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How to Design a Woodland Garden

Instead of trying to impose a garden through extensive pruning and soil conditioning, prepare the site for woodland plants, such ferns, shade loving shrubs and perennials. Plants suited to these conditions will grow and thrive without major site preparation.

Limited site manipulation if fine. Lower branches may need to be pruned to allow access into the garden, smaller trees may need to be removed to avoid competition and some organic compost can be added to the site in order to make optimal growing conditions.

Woodland gardens, which mimic the forest landscape, have four vertical elements; the canopy layer, the understory, the shrub layer and the ground layer. Try to incorporate each layer into your garden.

The canopy layer consists of the tallest trees which provide the shade and dictates what you'll be able to plant. The type of canopy determines the amount of light reaching the ground. Closed canopies allow little to reach the ground and are created by evergreens and large deciduous trees growing close together. Open canopies, on the other hand, make dappled shade and occur when trees are spaced far apart. The understory layer in made up of the smaller woodland trees such as the flowering dogwood. Viburnums, azaleas and other lower growing woody plants make the shrub layer. Ground layer plants include perennials, ferns and bulbs.

The forest landscape changes frequently so plan accordingly; design your garden giving thought to the seasonal changes in the landscape. In the spring, beneath deciduous trees, quite a bit of sunlight is able reaches the ground through the branches This allows flowering perennials and bulbs to bloom. Though the spring flower display can be stunning, be careful not to plan your woodland garden around these flowers as they will soon disappear and die back to the ground. Include plants with lush foliage which will last through the summer months. As spring progresses and the canopy starts to close, plants such as ferns, mosses and perennials become the focus of the garden as they make a lush green carpet.

In the fall, trees such as sugar maple, dogwood and hickory and deciduous shrubs such as viburnum and summersweet provide brilliant, colorful foliage. After their fall display, deciduous plants drop their leaves replenishing the soil with nutrients that has been stored in their foliage.

Don't overlook features such as a plant's form, colorful berries and interesting bark. It is these features which are treasured through the winter months. Berry producing plants also provide wildlife with food.

Many woodland plants can be considered year-round attractions. For example, the dogwood starts the season with flowers and red fruits. After its colorful fall foliage falls to the ground its bark, which flakes with age, supplies the garden with interest through the winter. The birch tree's beautiful form is most noticeable in the winter after it sheds its brilliant yellow leaves. Red twig dogwood is a shrub layer plant which, as the name suggests, has red bark. It stands out wonderfully against the snow and the barren winter landscape.

When planning your woodland garden, be certain to include benches and spaces for rest as gardens in the shade provide a pleasant respite from the hot summer sun.

Selecting Plants

The general rule when creating a woodland community is to start from the ground up. Follow these general guidelines to create a woodland habitat. Visit surrounding woodland communities and see if you can identify the species there. Use a field guide to help you or see if a local expert can take you on a tour of a nearby woodland. Take photos and identify canopy and under-story species to see what your woodland could look like.

Start by planting early successional wildflowers, such as black-eyed Susan, gray-headed coneflower and wild bergamot, in the spring. These species enjoy the full sun offered by little tree cover and will gradually decline as trees are added to your woodland community. They also provide protection for the root system of trees and help to build healthy soil structure by trapping leaves and other debris, which will decompose in the area. Plant trees and shrubs the following season (fall or spring). Or wait a few years and watch the tree species that move into your woodland garden but remove any invasive species that arrive. Observe the changes that take place as your trees grow and the under-story adjusts to more shade.

Introduce more shade-loving species as the canopy layer develops. Maintenance Maintenance is rarely a problem in woodland gardens once they begin to be shaded by trees, since many hardy weeds need sunny locations to thrive. However, you will need to do some maintenance early on to help establish a mature woodland garden. Unlike prairie and meadow communities, woodlands do not have the same abundance of colour throughout the summer. Try planting ferns and other plants with interesting shapes and texture to add variety after spring blooming ephemerals have finished their show.

Add compost every year in the spring, summer or fall. Make sure it covers the area at the base of your plants to nourish them throughout the year.

Water your plants to help them establish and during periods of drought to maintain the medium to moist soil conditions your plants require.

Add mulch around your plants to help conserve moisture.

In the fall, cover your woodland garden with a 15-centimetre layer of leaves. The leaves will protect your plants from extreme changes in weather conditions, and will eventually decompose, adding more nutrients to the soil.

Remove any invasive species (e.g. Norway maple and garlic mustard) that find their way into your natural woodland.

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