function of your landscape will be. Do you want everything to be “easy care”, or do you enjoy spending time tending your plants? Are children and pets going to be playing in the space? Will the new plants need to hide an unattractive view, provide shade, or create privacy? Do you want colorful blooms or soothing shades of green?

Once you’ve answered these questions, you can begin searching for the “right plant(s)”. Although it is tempting to go to the garden center and buy all the plants that catch your eye, look for plants that fit your place. Most plants will have a tag showing the Latin name, common name, mature height and width, light requirements, and other growing conditions. If tags are missing, ask a friendly nursery employee or search the internet for more information.

When you find plants that you like, look at the mature height and width of each kind. When you plant, space everything far enough apart to accommodate mature sizes of your plants. One common landscaping mistake is planting a cute little shrub in front of your home without taking its full size into account. In ten years, you may find that the shrub is extending over your front steps, blocking your windows, and crowding everything in its path. If you have to prune multiple times per year just so you can get to the door, you do not have the right plant in the right place. Some small perennials may spread quickly or reseed prolifically, and those will also need to be tended frequently if not given enough space. The right plant for each place will need room to grow.

Next, look at light, water, and soil requirements. If you have shade, choose plants that grow best in shade, and if you have sun, pick sun loving plants. Drought tolerant plants are well suited for dry areas but may not grow well in a wet spot. Group plants together by their growing needs – put plants that need more moisture near one another so you can water more efficiently, for example, and keep the “heavy feeders” together so that you can fertilize only the plants that need it.

Finally, think about how the plants you choose will look when planted near each other. Make sure contrast between leaf shapes, sizes, colors, and flowers are pleasing to you. Some gardeners prefer to stick to a color scheme and to repeat plants throughout a landscape, while others crave variety. Choose plants that you like, since you will be seeing them each day.

Many readers of this blog already have an established landscape. It is still worthwhile to observe your property to answer the above questions. If a plant in your yard is not thriving or is a maintenance problem, you may discover that it is not in the right place. If that is the case, simply moving the plant could be the solution. If transplanting isn’t feasible, you will need to decide if it is possible to compensate for the problem – by watering more or less, amending the soil, pruning, or otherwise altering your “place” to suit your plant. However, this won’t always be possible, and it is OK to remove a plant if it isn’t working in your landscape. Don’t be afraid to change your landscape as your plants grow or your tastes change.

The Lorapetalums in this garden were spaced far apart to allow for the mature size of each plant. Unfortunately, they liked the space TOO well and grew larger than expected! All shrubs in this garden have been replaced since this photo was taken in 2008. Don’t be afraid to make changes when the unexpected happens. Photo: Ann Barnes





Moss is Boss

by Andrea Laine, EMGV

Moss is boss. Anyone who attended moss landscaper Annie Martin’s  presentation at the Durham Garden Forum in January would likely agree. Her enthusiasm for growing moss is infectious.


I entered the presentation rather neutral on the Bryophyte family; I have not encouraged nor discouraged moss in my lawn and gardens.  After hearing the presentation, I realized there was a lot I had not understood about moss and believe is worth sharing with other gardeners.  The following information was obtained from multiple sources.

How moss grows
Moss belongs to the Bryophyte family and some are 450 million years old. They are non-vascular plants yet still produce photosynthesis, therefore requiring  sunlight, water and nutrients to live. They absorb water and nutrients through their leaves.

Moss do not have roots; rhizoids anchor the plant to a porous surface. There are two types of moss each with their own set of characteristics:  acrocarpous and pleurocarpous.  Moss will grow anywhere that is porous enough to hold moisture:

  • Soil
  • Decaying trees
  • Rocks
  • Streams and waterfalls
  • Asphalt pavement
  • Concrete walls
  • Doormats
  • An old leather shoe.

Steep hillsides that are hard to mow are great places for moss. Mosses help remediate soggy spots and minimize water runoff.

Moss is one alternative for areas where gardeners desire a very low-growing ground cover. Moss thrives in shady areas unsuited to lawn growth, as well as in moist, acidic soils, providing a low-maintenance, attractive alternative to turf.

Depending upon the type of moss, it will reproduce by spores or by branching/fragmentation. Success for either way requires moisture.

Among a moss colony there will be male and female members. Raindrops hitting the male plants scatter the sperm to female plants. Fertilization results in spores which are analogous to a flowering plant’s seeds. Spores are housed in capsules at the tip of a tall, stalk-like form called the sporophyte (see photos below). As the spores ripen they are dispersed from the capsule and if they land on a moist and porous surface a new plant can grow.

