It seems April showers have brought May showers. I don’t think that’s how it’s supposed to work, but that’s the way it is. The garden is holding its breath, waiting for the “all clear” light to flash, so it can resume growing. The bulbs had a nice long season of cool, but their petals are now confetti. I hope there were enough hardy pollinators around when the fruit trees flowered. And once again, it rained on the lilacs, distilling their scent to a mere whiff.
The next flowers in the parade of color are not looking too confident of the weather. The columbine blossoms are at an impasse between half open, half hesitant. The one group of flowers that didn’t seem to notice the capricious weather was the woodland plants. The trillum, Solomon’s seal, twin-leaf, bloodroot, even the somewhat domesticated bleeding hearts and lungwort… have all been somewhat brazen about calling the garden their own, this spring.
One of my favorite Hudson Valley gardens, Stonecrop, is a marvelous place to see woodland plants at their finest. It’s always a little colder at Stonecrop than it is down in the valley. They are in the Hudson Highlands, after all. But the garden is open for the season and there’s always something new popping up. That have a bloom calendar on their site, but who knows this year? Dress in layers and take your chances. It’s worth it.
Stonecrop is the perfect site for woodland gardens, but they didn’t just happen and they aren’t left to their own devices. A woodland garden that is not tended is just a wood. However, woodland gardens are not as high maintenance as many other forms of ornamental gardens and they tend to have 1 peak season… now. And in this chilly, gray weather, it is much more pleasant to work around a garden at its peak, than to spend your time weeding a border of fading bulbs and apprehensive heat lovers.
If you’ve got a wooded area, or even a few trees or structures that create partial shade in your yard, you’ve got enough to start a woodland feature. Here are my 7 keys to a woodland garden that will make even the coldest springs still fell like spring has sprung.
1. Go green
Woodland flowers are not flashy. In fact, many of the flowers are under the plant leaves, so you really have to search, to see them. There aren’t many flying pollinators around when they bloom, so they make it more convenient for the crawlers to help them out.
Since you won’t get splashy color from woodland plants, focus on the green leaves. Incorporate different textures, shapes and forms. There are plenty of lacy ferns and dicentras, bold, round ginger leaves and gently arching Solomon’s seal, to get you started.
2. Natives mean less maintenance
One of the nicest features of woodland plants is that they are usually native, or at least naturalized, and are more than happy to spread themselves around. That can be a bad thing, in a sunny garden, but you want to cover space under trees. Some will travel by rhizome, but many will disperse their seeds. The flowers seem to disappear afterward, which means no deadheading is required.
They’ll need rich soil to do this, so don’t be too tidy about cleaning up the leaves in the fall. Let them disintegrate in place.
3. Water is always welcome
Rainy seasons, like this one, improve woodland gardens. Somehow the plants seem even greener in damp soil. It’s not always moist under trees, since tree roots tend to win the competition for water. If you can plant your woodland garden at the bottom of a slope, it will stand a better chance of getting all the water it needs. However, because it is in a shaded area, lack of rain doesn’t become a problem as quickly as it does in a sunny site. Still, if you need to redirect water from a gutter or drain, this is the place to aim it toward.
4. Raise the canopy or work with what you have.
Although woodland plants thrive in partial shade, they do need some sun. If you are planting under a leafless spring tree, make sure it won’t totally block the sun when the leaves do appear. Many gardeners raise the canopy of their trees, in order to make space underneath for flowers. Do this before you plant, or you will wind up crushing the plants underneath. It’s amazing the difference removing a few lower branches can make in both the amount of light that gets through and the increase in space for working in your woodland plot.
5. Most people will be looking down. Give them a reason to look up.
The low plants, the crunch of leaves and branches underfoot, and the uneven nature of woodlands all tend to entice visitors to keep their focus downward. While it is wonderful to see the blanket of spring natives blooming at your feet, some spring blooming trees, interesting bark, and hanging ornaments will lift their gaze and remind them that this is not just a woods, it is a sheltered oasis.
If you do raise the canopy, you can then layer your plants with a top layer of tall trees, a mid section of shrubs, like azaleas, dogwood, and hydrangea, and then the lower layer of perennials. This is the way a wood would naturally develop. Of course, you’ll be doing some curating and keeping the plants in check.
Which leads into the sixth tenant, include some surprises. These are usually man made, and can be as simple as a bench or gurgling fountain. or whimsical, like a colorful colony of ceramic mushrooms. Since woodland gardens are predominantly green, any splash of color will jolt the senses. Be subtle. You don’t want to ruin the innate tranquil atmosphere of woods.
You can also add surprise with your paths, if your woodland is large enough to have paths. Let them curve and swoop, blocking what’s around the corner, until the big reveal.
7. Sit and enjoy
We shouldn’t need to be reminded to sit in our gardens, but so few of us do. Woodlands come alive quickly, in the spring. You won’t even need a book, to keep yourself occupied there. The animals will work around you and eventually ignore you.