Woodland Garden Design

If you have a wooded area in your yard, you’re in luck: you already have the foundation for a beautiful new garden spot. Choose plants that will thrive in the dappled shade of your trees, and add a path to walk or a rustic bench for sitting, and you’ll have a shady woodland retreat from the heat of summer.
Here’s how to get started:
First, consider where you want a path or bench, and use a trimmer, edger or lawn mower to clear out any grass and low-growing vegetation. (Be careful when using these tools; you may hit roots, stumps, rocks and other debris, so wear appropriate safety glasses and other protective gear.)
Decide whether you’ll keep your path or bench area natural—which will require periodic clearing and clean up—or whether to bring in pebbles, bark chips or some other kind of mulch to keep weeds and grass from growing back. A boardwalk is a good choice if the ground stays marshy or wet. Stepping stones are another option, if you can find some that look natural, not out of place.
Shop for native plants that grow in shade. Don’t dig them from other places and try to transplant them; wildflowers are usually too fragile to survive, and some are endangered and protected by law. Besides, you don’t want to destroy the habitat that birds, insects and small animals may depend on for their survival. Look for nursery-grown natives instead.
(You can collect native plants from some national forests and grasslands, as long as you have a permit from a USDA Forest Service District office and follow their guidelines. You can find more information about that here.)
If you want, add some cultivated plants that tolerate shade to your woodland garden. They’ll make it more colorful and showy. Choose plants or bulbs that flower at different times of the year, and you’ll always have something in bloom.
One of the most beautiful features of a woodland garden is that the vegetation grows in layers. If your existing trees have low-hanging branches, you may want to prune some of them to raise the canopy and let in more light. Then add a layer by planting smaller, understory trees, like dogwoods, crabapples and redbuds. Add yet another layer with large shrubs. Avoid planting in lines or formal designs, and go for a mix of interesting textures, forms and colors.
When you plant shrubs and trees, remove any surrounding weeds or grass so you leave a cleared circle with about a 2-foot diameter around them. Then add a natural mulch to keep the unwanted vegetation, which will compete for water and nutrients, from coming back.
If the soil in your woodland area is already dark and rich in decomposed leaves and other organic materials, you’ll probably be fine. If it’s mostly sand or clay, add plenty of good compost and organic matter. Just be careful not to dig or cut into the roots of other trees and plants. If you can’t work in the amendments, leave them on top of the soil.
Once you’ve established your woodland garden, you’ll find that it doesn’t require a lot of maintenance, especially if you mulch your cleared areas. Your biggest challenges may be keeping fallen leaves from smothering your plants. Just rake them off when needed and leave them to decompose nearby.
Water may be another problem, since trees consume a lot, so think ahead and go with natives or drought tolerant plants if this might be an issue. And again, mulch to help keep moisture in the soil.
A plant sampler for a shady woodland garden (read plant tags before you buy, to be sure you can provide the growing conditions they need)

Designing a Woodland Garden

Posted May 31, 2016 08:37h in Uncategorized by Becky Robert

Last week we continued our efforts to increase the integration of the campus proper with the Crum Woods. In accordance with the Swarthmore College Master Plan, we have been planting woodland gardens to extend the edge of our natural area, the Crum Woods, and to expand our distinct sense of place.

Here are some pointers to create your own woodland garden:

Our latest woodland expansion into Parrish West Circle has two of our oldest Nyssa sylvatica as well as native Cladratis kentukea, Halesia diptera var. magniflora, and Quercus macrocarpo to mention a few that form the mature canopy. photo credit: R. Robert

1. Choose a location with existing mature trees.

Our latest woodland expansion into Parrish West Circle has two of our oldest Nyssa sylvatica as well as native Cladratis kentukea, Halesia diptera var. magniflora, and Quercus macrocarpo to mention a few that form the mature canopy.

Deciduous azaleas, like Rhododendron ‘Sundance Yellow’, make great shrub layers in woodland gardens. photo credit: R. Robert

2. Select plants appropriate for woodland conditions.

Since woodland gardens are under a canopy of mature trees, the plants selected for that garden must tolerate dappled shade and drier conditions as they are competing for light and water resources.

In the Parrish West Circle, we received a donation of wild-collected deciduous azaleas for our shrub layer. You can also find several cultivars of Enkianthus campanulatus, Hamamelis vernalis ‘Lansing’, and Ilex opaca ‘Dan Fenton’ in this planting.

Epimedium ‘Enchantress’ is a great perennial for the woodland garden. photo credit: R. Robert

Some great shade perennials for a woodland garden include: Tiarella cordiflora, Epimedium , Anemone, Aquilegia , Begonia grandis, Carex, Chelone , Brunnera macrophylla, Trillium, Tricyrtis, and Astilbe. Let me emphasize this is a short list. The variety of shade plants is extensive.

Once established, woodland gardens require minimal care. photo credit: R. Robert

3.Give extra help getting a woodland garden established.

As with any new planting, woodland gardens require more frequent watering to become established. They may require extra care because, again, they are under a canopy of mature trees competing for water resources.

Once established, woodland gardens only need an annual top dressing to encourage healthly soil and plant community.

Happy planting.

Creating a Woodland Garden

Trees and woods have inspired many great writers from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree series…to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream…

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,

where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,

quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,

with sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.