Mosses will also send out new shoots in the spring (branching) and can reproduce by fragmentation whereby wind, water, or a human being separates a piece from the whole and provides it a moist and porous surface on which to grow.

Caring for moss
Moss is practically care-free. It will grow in nutrient poor soil, in all types of climates and habitats, in sun or shade depending on the species. Moss hydrates quickly with frequent yet brief watering sessions. Ms. Martin suggested 3 times per day for 3 minutes.  As with turf grasses, it is important to remove debris so as not to inhibit photosynthesis.  Debris is best removed by blowing or sweeping . Avoid raking as it can dislodge moss.

A moss garden can deliver many shades and textures of green, practically year-round. Moss do not go dormant during cold weather but may yellow, temporarily, during seasonal transitions.  It is not susceptible to disease.  And while deer may trample it, they are unlikely to eat it.

Many choices
There are more than 20,000 species of moss which will grow in sun or shade depending upon the species. mossmix-by-annie-martin

According to Ms. Martin, species that generally grow well are:

  • Ceratodon purpureus
  • Climacium americanum
  • Entodon seductrix
  • Hedwigia ciliata
  • Hypnum imponens
  • Leucobrynum glaucoma
  • Sphagnum palustre
  • Thuidium delicatulum

In conclusion, I am likely to maintain my ‘let it be’ attitude toward the patches of moss that have colonized the shady, undisturbed areas and rocks on my wooded property with one exception. Having learned that bees view mosses as hydration stations, I will try to remember to water the moss every now and then, especially during dry periods.

Of note

  • For local inspiration, visit the Kathleen Smith Moss Garden in the Asiatic Arboretum at Duke Gardens.
  • On March 18 the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Orange County is offering an educational program about the basic biology of mosses.
  • There is a bryophyte herbarium at Duke University.

mosscarpetwendyMosses can be planted with annuals, perennials and bulbs.  (Photo by Wendy Diaz.)


Additional informational sources:

Capon, B.  (2011). Botany for gardeners, third edition. Portland, OR: Timber Press.




Unless otherwise noted, photos are from “Go Green With Moss” Facebook page. 

Success in the Shade II – Time to Plant!

By Christina Perez

This article was adapted from a presentation entitled ‘Success in the Shade’. Part I of this article can be found here: Success in the Shade

Plant Selection

Shade plants have wonderful variations of texture and color. The following charts are by no means extensive but do include a few options for the shade garden that have been successful in my own garden. Whatever you chose, be sure to keep track of your purchases and where each plant is planted in your new shade garden. Enjoy your new relaxing and calm garden retreat!

Scientific Name Common Name Notes
Begonia semperflorens

Begonia tuberhybrida

Wax Begonia

Tuberous Begonia

Likes moist, well-drained soil
Caladium Caladium Great colors and textures; likes warm, moist soil
Heliotropium arborescens Heliotrope Can grow in sun to part shade; the plant is known to be poisonous, so do not ingest
Lobelia cardinalis

Lobelia siphilitica

Lobelia These two species are native to the Piedmont, and the fall blooms attracts hummingbirds
Nicotiniana ‘Perfume Mix’ Flowering Tobacco This cultivar has a sweet fragrance and new hybrid varieties have great compact blooms
Coleus scutellariodes Coleus Likes well drained soil and ample water. Coleus gives wonderful color and texture options


Scientific Name Common Name Notes
Astilbe arendsii Astilbe Beautiful and feathery early spring blooms
Helleborus hybridus Hellebore Very reliable shade plant
Hosta ‘White Feather’ Hosta There are many excellent varieties of hosta, and this specific cultivar has lovely bright white leaves
Thelypteris kunthii Southern Shield Fern This hardy native makes a wonderful addition to the shade garden
Pulmonaria officinalis Lungwort Fantastic spotted leaves with colorful, compact spring blooms. Good spreader in rich soil
Aquilegia canadensis Eastern Columbine This native is a great spreader and gives a colorful bloom in late spring
Dicentra exima Bleeding Heart This Piedmont native gives a great pink bloom in the spring
Digitalis purpurea Foxglove These come in a variety of colors and give a lovely effect when planted in groups
Stylophorum diphyllum Celendine Poppy Excellent addition to the shade garden. A good spreader with bright yellow blooms
Heuchera americana American Alumroot Native plant with a delicate spring bloom; lovely leaf gives good variety to the shade garden


Scientific Name Common Name Notes
Asarum canadense Wild Ginger While not the same as culinary ginger, it does have a tasty root and is very low maintenance
Galium odoratum Sweet Woodruff Spring bloom that is fragrant and edible
Phyllum- Bryophyta Moss Moss is much preferable to grass in shady environments, and many different moss varieties thrive in North Carolina 6


