If you are fortunate enough to live on a property which supports large mature trees and at least average garden soil and available irrigation, you should seriously consider creating a woodland garden. Myself, I am not so lucky. I garden in a very arid hot area where most of us can only dream about such a garden. I’ve planted many trees in hopes that before I’m too old, I will have the opportunity to enjoy my own woodland retreat.
Woodland gardens awaken in spring before the tree canopies fill out. Plants that will be most successful are those with the ability to colonize or naturalize. Many creep along on rhizomes, others attach elongated stems to root at ground level and others produce a multitude of seeds. As the canopy grows, these early spring wildflowers will subside, many to dormant roots. When planning your woodland garden become familiar with the wild flowers in your area and collect as many as you can. Growing species of plants can be more rewarding than their nursery hybrids. Your woodland garden allows you to grow plants that may need protection from habitat destruction. Your woodland garden has few rules and gives you, the gardener, free rein to create a naturalistic setting.
You will need to recreate woodland soil, which is rich in decayed organic matter. Add generous amounts of leaf compost to make a dark, moist and fertile soil. Once spring rains have abated you will need to water your woodland deeply and often enough to prevent early dormancy of summer flowers.
Install natural structures such as curving paths, large rocks or benches. Pave your paths with bark mulch or wood chips, weaving them around the trees to give the garden form. If possible include a water feature such as a small pond, stream or a fountain.
Woodland gardens will also remove you from many of the tiresome chores of the conventional garden. Because of the diverse mix of plants used there will be less need for the use of pesticides and herbicides as there will be fewer pests and diseases.
What to plant? For a sense of mystery plant ferns. Sizes range from the huge ostrich fern to the small deer fern. If you live in a mild area, the evergreen ferns will create a beautiful winter ground cover. If your area will not support ferns try growing mosses and lichens to cover the bare ground.
Many of the spring woodland flowers originate from bulbs and tubers. To speed up the process of covering your woodland floor divide these clumps of plants after flowering. Lilies, trilliums and erythroniums will spread rapidly and are amazingly hardy. Also try scillas, siberian squill or glory of the snow to carpet your woodland floor. Most of these are available at nurseries or better yet mail order specialists.
When it comes to lilies stay away from most of the new hybrids. Better to use the trumpet species, turkscap species, American species and martagons. The martagons are easier to grow than the American species and are very hardy, even in parts of Canada. Include Alchemeilla mollis, Anemone, Aquilegia, Arum, Astilbe, Astrantia, Berginia, Brunnera, Bletilla striata, Caltha, Crocus, Convallaria, Cyclamen, Cypripedium, Dicentra, Dodecatheon, Epimedium, Helleborus, Hepatica, Hosta, Ivy, Lamium, Metensia, Narcissus, Oxalis, Pachysandra, Primula, Rodgersia, Sanguinaria, Sanguisorba, Thalictrum or Viola. Regardless of your garden situation or hardiness zone there are many plants to choose from. It may take a bit of trial and error to find the most suitable plants for your site. You might even find that you can reach a zone or two higher because of the protective mulching effect of your woodland floor.
Weeds will enter your woodland garden especially with new plantings. Keep them at bay now to reduce their aggressiveness. Don’t keep your garden floor too clean. Allow for leaves and twigs to accumulate and only remove large rotten branches and roots to prevent fungal diseases. Water only when necessary and in the beginning add lots of leaf mulch. Try to keep your garden as natural in appearance as possible to benefit from its calming and relaxing attributes.