So whether you are creating a fairy woodland garden to allow your children to dream in or a little shady area where you can relax and encourage wildlife then here are some steps to follow to create a woodland inspired spot…

Step 1 – Create the layers…

If you already have trees established…look for a shady spot where the canopy of established trees and larger shrubs can create a suitable focal point.

If you are starting your woodland garden from scratch then make a small copse of trees – plant 3 or 4 small trees close together maybe acers, rowan, holly or crab apple and a hawthorn which will provide shelter for small animals and birds as well as berries for food.

Use deciduous shrubs like the dwarf lilac to make up the layer beneath the canopy.

At the base, herbaceous plants and bulbs attract bees, butterflies and other insects as well as providing ground cover for smaller animals.

Step 2 – Plan your planting

Grass is suitable for the edge of the wood where you can mow easily. When planting trees and shrubs into grass, keep a 1m diameter circle around them clear of grass and weeds to allow them to establish without competition.

Use stepping stones and bark to create little paths in and out of the trees and shrubs. We sell Cambark Mini Nuggets Bark In-Store for only £7.99 for 70l which is a great way to add a path.

Step 3 – Choosing your flowering plants

Use shade-loving plants and plant right up against the main stem of your shrubs to create the woodland feel like these herbaceous perennials….here are our favourite 3…

Stachys Officinalis (wood betony) is a wild flower that produces red-purple flowers June to September and perfect for bees.

Brunnera has large, heart-shaped leaves and sprays of small bright blue flowers April / May time.

Bergenia offers bold handsome evergreen foliage and stunning flowers.

To bring some scent into your woodland wonderland spring and autumn…why not plant a hardy perennial like the scented viola…choose a single colour and dot them along the borders to create maximum impact.

You could also add a sun loving plant on the edge of your woodland to encourage insects such as hoverflies and flower beetles. A good choice here is the Leucanthemum Vulgare (ox-eye daisy) which produces classic yellow and white daisy flowers June to August.

Biennial or short-lived perennials like the Digitalis Purpurea (Foxglove) also create a haven for bees and moth caterpillars. Plant in partial shade to give beautiful height and colour.

To ensure you have flowers throughout the seasons, you can think ahead and plant some beautiful bulbs in Autumn for next spring…we love…

Hyancinthoides non Scripta (English Bluebell) This classic bee-friendly woodland bulb provides carpets of nodding blue bells in May.

Anemone de Caen. Poppy like flowers pretty pinks, reds and purples will bring a spread of colour April / May time.

Finally, we would recommend Harvington hellebores interspersed with some snowdrops, miniature narcissi, and wintergreen ferns such as the shiny evergreen British native hart’s tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium) to make your woodland area shine throughout the year.

Our Top Tips:

  • Establish which plants are most suitable by looking at what is growing in nearby woods.
  • Plant broad-leaved native species of tree which support more biodiversity than conifers and introduced plants.
  • When planting trees, be conscious that tree roots spread horizontally, so keep them away from built structures and other areas they might affect like ponds and streams.
  • Collect fallen leaves in autumn to make leaf mould and stash in plastic sacks (pierced for ventilation) somewhere out of the way. A year later you will have a lovely supply of mulch.

More Information About Shade Perennials

We have hundreds of the best flowering perennials for shade! If you garden in the partial sun of a dappled woodland garden, or on the north or east side of a building then you need shade loving perennials for your garden. We have a huge selection of shade tolerant flowers and we have sifted through our massive catalog of plants to create this mini-catalog of the best shade loving flowers for your garden.

Below are several top-10 lists of the best perennials for shade to help you find exactly what you need.

Top 10 perennial flowers that grow in shade

In shade gardens, light colored flowers stand out really well. We recommend white perennial flowers for shade, or pale yellow or pink.

  1. Calanthe – small orchid flowers that like shade
  2. Cypripedium – ladyslipper orchids are highly sought after partial shade flowers
  3. Dicentra – bleeding hearts are quintessential shade loving plants
  4. Edgeworthia – fragrant winter flowering plants for shade
  5. Epimedium – Fairy wings are colorful shade plants for early spring…both in leaf and flower
  6. Gloxinia – intensely red summer flowers are some of the best flowers for shade
  7. Helleborus – long bloom period in winter makes lenten rose one of the best best shade perennials
  8. Iris – shade iris have smaller blooms than their sun counterparts, but are more intricate in design
  9. Lycoris – partial shade perennials for a late summer flower show
  10. Paeonia – woodland peonies produce very large flowers for shaded areas

Top 10 foliage plants that grow in shade

Light colored leaves also work well as shade garden plants, especially when they can stand out against surrounding dark green foliage. We recommend for the woodland garden, shade perennials with colorful silver foliage or shade tolerant plants with yellow foliage

  1. Acorus – fragrant chartreuse leaves for shade. A medicinal herb too.
  2. Brunnera – very drought tolerant plants that like shade
  3. Carex – grass-like plants for shade garden
  4. Cyclamen – a dwarf shade plant with variegated, heart-shaped leaves
  5. Farfugium – similar in form to a hosta but with glossier leaves and a fall bloom in the woodland garden
  6. Ferns – must have perennial plants for shade for texture, form, and color
  7. Hosta – hand down, the best shade plants
  8. Polygonatum – these tall shade perennials have an upright habit to balance out clumping plants
  9. Pulmonaria – silver foliage topped with blue or pink flowers make lungwort one of the best shade plants
  10. Zingiber – tall shade plants with large tropical leaves with a mild ginger scent

