Gardening challenge: Shady courtyard with killer tree...

I moved in with supervenusfreak a little over a month ago, but I’ve been eyeing up his backyard for gardening possibilities since the first time I visited in July.

We live in a rowhouse almost smackdab in downtown Lancaster, and the house has a small, low deck (about 1 foot clearance underneath) covering a goodly portion of the property. What’s left is an approximately 20’ x 20’ square, surrounded by 6’ fencing on two sides, and 2+ story buildings on 3 sides (a building and a fence share a side).

Okay, so far…there’s a lot you can do with a small semi-shady space. The kicker, however, is a 40’ black walnut in one corner of this square.

Understand that I don’t hate this tree. It adds to the possibilities by giving a nicely dappled shade to about 3/4 of the yard. My problems include the legendary poisonousness of walnuts and the not-so-legendary-but-plainly-annoying messiness of walnuts.

There’s very little growing directly under the trunk of this tree…a few scraggly strawberry stolons have snuck under the radar but they’re not doing so well. It’s mostly leaf litter and those supremely irritating leaf-assembly twigs that fall as enthusiastically as the leaves themselves.

There is a veritable bounty of violets out in the rest of the yard, though, and I’ve recently discovered (because they just bloomed) two stands of cyclamens (it’s amazing what a difference one damn Ag zone can make…) and an escapee euonymus from next door.

My preliminary idea (to be carried out next spring, hopefully) is to build a raised garden. The soil looks pretty thin (it cakes when it dries and just looks like silt when it’s wet) and it would probably be easier to construct rockery-type beds than to actually dig up the whole yard. I’d want to rescue the violets, cyclamens and euonymus before we began making the paths and beds, then replant them in appropriate places afterward. I’m thinking of a few backbone evergreen plantings (some miniature cupressus and holly) to hold up interest in the winter. Some climbers trawling up the plank fences on two sides. Maybe a few windowboxes on the rail of the deck with cascade or wave petunias to trail downward like a rainbow waterfall. I want to put a stone bench under the walnut tree, too, and some hanging candle lanterns on the stubs of the lower branches (I cut them short to let more light in). I’m also thinking a small fountain with some water plants (although I need to research low-light semi-aquatics).

supervenusfreak is amused at the way my mind instantly started heavy construction, but he’s agreed to help. I think the idea of quiet nights on the bench in our candlelit perfumed bower kind of turned him on. :wink:

Anyone else have any ideas that might work in this situation? Disregard mine completely if you want…I don’t want to force anyone into a corner. I’d like to hear real alternatives.

Gotta see the site to say. Sounds like you have some pretty good ideas already. You also seem to know that it’s hopeless to plant anything over a black walnut’s root ball, so you’re stuck with pots and boxes. That’s also good for anything you’d like to plant that won’t tolerate winter well, because you can move them indoors. It also gives you flexibility to rearrange and replace plants - a serious gardener is never satisfied and never done.

Good luck.

Petunias need more sun than I think you’ll getting to look their best, plus they start looking ratty come late July – impatiens or begonias would probably be good.

Here is some info on the stuff that’s so toxic in black walnuts – scroll down for stuff you can plant nearby.

Thanks, twickster! That site goes right into my favorites for when I get down to serious planning.

Petunias may go out on the planned boxes on the railing of the south-facing front stoop.

Can you prune the walnut so that more light gets through?

If you decide the tree HAS to come down, can I have the wood? (wide-eyed innocent smile).

Hehe…now I’m wondering what nefarious things you’re planning on doing with black walnut wood, j66. Going to poison your rival’s prize petunias?

I’ve already pruned the lower branches, actually. What I could reach from the ground, anyway. I’m going to use the stubs as lantern supports.

Walnut is a great wood, and very expensive. And I don’t consider anyone with petunias my rival.

I believe one prunes trees in the summer to discourage ‘filling-in’ and in the winter to encourage it. I like trees that are pruned back only at the bottom (about ten feet or so); I love that look.

Don’t underestimate hostas for shade; they provide great ground fill.

Oh, I’m a perennial type of gardener; that’s what I meant about the petunias.