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Creating Woodland Gardens

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 create 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, create 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 create the shrub layer. Ground layer plants include perennials, ferns and bulbs.

The forest landscape changes often 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 begins to close, plants such as ferns, mosses and perennials become the focus of the garden as they create 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 begins the season with flowers and red fruits. After its colorful fall foliage falls to the ground its bark, which flakes with age, provides 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 sure to include benches and spaces for rest as gardens in the shade provide a pleasant respite from the hot summer sun.

T Hallinan is a landscape designer and builder in Massachusetts. Visit his garden resource website for all kind of helpful information. For more garden guides, visit

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