Top 10 shade tolerant plants for texture

When gardening with plants for shade, don’t forget about texture either. Shade tolerant ferns offer a very fine texture to balance with the coarse texture of other shade tolerant perennials

  1. Adiantum – very tough and adaptable ferns for shade with a unique frond shape
  2. Alocasia – tall shade perennials with large shiny leaves
  3. Amorphophallus – bizarre tall shade plants with incredible leaf forms and flowers in the woodland garden
  4. Arisaema – jack-in-the-pulpit produces candy-striped, tall, purple and white flowers for shade
  5. Athyrium – lady fern features a feather-plume-like textured leaf
  6. Helleborus – leathery, hand-shaped, leaves on this shade plant
  7. Hosta – shade perennials that form elegant mounds in the woodland garden
  8. Onychium – very fine textured fronds on this shade fern
  9. Polygonatum – tall shade perennials whose leaves look like a staircase
  10. Zingiber – large, tropical leaves with a mild ginger scent

Top 10 native full shade perennials

When gardening with plants for shade, don’t forget about texture either. Shade tolerant ferns offer a very fine texture to balance with the coarse texture of shade tolerant perennials

  1. Anemonella thalictroides – charming little button-like flowers on these flowering shade perennials
  2. Chrysogonum – yellow flowers and a groundcover habit for the shade flower garden
  3. Cimicifuga – tall spiky white flowers for shade garden
  4. Heuchera – a wide variety of foliage colors, and a mounding habit on these perennial shade plants
  5. Illicium parviflorum – the chartreuse-leaved forms make very colorful shade plants
  6. Sanguinaria – lovely white flowers and a long history of medicinal use make bloodroot popular flowering shade plants
  7. Iris cristata – Intricate and beautiful flowers for the woodland garden
  8. Onoclea sensibilis – moisture loving ferns for shade
  9. Cardamine – a spring ephemeral with powder blue perennial shade flowers
  10. Phlox divaricata – shade loving perennial flowers with light blue blooms in early spring

Top 10 evergreen shade perennials

  1. Acorus – chartreuse leaves with a pleasant herbal scent make Acorus a great plant for the perennial garden
  2. Asarum – leathery, heart-shaped leaves that are frequently variegated with silver veins are great woodland garden plants
  3. Carex – grassy mounds with variegated leaves…better than liriope for the woodland garden
  4. Danae – a dwarf shrub with orange berries that tolerates dry shade
  5. Fatsia – large, hand-shaped leaves and cool, white, alien flowers
  6. Helleborus – leathery, hand-shaped, leaves on this shade plant
  7. Ophiopogon – black mondo grass looks great growing next to silvery shade plants
  8. Pulmonaria – fuzzy leaves with wonderful silver variegation
  9. Ruscus – dwarf shrubs with small pointed leaves and red berries…these are excellent drought tolerant plants for shady areas
  10. Sarcococca – glossy green leaves with fragrant white flowers for shady areas

You can also narrow down your list of shade tolerant plants by special water needs: Shop for Dry Shade, or Wet Shade flowering plants here. Or you can narrow down your shopping list by plant type: Ferns for Shade, Grasses for Shade

To learn more about the best plants for shade check out our article entitled ‘Gardening in the Shade’ that describes many cool shade plants and perennial flowers and also take a peek at our short articles: Create a Woodland Garden with Flowers for Shade, and Full shade flowers.

Also, check out our many shady blog posts about shade plants and flowers and woodland gardens.

Woodland Gardening

A favorite destination for gardeners and nature lovers alike is the woods. The Chicago Botanic Garden’s McDonald Woods was once a part of a large oak woodland community. Over the course of many years and much development, this woodland became fragmented from the natural habitats that surrounded it. Fortunately, through careful management, the Garden is restoring this beautiful woodland. Gardeners often wonder if it’s possible, in suburban or even urban areas, to establish a little piece of woodland of their own.

Jim Steffen, ecologist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, says yes, it is possible, but your focus must be less on individual plants and more on the whole plant community. He offers the following guidelines for gardeners interested in establishing — and then managing — a woodland community of plants:

Woody plants are not all that necessary for a woodland garden, but they will provide shade, protection, and some leaf litter. They will also provide food and habitat for other animals and insects that make up the entire woodland community. If you don’t have trees, you can use the side of a building to create needed light shade. The north or east side of a house or garage is best for understory woodland plants since they require only 15 to 20 percent full sun per day to flower and maintain themselves.

The less you do to change the existing soil, the better. There are woodland species of plants that meet every soil and moisture condition. Know your plants and their cultural needs! Some woodland plants can grow in wet clay; some thrive in dry woodland situations. There are even intermediate plants for the in-between zones.

Disturb the soil as little as possible. Don’t mulch your plants. Don’t fertilize. Tilling the soil will release nutrients and expose weed seeds. If you elevate the nutrient level, weeds will respond mightily. The native plants you plant are not used to excessive nutrients. In their natural habitat, they are used to competing hard for little. Don’t start off with a cycle of overfeeding. Soil nutrients in a woodland are locked up in the root systems of its plants. The woodland soil is really only a few inches deep and generally on the acid side. If the soil is too rich, many plants will put out leggy but weak growth.

