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Add a Woodland Garden
by Gene E. Bush - posted 01/30/18

This mature oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) shelters native wildflowers beneath its large leaves.

My woodland garden is now 30-plus years old. During all those years of reading magazine articles, purchasing gardening books and attending numerous symposiums, two teachers have stood out above all else. I would highly recommend both as your next shade garden gurus. Wisest of all woodland gardening gurus is the forest trail closest to you for frequent visits and observations.

It can and will teach you all you need to know about gardening in the shade. The more you visit and observe forests, the more you are capable of learning. A local wildflower guide will give you names to those plants you see while hiking the trails. Now you know the names of the plants that you find attractive and want to include in your shade garden. Knowing the names means a purchase at your local garden center, or perhaps a mail order, can be made.

Polygonatum sibericumis a bit over 5 feet of stiffly upright, clumping stems. Leaves and stems are blue-green and the small white flowers hang like tassels in the leaf junctions.

Shade garden or woodland garden?
Perhaps the words “shade garden” would fit many gardeners better than “woodland garden.” Many gardeners will not have the opportunity to garden beneath mature trees, but rather will garden in the shade of a building. However, the needs of the two environments are very similar.

Nature has created an environment in our deciduous woodlands that is centered on seasons. Some perennials awaken early in late winter before the leaves appear on trees; quickly bloom, set seed and then go dormant as the canopy closes above. Some plants will not bloom until the last gasp of fall. Foliage will become very important as it will often change colors with the seasons. All have adapted to surviving and thriving at the feet of the tall trees that demand first share of water and nutrients.

There are many levels of growth in a forest that translate into garden design. Tall shade trees, with an overall canopy above that takes first serving of available light, have a root system that all plants below must compete with. Beneath the largest trees are medium trees followed downward in size by shrubs. Finally it is on the forest floor where the perennials, tubers and bulbs are located. Vines begin the journey upward once more from floor to ceiling of the shaded environment.

Soil composition
We gardeners attempt to do what it took nature hundreds, even thousands, of years to accomplish. We want that optimal growing environment of humus-rich garden soil that is well-drained, but retains moisture. Mother Nature accomplished that with falling leaves each November — leaves that eventually crumbled along with the twigs and limbs; sometimes entire trees that fell over and rotted among the carpet of dead foliage. Insects lived and died among the leaves and limbs, adding to the layer we refer to as forest duff. Soil is a living web of fungi, bacteria and living organisms that are both visible and too small to be noticed when we disturb the soil.

Shade distinctions
Shade is nothing more than an obstruction between you and the sun.

Some woodland plants grow at the edge of the forest, some grow in the center where shade is darkest, and others grow in a clearing or thicket. There is a variation in the amount of light some woodland plants need to bloom well and thrive. You will need to determine how much light your garden has to offer so you know where to place your plants.

Mark the boundaries of your garden, and begin to check the area at various times of the day. As the sun moves from east to west the intensity and duration of available light changes from hour to hour. The premium placement for a woodland garden is an eastern exposure, for it is the most gentle of exposures, protected from the hottest part of the day.

A shaft of sunlight shines through dogwood (Cornus sp.) foliage in the center of this shaded garden. A hedge shields the garden from full force of the sun.

Creating by emulating Nature

When beginning a shade garden, the soil should be loosened, usually to a depth of 8 to 12 inches. Since we are disturbing a living web when loosening the soil, I add a good compost, along with organic matter such as aged hardwood mulch to compensate, and mix thoroughly. I always top-dress with chopped leaves or composted hardwood mulch that will decay in a year or two, adding to the top layer as a water-retaining and temperature-regulating blanket.

I am a firm believer in using native plants. Begin with what grows in your region — for nothing encourages more gardening like success. Plants native to your area are already adapted to your climate and soil. Create by emulating what nature is showing by example.

If, at some point in your shade gardening success you wish to expand your horizons, there is another related world to explore. There are shade-loving plants from around the temperate world known as non-native or exotic plants. Many are related to our natives. There is no end of hardy plants available to a shade gardener. Mostly it is a shortage of awareness.

Take that walk, purchase that wildflower guide, and create a bit of nature in your yard.


A version of this article appeared in a November/December 2016 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Gene E. Bush.


Gene E. Bush is a shade garden expert, writer, consultant, speaker and photographer who would enjoy hearing from you at