Articles by Jim Gainan

As published in the Billings Gazette

Gainan gives his outdoor space a makeover

This year brought a unique set of landscaping issues. The spring and summer was spent preparing for a wedding that took place a couple of weeks ago in our yard. I used this as an excuse to get as much accomplished as possible because it just couldn't wait.

The first "problem area" was at the very front of the house. It is very shady and damp because of the large trees that tower over it. It is also the entry point for most city services due to its proximity to the street- thus the gas meter, air conditioner unit, etc. A crumbling retaining wall and a crooked fence made this a "pimple" on a beautiful face.

I learned how to build retaining walls with a special brick that required no mortar. When it came time for twists and turns, I hired a person who knew what they were doing and we finished the job. A fence was installed by a professional company and I went to work on the plant materials and plan. The goal was to camouflage the mechanical areas and create an inviting entry filled with thriving plants.

The magic of all of this is that it really wasn't that expensive and the materials used in my plan were not typical and that's why I wanted to share it. I used a variety of perennial ferns that will grow from 3-4 feet along the back to 12" in the front. The edge is bordered with Lamium - a great shade tolerant plant that actually grows really well. My experience with most shade plants is that they tend to "survive" but not really GROW, like we're used to with sun-loving plants.

Because of the slow growing tendency and the light situation, I over-planted the area with deep tones of purple Cyclamen - a common florist "gift plant" typically found in European Gardens - and a bunch of ferns usually used in terrarium plantings.

With regular fertilization and a close eye to NOT over-water the area, the garden has thrived. Here's a list of the plants that I used:


Holding butterfly-shaped flowers on stems above heart-shaped foliage, the cyclamen is one of the most popular blooming plants. Cyclamen grow from tubers that are round and rather flat. The tubers are the storage organs that keep the plants alive during their dormancy. Cyclamen come in shades of red, pink, purple and white. When choosing a cyclamen, be sure to select one with only a few flowers open. The flower stems should stand straight up, and there should be lots of buds tucked underneath the foliage.

Cyclamen prefer bright indirect light and cool temperatures - 40° and 50°F at night and daytime temperatures less than 68°F.

Wait until the soil surface feels dry to the touch before you water. Water thoroughly each time, but avoid watering in the center of the plant or the tuber may rot. Never allow the plant to remain in standing water.

Fertilize your cyclamen with a water-soluble fertilizer recommended for use on indoor plants, mixed half strength. Apply it every 3 or 4 weeks, starting about a month after you receive the plant. Overfeeding is more likely to produce foliage than flowers. Dead flowers or leaves should be removed at the base of the stem.

Cyclamen die in temps below 25 degrees and usually are planted in pots for easier access but can also be planted outdoors, provided you give them a well-drained soil and cool humid conditions during the dormant period.

They should continue to bloom for weeks if they get cool temperatures (60 degrees) and indirect light. Once the temperature gets warmer, they will slow down and go dormant.

There are hardier varieties (not quite as showy) that range from frost tender to very frost hardy. These can be planted outdoors in rich, well drained soil and sun or part-shade. They will bloom from fall to early spring.

Allow the tubers to be undisturbed and dry in the summer (dormant) and they should grow larger each year. They will also reproduce from seed. The bulb companies should have a number of cultivars that will fit your needs.


Boston Fern (Nephrolepis exaltata 'Bostoniensis'): Usually found indoors - these ferns are beautiful outside. They will grow from 10 to 12 inches up to 3 feet or more, depending on the cultivar.

They require some filtered sunlight and they are not a perennial when used outdoors. You may leave them in their pots and bring indoors when the temperature falls out of range. Night temperatures of 50 to 55 °F and day temperatures of 68 to 72 °F are the most desirable, and it needs high humidity to thrive. Watch for spider mites, scale insects and mealybugs.

Lemon Button Fern (Nephrolepis cordifolia 'Lemon Button'): This fern grows to just under one foot tall with 10 inch long by 1 inch wide fronds bearing a single row of small rounded leaves (pinnae) on each side of the frond. It is an attractive and useful shade plant for an accent in a rock garden or as a small edging plant, and is hardy to 19° F.

Foxtail Fern (Asparagus densiflorus 'Meyersii'): It can be grown as a perennial in USDA zones 9-10. Asparagus densiflorus 'Meyersii' is known under a variety of names, i.e. 'Myers', Asparagus meyers, Asparagus meyeri, with the common names of cat's tail asparagus or foxtail fern.

It grows to a height of 60 cm with long, soft branches arising from a central point to form a very ornamental plant, looking equally good in a container, as a feature plant or in a mass planting. It looks best when grown in shade or semi-shade. Hardy to 20° F.


Coleus need a well-drained soil. This is a must for proper growth. Grow in any type of soil, so long as it is well drained.

Fertilize monthly and space coleus 12 and 18 inches apart. After planting, mulch the entire area to keep the weed population down and the moisture in.

Water thoroughly at planting time. After that, water when the top one-inch of soil is dry. Check the soil every 3 to 5 days and water accordingly. When you see flower buds, remove them. To induce bushiness, pinch out the center stem when the plant is 4 to 6 inches tall.

So, next year when you have a small difficult area to work with, consider thinking outside the box and give it a try. Annuals and indoor tropical foliage are great ways to get a spot of color in shady areas. It's not too early to start planning!