  1. Evans, E. Flowers and Woody Ornamentals. In: Evans, E., ed. The North Carolina Master Gardener Training Manual. 5th ed. Raleigh, NC: NC Cooperative Extension; 1998.
  1. Miller, H. Gardening in the Shade. Horticulture Learn and Grow. University of Illinois Extension.
  1. Givnish, T. J. 1988. Adaptation to Sun and Shade: A Whole-plant Perspective. Aust. J. Plant Physiol. 15, 63-92.
  1. Hutchings, M.J., Harper John, E.A., Stewart, A.J.A. 2001. The Ecological Consequences of Environmental Heterogeneity: The 40th Symposium of the British Ecological Society. Held at the University of Sussex. Symposia of the British Ecological Society.
  2. Robinson,, S.A., Lovelock, C.E., and Osmond, C.B. 1993. Wax as a Mechanism for Protection against Photoinhibition — A Study of Cotyledon orbiculata. Botanica Acta. 106(4): 307-312.
  3. Martin, A. The Magical World of Moss Gardening. Portland, OR: Timber Press; 2015.

Success in the Shade

By Christina Perez

This article was adapted from a presentation entitled ‘Success in the Shade’.

Shade is an asset in the home garden. Just the image of dappled shade shifting softly over a wooden bench invites the mind to imagine and refresh. In the Piedmont region of North Carolina, our abundant deciduous trees and tall, stately evergreens make shade an inevitable part of the landscape. These shadowy areas have great potential, and with a little creativity and understanding of what shade plants need, the shade garden can become a focal point of the home garden.

Types of Shade

There are several distinct types of shade in the home garden. The first is filtered, or dappled, shade. This is characterized by the constant movement of light and shadow due to overhead tree branches. Filtered shade often gives the gardener the most options as many plants thrive in this light level1,2. A second type is partial, or medium, shade. This type of shade changes as the day progresses; an area may be in shade for part of the day and full sun at other times. In general, partial shade zones receive four to six hours of shade per day1,2. A third type of shade is open shade. Instead of being caused by tree branches, open shade occurs when a building or structure creates zones of shade. In general, open shade produces shade for three to four hours per day1,2. The final type of shade is dense shade. Dense shade is found in heavily wooded areas as well as narrow side yards on the north facing side of homes and buildings. Dense shade is often the most challenging area to garden in successfully as relatively few plants prefer such reduced light levels1,2

Shade Plant Adaptations

Apart from some parasitic plants, almost all plants capture sunlight in a process called photosynthesis. Many organisms, including humans, need to consume food to get energy. Plants, on the other hand, can make their own food. They have the wonderful capability of absorbing carbon dioxide from the air and water from the soil and converting it to sugar and an oxygen byproduct using the energy of the sun. Even plants that grow in shade need to be able to perform photosynthesis. These shade plants have several adaptations that allow them thrive in low light levels.

The first adaptation is leaf size. Because shade plants need to be able to perform photosynthesis to make their own food, they expend most of their energy absorbing enough light to make sugar. Large, wide leaves are an excellent way to capture the most light possible. This is often seen in shade plants such as Hosta ‘Amos and Colocasis ‘Thailand Giant’3. The second adaptation is leaf angle. Some plants are able to adjust the angle of their leaves to capture the maximum amount of light. Oxalis oregana is an understory herb in redwood forests in the western United States that is able to adjust the angle of its leaves to move with the progression of the sun through the forest4. Another important adaptation for shade plants is leaf surface. Some plants will alter aspects of their appearance depending on levels of light. For example, Cotyledon orbiculata will secrete a thick wax on its leaves and stem in high light environments to reflect light and prevent excessive water loss, but will not have a thick buildup of wax and will have flattened leaves to increased light absorption in low light levels5.

Site Preparation and Maintenance

Designing, preparing, and maintaining your shade garden is arguably the most important part of the process. The following are key steps in creating or redesigning your shady landscape:

Step 1: Test and Amend Your Soil: Learning about the components and nutrients in your garden soil is the foundation to success. This is the only way to know how you need to amend your soil to optimize it for your new shade plants. To obtain soil test kits and instructions, please visit the Master Gardener Volunteer office at 721 Foster Street Durham, NC 27701, or call 919-560-0536 Monday through Friday from 9:00am-4:00pm. Once you know the fertilizer and nutrient recommendations for your soil, make the required amendments before installing your shade plants.

