For the past 18 years, horticultural writer, marketer, and speaker Susan Martin of Gardener Sue’s News has gardened on a shady 1/3-acre wooded sand dune near Lake Michigan. Despite the shady conditions, she has fashioned a vibrant landscape that’s full of eye-catching vignettes.

Susan is currently in the process of building a new home on 15 acres—20 miles from her current home. Though she will be creating a new garden from scratch, there are a couple things she’ll definitely bring along with her: her appreciation for everything in her garden (big and small), and her ability to maximize the potential of every space.

1. Go Big with Container Plantings

Shades of lime green and maroon from Flame Thrower™ Chipotle coleus, Plum Dandy™ alternanthera, and gold Boston fern add to the picturesque scene of this front porch. Photo by: Susan Martin.

Many gardeners tend to gravitate toward smaller plants for container combinations, but creative gardeners like Susan literally think outside the box. It’s not often that you see large plants in ledge and window boxes, but why not make the most of these growing areas?

Here, Alternanthera, coleus, and ferns burst from their containers, but their sizing is such that the combination does not appear top-heavy. Rather, these sill boxes look vibrant and healthy, contributing to the welcoming vibe of Susan’s home’s front entrance. Their large presence isn’t their only benefit. “I chose those plants because they are all foliage and they don’t have flowers that will drop and stain the white paint on the deck railing,” Susan says.

2. Find the “Golden Hour” for Your Favorite Plants

Tuff Stuff™ mountain hydrangea has a blue hue that looks especially gorgeous in sunset lighting. Photo by: Susan Martin

Though Tuff Stuff™ mountain hydrangea from Proven Winners is beautiful all day, Susan finds it especially eye-catching just after the sun goes down. That’s when “it looks the most blue,” Susan says.

For a meditative experience, figure out what time of day your favorite plants look their best—when the light shines through them or on them just right—and then be intentional about visiting them during those times. See Susan’s video of Tuff Stuff, which she took during its golden hour.

3. Pay Attention to Details

A trail of water drops on a pale green tulip leaf would go unnoticed to most everyone—except the keen eye of an observant gardener. Photo by: Susan Martin.

Too often, we’re so focused on whatever task we’re completing in the garden (or whatever we haven’t had the chance to accomplish yet) that we fail to observe the beauty that surrounds us. Have you ever had a guest visit your garden space and comment on something that strikes them as beautiful—and it’s something you hadn’t noticed? Don’t forget to set aside time to meander in your garden and appreciate the wonder of it all.

“One exercise that helps me notice the magical details of my garden is to use the macro lens on my camera,” Susan says. “It will only focus on close-up details—it literally can’t see the big picture clearly. Observing my garden through that lens helps me see that it is the little things that really matter.”

4. View “Tedious” Tasks with Fresh Eyes

Deadheading and pruning expired branches and flowers is just one way to quickly spruce up your garden. Photo by: Susan Martin.

For many gardeners, the thought of spending time deadheading and pruning sounds like a nightmare of a task, but for Susan, “It’s relaxing and uber satisfying to clear away the old, unproductive branches to make way for new growth.” In fact, Susan maintains that it’s the fastest way to feel better about your garden. “Pick up your pruners and a bucket and trim away the junk. It’s the garden equivalent of tidying up your house before guests come over.”

5. Make it Personal

A frog statue, Susan’s garden mascot, sits on an old tree stump among Incrediball® hydrangeas, Epimedium, hostas, and ostrich ferns. Photo by: Susan Martin.

Including this frog statue as her “garden mascot” is just one way Susan has made her garden space uniquely hers. Because the frog is in her front yard by the street, it also provides passersby with a delightful detail to observe as they walk by her house.

“There are two families in the neighborhood with little boys who always pass by on their nightly walk before bedtime to say goodnight to my frog,” Susan says. She plans to leave it there when she moves next year so the children don’t miss it when she is gone.

6. Brighten Up Shady Spots

In this planter box on her patio, Susan packed in several shade-tolerant stunners. Prolific Santa Cruz® Begonia boliviensis offers bright orange-red blooms, ColorBlaze® Wicked Witch™ and Wasabi coleus add color contrast while variegated Iresine and Heart of the Jungle® Elephants Ear soar above the combination. Photo by: Susan Martin.

Add color to darker areas in your garden by focusing on including shade-tolerant plants with showy foliage. “I’m a foliage nut,” Susan says. “I tend to choose plants for interesting foliage first and flowers second. Flowers are fleeting while foliage is forever.” She also points out that foliage plants tend to not need as much fertilizer as flowering plants—yet another advantage to focusing on foliage over flowers.

Here, in addition to coleus and elephant’s ear, Susan has included a blooming plant that does particularly well in shade: Santa Cruz® Begonia boliviensis. By livening up these shady spots, which are often neglected in many gardens, you can create a striking vignette within your large garden.

See more of Susan's container combinations: 8 Expert Tips for Stunning Shade Combinations

And, follow along with Susan on Instagram @gardenersuesnews and Facebook Gardener Sue's News.

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