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Expert answers to questions about shady gardens, too much lawn and planting supermarket spuds

The second week of April is a fine time to add flowering trees and shrubs to the garden because local nurseries are now well stocked with some amazing new plants.

Tending to the weeds, the lawn and the general garden cleanup should be rewarded with a trip to the nursery. Spring is nature’s way of declaring that it is time for new life, new plants and fresh ideas.

Q. I am looking for some plants and shrubs that will bloom in the shade. We have a very shaded back yard and I would like some spring color. Thank you. — N.G., Olympia

A. Welcome color to the dark side with an early blooming rhododendron called “Christmas Cheer” that flowers reliably even in the dark shade of my garden.

I also recommend a bright yellow shrub called Kerria and low-growing perennial plants such as pulmonaria (lungwart) and the must-have winter- and spring-blooming hellebores.

You should also consider foliage color to add contrast in the shade garden. Japanese maples thrive in the Pacific Northwest shade and come in various leaf shades from lime green to deep burgundy.

Japanese maples thrive in the Pacific Northwest shade and come in various leaf shades
Japanese maples thrive in the Pacific Northwest shade and come in various leaf shades

Local nurseries offer plenty more plants that add color in the shade and a visit to the Rhododendron Species garden in Federal Way will inspire you with even more woodland and native plants that make the grade in the shade.

Q. I would like to have less lawn to mow. I see you have a webinar about the topic on April 17 that I will attend. Meanwhile I am looking to collect groundcover from friends that are easy to multiply and use as a lawn substitute. I have a mostly shaded yard. Which groundcovers do you suggest? — T.J., Tacoma

A. The best groundcovers for a lawn substitute depend on your soil and how you use the space.

Ajuga is one of the most practical as it comes in so many varieties including a slow growing mini with dark foliage called Ajuga “Chocolate Chip” and a more robust form that will cover large areas of shade called “Catlin’s Giant.”

Ajuga “Catlin’s Giant,” the showy carpet bugle, creates a colorful blanket in shady gardens. It has low to medium water needs.
Ajuga “Catlin’s Giant,” the showy carpet bugle, creates a colorful blanket in shady gardens. It has low to medium water needs.

You can add native sword ferns to the area for a natural wooded look or add stepping stones with low-growing groundcovers for the more formal look of a lawn. Pachysandra and vinca minor are two groundcovers sold for very dry shade where nothing else will grow. But beware that some groundcovers can take over and become more maintenance than you planned.

You may want to consider a mix of groundcovers, shrubs and native plants to replace that large lawn. Make the change slowly over time so that as the groundcovers spread, you continue to remove more lawn each year.

Q. I want to plant potatoes. Can I use the potatoes from the store that are starting to sprout in my pantry? Do I plant the whole potato or cut it up? — R.T., Email

A. No, I do not recommend using the sprouted potatoes in the pantry as these have most likely been treated with a compound to slow their growth. Best to purchase seed potatoes from a nursery now. Seed potatoes also offer many more flavorful varieties that are not often sold in grocery stores.

Potatoes are easy to grow in most soils if you make sure to loosen the soil (do not add manure when planting potatoes) and pick a location with plenty of sun. Here’s predicting your potato patch becomes the entry crop for more edible plants in your garden.

See Marianne this month

  • 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 17: Free webinar on “How to Have Less Lawn” from Cascade Water Alliance. Sign up at naturalyardcareapril10.bpt.me or phone 253-649-1839

  • 11 a.m. Saturday, April 27: Walrath Nursery in Gig Harbor will offer a free garden seminar with Marianne Binetti. Go to www.tewalraths.com for details.

Marianne Binetti has a degree in horticulture from Washington State University and is the author of several books. Reach her at binettigarden.com.