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Lately I have become fascinated by gardens on difficult sites, perhaps because several of my own gardens lie in the thin soil and dry shade under maples. I know all too well the struggle to maintain adequate moisture and nutrients for the plants, while the trees stand ready to gobble up more than their share the minute I turn my back. Sometimes I've asked myself why I even try to garden in such places. The answer is simple: it meets the needs of landscaping. Areas where grass grows poorly or is difficult to mow look much better with groundcovers or gardens. And plantings around a tree often produce a finished, professional look, tying it in with the rest of the yard.
It is no wonder, then, that a certain perennial garden near my home intrigues me. It is located on a steep, north-facing bank along the roadside and beneath a row pines. Despite receiving only a few hours of sun at day's end, it always boast a considerable amount of color and slows down many cars other than mine. I decided I must meet the gardener who would choose such an unlikely spot and tour the rest of the gardens that can be glimpsed up the long driveway.
My first visit to the garden found its creator, Cathy Bolduc, muttering about raccoons. The day before, she had put some ferns and moss on a bare rock to make it look more natural. The molasses she had used to set the new plantings apparently attracted the raccoons, which tore the arrangement apart. Cathy replaced everything and sprinkled it with blood meal to repel the animals. The set of her jaw convinced me she would win the battle and, indeed, the planting remained intact for the rest of the summer. Clearly here was someone who possessed the determination necessary for gardening in dry shade.
I learned that the attention-grabbing roadside garden was Cathy's first attempt at gardening. After living in city apartments, she and her husband moved to a two-acre lot heavily shaded by eastern white pines (Pinus strobus). Cathy then sought the advice of a local gardening expert for her …