Water only to get plants established. Native plants are used to competing in stressful situations. Encourage the plants in your garden to be low-maintenance.

Plant lots of diverse plant material. This ensures survival of the community if disease or insects attack, since pests target individual species, not an entire community of different species. Pack the native plants in closely. If you leave too much space between plants, the seeds from just one or two plants will germinate and take over. Open space also encourages weeds.

Plant the entire community of plants together at the same time. It will be easier to get the many species growing together. The healthy competition and relationships among plants are part of their genetic memory. Spreading plants are more likely to stay in place when they are planted as part of their whole native community. Adding plants later is difficult because competition may be too great for new plants to establish easily.

Every other year, remove the fallen leaves. This allows germination of species whose seeds require light to germinate or are inhibited by other properties of leaf litter.

Regular mowing or clipping of all vegetation (or controlled burning where allowed) helps control the invasive plants like garlic mustard or buckthorn.

Avoid collecting plants in the wild since that disrupts the fragile balance of plant relationships within that entire community. Collecting in the wild also depletes the supply of native plants and leads to degradation of their natural habitat. Ferns and spring ephemerals are often wild-collected. Scatter seeds from your existing plants to encourage self-seeding. Try to grow plants from seed (many ephemerals require five to seven years to flower from seed) or buy plants from nurseries that have propagated their own plants (see list below). Consider recognized seed exchanges or rescue organizations like “The Wild Ones” as plant sources.

Jim Steffen recommends the following plants to establish a woodland garden. He has included many summer woodland plants that will take over as the spring ephemerals fade. These plants are suited to open shade conditions.

Bloodroot, false rue anemone, wood anemone, toothwort, rue anemone, spring beauty, Dutchman’s breeches, white trout lily, Virginia bluebells, twinleaf, large-flowered trillium, early meadow rue, bellwort, wood betony, purple spring cress

Woody Plants
Nannyberry, downy arrowwood, American hazelnut, serviceberry, wild plum, wild black currant, New Jersey tea, white oak

Woodland Plants
Woodland phlox, Jacob’s ladder, wild columbine, wild hyacinth, prairie alumroot, many species of sedge, blue eye grass, fire pink, purple meadow rue, white wild indigo, smooth beard tongue, tall anemone, purple milkweed, butterfly weed, silky wild rye, black-eyed Susan, self heal, starry campion, bottlebrush grass, New England aster, tall bellflower, tall coreopsis, wild rye, great blue lobelia, Short’s aster, sneezeweed, cardinal flower, smooth blue aster, white or red baneberry, Jack-in-the-pulpit, wild geranium, shooting star, large-leaved aster, purple giant hyssop, elm-leaved goldenrod, false dandelion, yellow pimpernel

Recommended Nurseries for Not Wild-Collected Plants
• Natural Gardens, St. Charles, Illinois
• Country Road Greenhouses, Rochelle, Illinois
• Prairie Moon Nursery, Winona, Minnesota (has Illinois ecotypes that you can request)
• Genesis Nursery, Tampico, Illinois
• Ion Exchange, Harper’s Ferry, Iowa
• J.F. New and Associates, Walkerton, Indiana
• Prairie Restoration, Princeton, Minnesota
• Prairie Ridge, Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin
• Prairie Seed Source, Northlake, Wisconsin
• Possibility Place, Monee, Illinois

In a few short weeks spring will be beckoning us outdoors to tackle a new garden project.

Many of us have sunny garden beds with an abundance of flowers—peonies, iris, phlox, Shasta daisies, purple cone flowers and rudbeckias to name just a few. But when it comes to those shady spaces, other than hostas people are less sure what to grow.

For a delightful spring garden project I suggest transforming a difficult shady area into a beautiful woodland garden inspired by our own native forests.

Our local forests have so much to teach us about plants that thrive in the shade of tall trees–when they bloom, how they grow and the soil that suits them best.

Spring magic

Each spring, after months of winter dormancy, the deciduous forests of New England suddenly come alive. As the sun streaks through the still bare branches of the taller canopy trees it gradually warms the cold ground.

Spring beauties carpet the forest floor in late April and early May. But once flowering is completed they vanish below ground until next spring.

And then something truly magical happens: a host of spring wildflowers— bloodroot, dog-tooth violets, trillium, spring beauties, Dutchman’s breeches, foam-flower and many more—burst forth and light up the ground.

After a few short weeks this amazing spectacle draws to a close. As trees leaf out the ground becomes shaded, and the spring wildflowers start setting seed.

Many woodland wildflowers are ephemeral, meaning that, once they have set seed, the entire plant disappears below ground until the following spring.

Some however–most notably bloodroot, Jack-in-the-pulpit, foam-flower, bellwort, wild ginger and trillium—continue to maintain their leaves for most of the summer for added photosynthesis.

Choosing the best location

To grow woodland plants successfully in our own gardens we need to replicate the unique growing environment found in the woods.

Start by looking for a spot that lets the sun come through to the ground in the springtime but will become shady during the summer months.

The space beneath a group of smaller garden trees such as crab apples or serviceberries would be ideal for a small woodland garden. First gently remove any grass that will compete with your new plants, taking care not to damage the roots of the trees.

