I live in Toronto (Zone 5) in an area where the soil is clay. We have a...

Asked June 6, 2015, 2:18 PM EDT

I live in Toronto (Zone 5) in an area where the soil is clay. We have a garden facing southwest that is shaded by a large tree. We are having trouble growing our fountain grasses here. The space we have is 3 ft deep and about 20 ft wide. We have a chain link fence behind that garden we would like to cover that is 4 ft tall. What plants can you recommend that are shade loving with some afternoon sun and resistant to harsh winter and rabbits, skunks and raccoons? The look of our backyard is fairly modern with blocks of plantings

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1 Response

The site you describe presents challenges. Most grass varieties grow best in sun to partial shade. Your garden site seems mostly shady. Fountain grass is not very cold hardy which is important in your area nor is it shade tolerant. Additionally many ornamental grasses require well drained soil. Clay soils hold moisture and unless properly graded will hold surface water too. None of these issues are unsolvable. A good online resource for ornamental grasses is: http://extension.illinois.edu/grasses/understanding.cfm . This website indicates the importance of spring planting of ornamental grasses. Of the ornamental grasses listed on that website the following varieties include shade tolerance, winter hardiness, and cool season varieties: Ribbon Grass 'Picata' or 'Fessey's Form', Northern Sea Oats, and Prairie Dropseed. All three varieties may be invasive since they spread by underground rhizomes. A Minnesota publication recommends adding organic matter to soil prior to planting ornamental grasses. Adding organic matter to a clay soil may be counter productive to soil water drainage but all things being equal grass usually grows better in soils with organic matter in or on the soil. It also suggests a soil pH of 5.0 - 8.0 with their research being done on soils with a pH of 7.2 - 7.6. My guess is a clay soil around Toronto would be an acidic soil. Soil testing is the best way to determine soil pH and how much if any lime should be added to enhance grass survival and health.
University of Illinois has another website that focuses on shade tolerant plants, see http://extension.illinois.edu/beyond/directory_grasses.cfm If you want ornamental grasses the varieties that are suitable for the site are limited but as mentioned above there are varieties worth considering. If you are looking beyond grasses the options increase.
You also mention a chain link fence surrounding the garden with rabbits, racoons and skunks being visitors. A chain link fence offers no challenge to racoons and skunks. A solid wood fence, properly constructed should exclude most small animals. Also ornamental grasses typically are not mowed and provide excellent cover and habitat for small animals. If small animals are not a problem, a tall ground cover and chain link fence are not an issue. Finally Cornell University offers a website for gardeners that provides information on shade tolerant grasses and ground covers; see: http://blogs.cornell.edu/horticulture/about/lawn/lawn-shade/ . Although your site presents challenges there are numerous attractive gardens in your area. You may want to experiment with several types and varieties of plants in the garden strip. Planting a variety of plants offers greater resilience and may improve the garden appearance. Best wishes with your garden project.