Dry shade in the garden? A checkered solution.

Photos courtesy of Donna Williamson.
A path of alternating bluestone and dwarf mondo grass livens up a dry, shady area.

Recently I took a client who's an inspired gardener with great experience to a local tree nursery to look at some big trees for her future woodland.

After looking at and tagging a few beautiful trees, my friend Linda (who owns the tree farm and can operate a big forklift with the best of them) showed me her latest grand idea. She had a difficult dry, shady area under a large tree with her house flanking one side and wanted both a solid but attractive pathway.

So she built a great checkerboard! See first photo above.

Alternating stone pavers with Ophiopogon japonicus ‘Nana,' (dwarf mondo grass),  Linda installed a broad, easy-to-negotiate path while adding an attractive and interesting design element to this very shady area. And in autumn, she can easily remove fallen leaves from the slick surface with a blower.

Hidden behind an elegant and welcoming weeping Atlas cedar and explosion of cleome (see Photo No. 2 above), the pathway is nearly secret. Only when you reach the front door are you able to view it from the side. It’s so clever and well executed, I immediately asked if I could take photos and write about her.

Her grandbabies bring out the Xs and Os whenever they visit so they can play checkers – not on a computer monitor or even a TV but here, outside, positioning the pieces with hands and whole body movement and fresh air. (See Photo 3 above.)

The Ophiopogon is a slow grower and remains very short so mowing is never required. Anything taller would drape over the stone and need cutting back. Moss might work, but I think that this little ornamental grass is the best choice.

Also, the whole arrangement drains well, as rain can readily soak into the grassy areas.

Linda used cut bluestone here, but folks could also use the square concrete pavers available from big box stores. A steel edge is installed around the outside of the checkerboard so it remains tidy. The pavers are set in sand over soil; the grass is planted in native soil.

This could not be more fun. Congratulations to Linda, a great plantswoman and an inventive grandma!

Donna Williamson is a master gardener, garden designer, and garden coach. She has taught gardening and design classes at the State Arboretum of Virginia, Oatlands in Leesburg, and Shenandoah University. She's also the founder and editor of Grandiflora Mid-Atlantic Gardening magazine, and the author of "The Virginia Gardener's Companion: An Insider's Guide to Low Maintenance Gardening in Virginia."  She lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

Editor’s note: To read more by Donna, check our blog archive. For other Monitor gardening content, see our main gardening page and our RSS feed.

You may also want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. Take part in the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions. If you join the group (it’s free), you can upload your garden photos and enter our next contest. We'll be looking for photographs of fruits. So find your best shots of summer's blueberries, peaches, plums, etc., and get out your camera to take some stunning shots of early fall apples. Post them before Sept. 30, 2009, and you could be the next winner.

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