However the soil around very large trees, especially mature honey locusts, maples or oaks, is far less desirable because their thick thirsty surface roots dry out the soil. Also avoid the area beneath dense evergreens, which will likely be both too dark as well as too dry.

If you have deciduous woods on your property you have a great opportunity to create a larger woodland garden. Start by cutting out any low growing brush and then, for easy access, remove the lower branches from the taller trees. Finally add a meandering wood chip path so that you will be able to enjoy your flowers up close.

Nobody rakes leaves in the forest!

Every year in the forest a mix of leaves, twigs and bark drop to the ground where they gradually decompose and merge into the top layers of soil. The resulting ‘forest floor’ is a friable nutrient-rich structure that stays moist even in dry periods, creating the perfect growing environment for the understory plants.

And, for a successful woodland garden, you want to ensure the soil is both moisture retentive and rich in organic matter, emulating the soil you find in the forest.

Start at your compost pile! First extract some well-decomposed compost from the bottom of the pile, spread this all across your new bed in a layer about three inches deep and then very gently dig it into the top six inches of soil.

Now gather some partially decayed leaves from last fall, either towards the top of your compost pile or possibly in the woods. Then chop them up by running the lawn mower through them a couple of times and spread the resulting material all across the top of the soil of your new garden.

Favoring native plants

We are all familiar with hostas (or plantain lilies)—those workhorse plants for shade gardens. Hostas actually originated in northern Asia, but over the years hybridizers in this country have made innumerable crosses amongst the various species of plantain lily. The result today is a huge assortment of hostas in all sizes and colors for our gardens.

But for a true woodland garden—one that is inspired by our own local forests—nothing can compare with the beauty of our native wildflowers. Although most bloom in the spring, several also have wonderful leaves that, along with different ferns, create a ‘textured green carpet’ throughout the summer. And in late summer it is time for the wood asters (the blue Symphyotrichum cordifolius and the white S.divaricatus) to bloom. Both make a lovely end-of-season splash just when the fall foliage is starting.

Taking our cues from the forests around us

Like across much of New England, the forests around here have acidic soil. And likewise in my garden. Hence most of the flowers I see in the local woods are also perfectly at home in my garden.

However in some parts of New England, such as along limestone bluffs, the soil is quite alkaline and supports a very different mix of wildflowers. In selecting plants for your garden be sure to take your cue from your local forest.

Here are some of my favorite native woodlanders that thrive in acidic soil and that are well matched to my garden. Almost all are available from the Vermont company, American Meadows.

Bloodroot is the first to flower each spring

The beautiful bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is the very first to appear each spring. Each flower consists of 8-10 sparkling white pointed petals radiating out from the clear yellow center. On sunny days the pristine white flowers open wide to receive the early pollinating insects. But each night and on rainy days they close up tightly to protect their precious pollen.

The underground portion of a bloodroot plant is actually a fleshy subterranean stem called a rhizome. Over time this grows outwards horizontally to form a substantial colony, resulting in a dense carpet of lovely flowers in springtime, followed by lots of wide scalloped leaves for an attractive groundcover during the summer months.

Our lovely native Virginia bluebells, after setting seed, will disappear underground.

Before long the Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) emerge. Their flowers, like a cluster of nodding bells, are the clearest sky-blue you can imagine. After they have finished flowering, be sure to let their fat round seed pods mature and the seeds fall where they may. In a few years you will be rewarded with dozens of new plants to greet the spring.

Now, in quick succession a host of different plants burst into bloom in the woods, all of which make lovely additions to my woodland garden. Here are a few:

Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis) and its close relative Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) have delicate fern-like leaves and creamy-white flowers hanging from the stem like little bells.

Foam-flower (Tiarella cordifolia) with its feathery white flower plumes and variegated scalloped leaves. Given space, it will gradually spread outwards to form an attractive clump.

The whimsical Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), with its unique central spike (or spadix) inside a circular petal and curved green hood, is reminiscent of a voluble preacher in his elaborate pulpit.

Canada Anemones (Anemone canadensis) have charming white flowers which thrive in a moist spot. However they are best planted by themselves as they can be a little too aggressive among smaller plants.

Wake robin, Trillium erectum, is an easy wildflower to grow in the garden

The various species of Trillium are much-loved flowers for the spring garden. Both Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum) and Wake Robin (Trillium erectum) need an acidic soil.

A carpet of White Trillium where the soil is alkaline

But if you who live where the soil is alkaline, you could grow an unforgettable expanse of White Trillium (Trillium grandilflorum) that will cause passers-by to stop and exclaim.

Towards the end of May I find the wild spring flowering azaleas (Rhododendron prinophyllum) growing in the woods near here. The swamp azalea (Rhododendron viscosum), is found in wetter areas and blooms later in the season.

If space permits–and providing your soil is reliably acidic– incorporating some rhododendrons or azaleas will add beauty, structure and fragrance to your woodland garden.For many years I have grown several kinds of azaleas (which lose their leaves in winter). But this year I will be adding some evergreen rhododendrons in a few sheltered spots.

Bright Lights and White Lights azaleas thrive in the acidic soil of my garden

My azalea season starts in late May when several cultivars in the ‘Lights Series’ start to flower. This group of azaleas are renowned for their winter hardiness. These are followed by in mid-June by the azalea Weston’s Innocence with its pure-white flowers, and in late June by Jane Abbott which has pale-pink flowers, and finally ‘Lemon Drop’ in late July.