Step 2: Make a Sun Plot: Often, we know that an area of the landscape is shady, but we rarely know exactly how much shade it has. This can be solved with a sun plot, a diagram that shows all of the areas of sun and shade in the garden throughout the day. To create a sun plot, draw out your property including all major structures, its orientation (does it face north, south, east, west, etc…), and the position of the sun. Now draw all of the shade on the property using a pencil. Try to capture the density of the shade by drawing it lightly and with gaps for dappled shade, or drawing it heavily to represent dense shade. Repeat this activity and create a sun plot for your property at 8:00am, 10:00am, 12:00pm, 2:00pm, 4:00pm, and 6:00pm. Once this is done, you will have the exact amount of sunlight each area of your property receives, and this will allow you to choose the correct plants for the various light levels. It is best to create a sun plot for your property for every season of the year as the position of the sun and leaf cover can change significantly throughout the year.

Step 3: Solve Your Problems: Before a new shade garden is installed, it is ideal to solve any problems that may exist in your garden site. For example, if the area drains poorly, install a drainage system; if the area is filled with weeds, weed the area properly; if your soil test recommends an amendment, make sure the recommendations are followed before any plants are installed. In the Piedmont, our most common requirement is to add organic matter to our dense clay soil to improve soil texture and drainage. Whatever your individual situation, be sure to assess your site and make any necessary improvements.

Step 4: Design Your Space: Shade gardens invite us to broaden our notions of what a garden should look like. Instead of bountiful blooms bouncing in the sun, think of spaces of calm and subdued hues where we can read, reflect, and get closer to nature. This is the time to think of incorporating elements in your space such as pathways, sitting areas, fences or gates, water features, a fire pit, and other focal points. Shade is the ideal place to relax and reflect, so consider creating an environment that invites these activities. Also think of installing a wild bird feeder to support our backyard birds and bring wonderful enjoyment to your shady retreat.

Step 5: Prepare and Maintain Your Space: Shady areas are often that way because of trees, so it is inevitable that we reflect on some important considerations in dealing with heavily rooted areas. Some trees, such as maples, have shallow root systems that make it almost impossible for plants to compete. If a landscape is filled with shallow roots, it may be best to accept this reality, put a fine wooden bench under your favorite tree, and place containers around it filled with shady loving plants. For wooded areas with deeper root systems, think small in your plant selection. Choose plants or shrubs with small root systems, and when planting, very carefully dig between tree roots to avoid damaging them. It is best to incorporate organic matter six inches into the soil between tree roots, but if this is not possible, try to incorporate it at least three to four inches2. It may be tempting to build a raised bed around tree trunks and roots, but this is not an appropriate action. This can be potentially lethal for trees as raised soil around a tree trunk can cause the trunk to rot. Also, although it may seem like a great solution to raise the soil line to plant shade plants, tree roots will quickly invade that soil and out-compete the shade plants1,2.

Once your new shade garden is installed, Water your shade plants deeply and less often to encourage deep root growth. Mulch your garden with two to three inches of mulch every year, and fertilize as necessary. Repeat your soil test every three years, and follow the recommendations specified by the reports.

  1. Evans, E. Flowers and Woody Ornamentals. In: Evans, E., ed. The North Carolina Master Gardener Training Manual. 5th ed. Raleigh, NC: NC Cooperative Extension; 1998.
  1. Miller, H. Gardening in the Shade. Horticulture Learn and Grow. University of Illinois Extension.
  1. Givnish, T. J. 1988. Adaptation to Sun and Shade: A Whole-plant Perspective. Aust. J. Plant Physiol. 15, 63-92.
  1. Hutchings, M.J., Harper John, E.A., Stewart, A.J.A. 2001. The Ecological Consequences of Environmental Heterogeneity: The 40th Symposium of the British Ecological Society. Held at the University of Sussex. Symposia of the British Ecological Society.
  2. Robinson,, S.A., Lovelock, C.E., and Osmond, C.B. 1993. Wax as a Mechanism for Protection against Photoinhibition — A Study of Cotyledon orbiculata. Botanica Acta. 106(4): 307-312.
  3. Martin, A. The Magical World of Moss Gardening. Portland, OR: Timber Press; 2015.


Trees in the Urban Landscape

Trees in the Urban Landscape

Sunday, Jun 22, 2014 3:00pm – 4:00pm 

Where:Durham County Library – South Rgeional Branch, 4505 South Alston Ave. Durham, NC

Trees are wonderful! They provide shade, produce oxygen, enhance our property, and refresh the spirit. Learn which ones to choose, how to plant them, & what errors to avoid. Presented by Gene Carlone, Durham County Extensiion Master Gardener. Class is free, registration is required. Call 919-560-7410