Woodland plants occur in horizontal layers from the sky to the ground, with canopy trees overhead, small trees and shrubs in between, and bulbs, wildflowers, ferns and mosses on the ground. In the woods, the ground has layers of loose, humus-rich soil approximately four to six inches deep that consists of rotting leaves and debris above a more solid or compact soil. This rich, acidic soil is the key to growing a great woodland wildflower garden.
A woodland garden can be created in different sites of the garden. It’s best to site your proposed woodland garden where overhead trees cast shade throughout the day. This can be in natural woodland, in a small group of trees, or even under one large tree.
The preparation of the garden consists of clearing out undesirable foliage, underbrush, invasive vines, and small saplings. Vines should be removed from the site and not just cut from the bottom. Leave the existing desirable shrubs in strategic places beneath the canopy trees. Prune off low-hanging branches and open up the canopy by selectively pruning the trees so that some light falls below. This way, trees will develop larger canopies.
Lay out a path to meander among the trees, as it gives structure to the garden. However, your path should look very natural. Logs, stones, or mulch can all be used to achieve this look. Personally, I find stone paths are the most attractive. They look natural, and after some time, moss will begin to grow on top of the stones. A sitting area with chairs or benches can be developed at the end of your path. Also, the path or sitting area can situate an urn with shade-growing annual flowers, such as colorful Begonias, or Lobelia combined with English Ivy.
Most woodland flowers are spring blooming. The great majority bloom before the overhead canopy of leaves can block out significant sunlight, they then die to the ground by midsummer. Spring bloomers are perennials, such as Dicentra (Bleeding Heart), Golium Odoratum (Sweet Woodruff), Iris Cristata (Crested Iris), Phlox Stolomifera (Creeping Phlox), and bulbs, such as Daffodils, Crocus, and Lily of the Valley. I strongly recommend including bulbs in the plant selection of any woodland garden, because these conditions will allow your bulbs to thrive and re-multiply year after year.
It is important to add a generous amount of Ferns to your garden. Their foliage sustains the garden summer and fall. Perennials, such as Hostas and Astilbes are excellent companions to the Ferns. They also add color to the garden during summer and fall. Astilbe has different types of colors. They go from white to purple and in-between you have peach, pink, and red. Chinese Astilbe is low to the ground, so you can vary the height and create a path. Plant spreading types of so they can roam freely and fill in to become dramatic swathes. Annual flowers, such as Begonias, Lobelia, and Pansies add color and grace to the woodland garden during the seasons. They should be planted in masses for statement of texture and color.
Arrange perennial and annual flowers, bulbs, and ferns in groups under the trees and along the path edges, but don’t set them out in rows. Take ideas from nature and don’t worry about leaving open spaces between the groups. When designing a woodland garden, plant large masses of individual flowers and strategically place some shrubs. Try to imitate nature to get the most natural look.
Landscape designer, writer and lecturer Frederico Azevedo is the founder of Unlimited Earth Care, Inc., providing landscape design and maintenance to the Hamptons for over 20 years. For more information; call 631-725-7551 or visit www.unlimitedearthcare.com.