Q&A: Starting a Woodland Garden

I have a wooded area at the edge of my property and I’d like to turn it into a woodland garden. Do you have any advice?

Answer: Congratulations on your choice. A woodland garden can be very rewarding and enjoyable to create and look at, since it captures the magical quality of a natural woods, which is one of the most charming and peaceful scenes in nature. Even without a wooded area, gardeners can create a woodland scene by planting under an ornamental tree or trees.

The first thing you’ll want to do is improve the conditions for the plants you will add. It may be necessary to lighten the shade. Cut out some lower branches to raise the trees’ canopies and remove higher branches to thin out their crowns. This will allow more light to reach the ground, making it easier for plants beneath to flourish. You might want to create some patches where there is little or no shade. This will let you grow a wider variety of plants.

The soil under mature trees is often dry and poor in nutrients, especially on the north- and east-facing sides. Mulch the ground with organic matter, such as leaf mold, every spring. This will provide a reservoir of moisture for the plants’ developing roots. A balanced slow-release fertilizer or a dressing of compost applied regularly in spring will make the soil less impoverished.

Then decide whether you want to create a woodland similar in character to the local natural woods or to grow a more exotic scene. In temperate regions, the flowers of native trees are mostly muted in color, and so are many shade-loving plants found on the woodland floor. Woods in other parts of the world are far more colorful. To make a native woodland, choose plants indigenous to your locale, perhaps mixing in a few introduced species or bred cultivars. A local native-plant society would be a good help to you. To make a more colorful garden, include bright plants such as Asiatic rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias.

Flowering plants for woodland gardens:

Late winter/early spring

  • Cyclamen coum
  • Winter aconites (Eranthis)
  • Snowdrops (Galanthus)
  • Lenten rose (Helleborus)

Early spring/spring

  • Lungwort (Pulmonaria)
  • Primrose (Primula)
  • Navelworts (Omphalodes)
  • Wood anenome (Anenome blanderosa)
  • Trout lily (Erythronium)
  • Foam flower (Tiarella)
  • Trillium
  • Epimedium
  • Narcissus
  • Bluebells (Hyacinthoides)
  • Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum)
  • Bleeding heart (Dicentra)
  • Lily of the valley (Convallaria)

Late spring/summer

  • Geranium macrorrhizum
  • Geranium phaeum
  • Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis)
  • Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum)
  • Periwinkle (Vinca)
  • Foxgloves (Digitalis)
  • Bugbane (Actaea)

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