And finally, be sure to round out your new garden with plants that remain above ground all summer, including native ferns with lacy foliage like the Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum) and the Lady fern (Athryium felix-femina) and, for a nice textural contrast, wild ginger (Asarum canadensis).

In the last couple of posts, I wrote about the first steps in how to create a woodland garden and how to begin if you have existing trees.

No trees yet? No problem.

If your yard does NOT have an established grove of trees, you can still create a woodland garden. Yes, even If you have an empty lot if you are patient.

In nature, fast growing pioneer tree species such as birch or quaking aspen are the first to start growing. These are the trees that first colonize an open field in your area. They don’t however tolerate a lot of shade, so when other trees start growing above them such as pines, or sugar maples, they die.

If you have a large enough garden space, you can do the same process. Plant fast growing trees species to act as your “pioneer plants”. These are there to provide you with quick shade. You will also want to plant permanent trees you want to be the basis of your woodland in the long term future.

If you don’t have a large garden space, I would just make sure you select trees that grow pretty fast and will be your permanent trees. Even oaks that have a reputation of being slow growing actually can grow close to 2 feet per year when they are young, if you select the right ones, such as the Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra).

Northern Red Oak
photo credit: andreasbalzer via photopin cc

It will take a few years for your woodland garden to mature, but it will be worth the wait. I will cover how to get your trees to grow the fastest in a future post.

Create a woodland garden in a Smaller yard

When you create a woodland garden in a small yard, you will want to select smaller trees. This can be done through selecting the smaller cultivars of your local forest trees.

Rocky Mountain Glow® Maple

For example, a commonly planted tree, the Red sunset red maple (Acer rubrum ‘Red sunset’) can get 60’ tall and 50’ wide.

Instead you could plant a Bowhall red maple (Acer rubrum ‘Bowhall’) that will only get about 40’ tall and 15’ wide.

If those are still too big, you may want to select entirely different trees that emulate the look of those trees.

For instance, instead of a sugar maple (Acer saccharum), you could select a Rocky Mountain Glow® maple (Acer grandidentatum ‘Schmidt’) that will probably be about half the ultimate size of the sugar maple, but have a similar fall color.

If you have a large garden area, say over an acre, you can create a more authentic forest using the exact same trees and shrubs that are found in your area.

Spacing trees in your woodland garden

You will want to plant them closer than most people are comfortable.

It’s amazing how many people think that since this tree says it grows to 40’ wide that if I am planting two of them, they have to be 40’ apart.

That would be the case if you want your tree to stand out and grow as a single specimen. That’s not what we are discussing here though.

Autumn Blaze maple planted by itself (well with that little burning bush too)

Hopefully, however when you took that walk in the woods, you noticed that those trees were a whole lot closer than 40’ apart. If not, go back and talk another look, this time without your smart phone on, playing Plants versus Zombies.

You can give your trees more room between each other than you might have seen in the woods, but the quicker that their canopies touch, the quicker your garden will feel like a forest. Certainly 5 to 10 feet apart is reasonable for some trees, especially if you are willing to do some pruning.

In fact, some of those multi-trunk clump forms of trees that are sold are actually different trees that were all planted together when they were small. So, it’s clear trees can adapt, especially when they are young.

Previous posts: First Steps in Creating Woodland Gardens and Creating a woodland garden #2

Plants For Woodland Gardens: Ideas And Tips For Creating A Woodland Garden

Do you have large trees or unused wooded areas in your yard? Put them to use by creating a woodland garden. These garden designs provide a more relaxed and natural look to your landscape, and as a bonus, many of the carefree plants that are used make woodland garden maintenance simple. Learning how to plant a woodland garden is easy and rewarding.

Creating a Woodland Garden Design

The best way to create a woodland garden in your yard is by taking clues from nature. Look to your surroundings for help. How do the natural wooded areas grow? What native plants do you see? Now look at your own area. How is the light, the soil, drainage, etc.? Once you have examined all of these factors, you’re ready to design a plan for your woodland garden.

When laying out your flower bed, it often helps to use a hose, chalk or flour to outline the garden area. Get it ready for planting by clearing the area you wish to use. Remove all trash and debris. This includes unwanted plants that may be growing there as well, like saplings, poison oak and poison ivy (dress appropriately for this), and any underbrush or roots that may be in the area.

Prior to planting, add any paths or stepping stones that may be desired, meandering these throughout the garden.

In nature everything is layered with high to mid canopies, understory plantings and ground cover. Since plantings are not perfectly lined up in nature, nor should they be in your woodland garden. Therefore, strategically place your plantings in the cleared off area. It is helpful to keep them in their containers until you plant so you can simply place them where you want, playing around with the design until you find something that suits you.

Prune any the dense foliage growth of the taller trees to open up the canopy. Prepare the soil by adding compost as needed to amend the soil. Then you can dig your holes and add your plants, watering generously. Begin by adding your smaller trees and shrubs. Once these are all in place and planted, you can put in your understory plantings.

For additional interest, you can add a birdbath, bench or other feature to your woodland garden design. Top it off with some mulch, preferably using one that matches your natural woodlands, like pine needles, shredded leaves or bark.

