Touring an Eco-friendly, Shady Backyard Retreat

This naturalistic garden is a wonderful place for people and creatures to mingle

Fine Gardening – Issue 218
Video by Danielle Sherry, Edited by Cari Delahanty

You must be careful when you enter the backyard of garden designer Jeff Epping—not because you’re likely to trip on something, but because you might be dive-bombed by a pair of nesting hummingbirds, or a bevy of butterflies, or any number of other pollinators that make this shady midwestern garden their home. Jeff Epping is the principal designer at Epping Design and Consulting and the former director of horticulture at Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, Wisconsin. Given this background, it’s no surprise that his home landscape is something special. He writes about this beautiful space in his article Design an Engaging, Naturalistic Garden in the Shade.

Twenty years ago, this backyard was a sunny patch of turf, surrounded by borders filled with floriferous perennials. Jeff made quick work of installing an expansive stone patio so the family could be always immersed in the garden and then planting trees to provide shade. The landscape has been slowly undergoing a transformation in the more recent past, moving away from a traditional shade garden to a more naturalistic one that embraces an ecology-first mindset. This evolution, however, hasn’t sacrificed the original intention of the dream garden—that it be a visually appealing space with plenty of activity.

Jeff has a few design tips for ensuring that a garden is perfect for people, plants, and pollinators:

  • Build a strong connection between the house and garden.
  • Embrace a more relaxed planting plan.
  • Be sure all on-going maintenance and substitutions are eco-friendly.

Jeff says, “I try to choose plants that help support insects, birds, and other creatures without the input of supplemental water, fertilizers, fuel, and other chemicals. The needy, noncontributing ‘look at me’ plants that I used to grow mainly to impress those that visited my garden have fallen by the wayside. Some exceptions are in a few pots and planters on the patio, but even those are selected to help support hungry hummingbirds and bees. I have heard many a gardener lament that they are ‘forced’ to garden in shade, but I am not one of those; I love my little shade garden and all the plants and animals it supports.”

In this video, Jeff walks us through this amazing space that is buzzing with activity.


See more garden tours

Eco-friendly Front Yard Garden Tour

Rethinking a Mature Garden Tour with Laura Trowbridge



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