Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
September, 2005
Regional Report

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Peaceful, serene, inviting, and cool, a woodland garden is an oasis for humans and wildlife.

Woodland Gardens

If you have a yard with lots of trees, you have the option of creating a woodland garden. This type of garden will utilize shade and moisture-loving plants. Removing the lower limbs of the existing trees will create a canopy of shade and yet still leave an open feeling and good air circulation for the woodland plantings.

Woodland gardens usually incorporate a path so you can wander while you ponder. You might also include some kind of seating area where you can rest, reflect, read, or just enjoy being outside. These kinds of gardens reflect nature in their appearance and therefore seem to have a more intimate feeling.

Shade Plants
Here are a few plants to consider for your woodland garden. All require partial shade and regular watering.

Hostas are a low-growing perennial grown for their magnificent, ribbed foliage. The gray-green or variegated color of the leaves stand out well in shady areas. Hostas are not fussy about soil but they do require protection from snails. After planting, use a mulch of peat moss to prevent water from splashing up onto the leaves. It just makes them look nicer. Fertilize once a year in midsummer to encourage hostas to multiply and bloom.

Hellebores (Helleborus foetidus) are also suited to a woodland garden if you can provide rich soil amended with organic matter. I love hellebores. The delicate flowers are not flashy but they have a quality that makes them very pleasing to my mind. The flowers are discovered rather than viewed outright. Mulch the area surrounding these plants frequently with organic compost. Don't move or divide hellebores too often since they take a while to become established.

Ferns are a natural choice for a woodland setting. Use a variety of ferns to add interest and texture. Keep the faded fronds picked off to keep the plants looking tidy. One of my favorites, the maidenhair fern, does very well outdoors here. It's funny that people have so much trouble trying to grow this fern indoors, when all it wants is to be put outside.

Bleeding heart (Dicentra) is a perennial that blooms with spikes of heart-shaped flowers in spring. I have a soft spot for this plant; my grandmother had it growing all down her shady driveway under the old grape arbor.

Rhododendrons and azaleas are excellent choices for a woodland garden, as are dogwood trees. A good companion plant for rhododendrons is Pieris japonica is a variegated evergreen shrub that requires regular water and a rich, fast-draining soil. The flowers bloom in delicate clusters that resemble tiny Japanese lanterns. The only pruning pieris require is to remove the spent flowers after they bloom.

Trillium is a member of the lily family and blooms in the early spring. These plants will die off in mid- to late summer; withhold water at that time.

Calceolaria 'Golden Nugget' is a perennial that grows to about 3 feet. It's covered spring through fall with clusters of pure golden yellow flowers. Put a star by this one!

Peruvian lily (Alstroemeria) has lily-shaped flowers in a variety of colors. It blooms throughout the summer months. To harvest the flowers to enjoy indoors, grasp individual stems near the base and twist while pulling gently. The clumps should be divided every four to five years or when the plant stops blooming.

"Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow" (Brunfelsia) is a perennial shrub that holds the sweetly scented purple flowers on the branches as they fade. They range in color from bright deep purple to the palest lavender, hence the name.

Forget-me-nots (Myosotis) will naturalize in the garden by dropping seed. The lovely periwinkle-colored flowers are hardy and grow abundantly on their own in the wild. Provide water to extend the bloom period.

Vancouveria is a ground cover that grows by underground runners. The foliage resembles maidenhair fern. This woodland plant blooms in early spring and will spread over time.

Lily of the Valley is another favorite that will naturalize over time. They do especially well under pines.

Providing Nutrients
Top-dress the plants in your woodland garden with a thick layer of mulch to mimic the natural leaf fall in a forest. The mulch also will prevent weeds from growing and keep the soil from losing moisture.

Filoli Gardens in Woodside has a magnificent woodland garden, open to the public, where you can view most of the plants listed here.

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