Plants for Woodland Gardens

There are a number of suitable plants for woodland gardens. In addition to small shrubs and trees, ground covers and mosses make good choices for a woodland garden, along with other shade-loving perennials. For more impact, combine contrasting feathery plants with plants that have big broad leaves.

Small Shrubs and Trees

  • Azalea
  • Birch
  • Flowering dogwood
  • Holly
  • Hydrangea
  • Japanese maple
  • Magnolia

Perennials and Bulbs

  • Anemone
  • Bleeding heart
  • Blue-eyed grass
  • Bloodroot
  • Calla lily
  • Campanula
  • Cast iron plant
  • Columbine
  • Coralberry
  • Elephant ear
  • Dutchman’s breeches
  • Ferns
  • Foamflower
  • Ginger
  • Goldenrod
  • Heuchera coral bells
  • Hosta
  • Mayapple
  • Phlox
  • Trillium
  • Tuberous begonia
  • Violet
  • Watsonia
  • Wood lily
  • Wild geranium

Ground Cover Plants

  • Ajuga
  • Ivy
  • Lily of the valley
  • Liriope
  • Moss
  • Vinca
  • Virginia creeper

Woodland Garden Maintenance

Native plants in a woodland garden design offer the advantage of lower maintenance. While new plants may require supplemental watering during the first year of establishment, the care of your woodland garden will be minimal, much like it is in a natural woodland setting.

Keeping the area mulched will help retain moisture and reduce weed growth. Organic or humus-rich mulch will also keep the soil well nourished, minimizing the need for fertilizing.

The only other care your garden will need is occasional pruning of the shrubs and trees as necessary.

The Business Advantages Enhanced Efficiency Fertilizers Deliver

In recent years, individuals have started to turn to nature for an escape from their bustling, technology-filled worlds of information overload to recharge in a simpler space.

For some, this could be any green space but for others, they need a more specific type of nature to surround them: namely, a forest. The woods often holds a magical, mysterious quality to them and there are surprises to be found around each bend.

Forests offer shelter and shade that can allow a person to finally relax. In Japan, this concept is taken quite literally with the practice known as “forest bathing.” The goal is to increase mindfulness and reduce stress.

“It starts with the idea being in an almost alternate universe that’s so far away from everyday life,” says Monrovia. “There’s no distractions. It’s just you and really being inside of nature and really experiencing the smells and the sounds and the sights of all of that.”

According to Monrovia, the demand for woodland gardens, particularly in urban spaces, is expected to increase. Below are some of the basic principles for creating a woodland garden for clients.

Working with shade

You may think that creating a woodland garden in an urban area with no trees is out of the question, but it is actually achievable as long as there is shade to work with. Whether it’s coming from nearby buildings or an actual tree canopy, it doesn’t really matter.

While you won’t have the ability to grow mighty oaks in a metropolitan area, you can select smaller, understory trees like crabapples or dogwoods to add vertical height to the space.

Naturally, a woodland garden is a great design option if your client already has a shady property. Rather than seeing this as a challenge, embrace the opportunity to create something sunny landscapes don’t have the ability to provide.

You do want to make sure the canopy doesn’t get too dense, so you may need to prune existing trees’ low-hanging branches to let in more light and allow for your client to walk through the space without needing to duck.

Creating layers

A woodland garden may not be structured like a formal English garden, but there is still a method to the madness. The key to creating an authentic woodland garden is to ensure there are distinct layers.

Depending on who you talk to, there are different numbers of layers when it comes to creating a woodland garden, but the basic levels can be broken down to three sections. The first and most obvious layer is the canopy, which creates the shade needed for the other plants to thrive and to create a sense of shelter.

A mixture of evergreen and deciduous trees is ideal to add complexity and diversity to the woodland design. Larches, birches or poplars are all options that won’t block out too much light. It can be tempting to try to fit in too many trees since you are going for a forest feel, but the last thing you need is overcrowding and nutrient deficient trees.

Ferns and hostas do well in woodland gardens.
Photo: Jill Odom/Total Landscape Care

The next layer is the intermediate shrub layer. This could include smaller, understory trees, if space allows it, but shrubs can provide a multitude of interesting textures, colors, and flowers. Azaleas, hydrangeas, mountain laurel and rhododendrons are all solid options for shady spaces.

Woodland gardens also provide the opportunity to utilize native plants that thrive in the type of space for your region.

The third level is the ground layer, which can include smaller herbaceous plants, grasses and ferns. You want this layer to fill in the spaces between the shrubs so unwanted plants like poison ivy cannot find a foothold. Some of the plant options for this level include coral bells, anemones, columbine and bleeding heart.

Ferns can be your bread and butter when it comes to creating a ground layer for a woodland garden thanks to their versatility and love of shade. They can soften borders, provide eye-catching textures and even break up color monotony. Autumn ferns in particular start out a copper-red color as they emerge.

Embracing curves

Curving paths can help clients meander through the space slowly.
Photo: Jill Odom/Total Landscape Care

As for the placement of the plantings, it can be easy to create a design with patterns or lines, but this goes against the naturalistic setting of a woodland garden. Since there are rarely straight lines in nature, opt for gentle curves.

Mix plantings in a way where it appears like they would have grown that way on their own. Take a look at how natural wooded areas grow if you aren’t sure where to start. Avoid symmetry and keeping things too neat.

