Lee Valley Tools    Gardening Newsletter
   Vol. 7, Issue 4
    June 2012
   Woodland-Style Shade Gardening
The author's woodland gardenThe author's woodland garden
The author's woodland garden displays a range of attractive plants.

Designing a Woodland Garden
The woodland garden has a distinctive character. For many, it instills a sense of serenity and relaxation. While peaceful, it is not without action and animation, as many birds, insects and other creatures make their home here. Some may consider this type of garden to be somewhat messy looking, but pinecones, acorns, leaves, broken branches and twigs strewn about the ground are nature's litter and add realism to the design. The diversity of plant life, from groundcover to knee-high wildflowers to shoulder-height shrubs to towering trees, creates a layered look. The garden's line and form is often composed of interconnected capes and bays that mimic the shadow cast by overhead trees. This meandering outline draws the eye in and releases it outward; it also establishes repetition and rhythm, two important elements in garden design.

Before proceeding with your garden plan, evaluate how shady your garden is, how long the shade lasts and its sources. Tall buildings will cast a shade quite different from that of the foliage of open-branched trees. The selection and placement of plant material will depend on this evaluation, as well as a number of other factors such as plant form, texture, summer interest, fall colors and fruits. Additionally, tree and shrub silhouettes are critical for adding winter interest.

When it comes to woodland flowers, remember that they are often short lived, disappearing when overhead tree foliage appears. As well, many woodland plants produce soft, pastel-colored blooms that make a statement only when planted in large quantities. The distribution of plants, particularly wildflowers, should be somewhat informal and respectful of their natural growth patterns. Photographs of local parks and conservation areas will give you valuable insight as to how they should be sited. Where I live (Canadian hardiness zone 6; American zone 5), trilliums grow in clumps, rhizome-rooted Solomon's seal (Polygonatum biflorum) grows in drifts, stolon-spreading foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) forms sheets, and seed-spreading native columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) appears at random. Groups of plants in a woodland garden tend to weave into each other, with their edges often overlapping. Taller trees dominate the upper levels, while smaller horizontal-branched trees, such as the alternate-leaf dogwood (Cornus alternifolia), with its pagoda-like shape, and redbuds (Cercis canadensis), reach for light at lower levels.

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