Another curving element to consider adding is a winding path. By creating a walkway where the destination is not already visible, it can allure the homeowner to take a stroll in the shade. Also, a twisting path slows the traveler by not providing the most direct route through the space. This can help foster that mindfulness some clients might be seeking.

Add seating

Speaking of the destination, having a place for your customer to rest in their woodland garden can help them appreciate the space more.

By taking advantage of the principles of refuge, you can reduce stress, boredom, fatigue and vulnerability while increasing comfort.

Refuge allows the individual a view out of the space, but they are secluded with protection generally overhead and behind them. Perhaps in your seating area you have an area cleared out where they can view another part of the space that they enjoy viewing.

Make sure the seating is something that invites them to linger and enjoy all the sights, sounds and smells a woodland garden has to offer.

The Woodland Garden

Are you lamenting because none of your favorite flowers will grow in that particular shady spot, or because your lawn has become more of a moss garden under that huge tree? Your cause for suffering can just as easily be reason to celebrate. One of my alltime favorite types of gardens is the woodland garden. While not normally as showy as an english garden, for example, the woodland garden relies on form and texture and subtle variation in leaf color to provide dynamic interest. Many plants are specifically suited to this setting and thrive here. The key to woodland gardening is to think in layers, which will create a lush and vibrant scene. The tall trees provide the top layer, and understory trees such as dogwood, redbud, and shadblow fill in nicely at the mid level. Shrubs, then perennials, bulbs, groundcovers, and a few choice vines complete the tapsetry.
One medium to large tree is enough to start a small woodland garden, and if you are lucky enough to own a whole woodlot, consider the awesome garden possibilities before you start cutting! Shade is one of the prerequisites for a woodland garden. Proper soil is the other. MOST of the plants that grow in woodland conditions are adapted to soil which has had the benefit of many generations of leaf-fall and decomposition: namely, dark, rich, humusy soil. If your soil is more on the sandy or clayey side, not to worry, there are remedies. For the smaller areas, the easiest remedy would be to order a load of loamy soil. One yard of soil will cover 100 sq.ft. to a 3″ depth, which is about right for our purposes. If importing soil is cost prohibitive, good results can still be achieved by incorporating compost and organic material. Generally incorporating as much compost and OM as possible will improve clay and sand soils and create good conditions for woodland plants. You may or may not want to till in the compost the first year, depending on a few things, including tree roots. After the first year, several inches of well composted organic matter should be added every year, and it is not necessary to till at all. This will simulate natural forest conditions and create lush healthy plants.
Springtime is the highpoint of the woodland flower display. Woodland bulbs can be among some of the earliest to show and create a spectacular show. Most woodland wildflowers, shrubs, and trees are also spring-bloomers. Having said this, late summer and fall can hold hidden charms as well, as is evidenced in the next 2 photos below.
Woodland gardening is a great opportunity for sustainable landscaping. There are many native species to choose from, as well as a number of unique non-invasive non-natives which you may want to use sparingly for their interesting textures and forms. Creating a layered garden also creates the perfect habitat for attracting many types of wildife, from birds to toads and salamanders and a wide variety of beneficial insects. Woodland gardens like to be slightly moist, but are also very good at conserving water, and all the shade helps keep the ground and air under the canopy cool. Occasional and minimal watering should be sufficient, and plant selection can be tailored for especially dry shady spots.
a SHORT LIST of native woodland plants:

• The canopies of the multistem birch trees are thinned each year to make the woodland more transparent, admitting more light so plants underneath can be seen

• The lesser celandine, Ranunculus ficaria ‘Brazen Hussy’, is from the same family as hellebores and anemones, and has bright yellow flowers atop purple leaves. Like all good woodlanders, it naturalises quickly

• Acer palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’ has coral-red bark to rival any dogwood, but has a more graceful summer appearance, with bright green, almost yellow foliage tinged with red

• Helleborus x hybridus ‘Ashwood Garden Hybrids’ offer some of darkest purple, clearest yellow and most intricately patterned hellebores. Buy plants in flower now, so you can pick the best colours

• The snakes head fritillary, Fritillaria meleagris, and its white variety will spread by seed and soon naturalise if the soil is moist and well-drained

Woodland gardens typically peak in spring, but The Dell, John Massey’s canalside garden in the West Midlands, has something to offer all year. In winter numerous trees give colour and structure, among them Prunus serrula, which Massey jet-washes so the bark gleams. There are also witchhazels and dogwoods, but it is the woodland floor that produces an ever-changing stream of colour. Early snowdrops and cyclamen are accompanied by ‘Ashwood Garden Hybrid’ hellebores, the result of years of selection from Massey’s nursery next door (ashwood-nurseries.co.uk). Next come fritillaries, erythroniums and anemones. Then, as spring turns to summer, there are orchids, the foliage of the hellebores, corydalis, ferns and purple-leaved Ligularia dentata ‘Britt-Marie Crawford’, which tones things down for a softer look that endures into autumn.

Massey stripped and stacked the turf from a piece of flat ground to make a free-draining bank, then worked in soil and carved out hollows to make a variety of situations. He finds that what he calls “snow melt” plants need lots of moisture and good drainage, so an irrigation system was also installed. Each year he adds a mulch of old manure and bark to emulate the well-rotted organic matter of a wild woodland floor.

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