Undulating border in the Pond Garden contains hellebores, trilliums, ferns and sedges with hardy geraniums in the summer. York Gate Garden, Adel, Leeds, Yorkshire – © Carole Drake/GAP Photos
When people inherit shady gardens covered in dense canopies, their hearts often begin to sink. Initial discussions are based around cutting down trees and clearing scrub, but wait before you reach for the pruning saw. Do you realise you’ve just been handed a golden horticultural opportunity?
“But nothing will grow in shade!” you might protest. We beg to differ. Think about it for a while – which trees and shrubs will survive? Your standard birch, hazel, rhododendron – yes, but how about witch hazel, enkianthus and corylopsis? Then there’s the perennials – ivy, geraniums and bergenias, you might say. Why not add to them erythroniums, trilliums, anemones, aconites and erythroniums? Or Lilium martagon? Ah, hang on – this woodland planting might not be as dull as you’d think.
Galanthus ‘Lady Elphinstone’ rising through leaf mould – © J S Sira/GAP Photos
It’s true to say that the habitat within woodlands is very specific. Winter light levels are rapidly swallowed up as leaves emerge. These stubbornly create shade right through the growing season, falling en masse to smother anything that happens to be growing below. Sounds pretty tough, but many plants have evolved to positively thrive in such conditions. That early-season light offers the perfect flowering window for a multitude of spring beauties, the dappled shade creates sheltered humidity and filtered light that won’t scorch jungle-sized foliage or dainty, tissue-paper flowers, and the falling leaves? Well, which plant doesn’t like to be tucked up for winter with a cosy organic mulch?
Create your design
Although now is an ideal time to plant, put pen to paper before fork to soil, and decide which style of woodland garden you’d like to own. Think of the backbone first – the trees and shrubs that give permanent height and structure. Japanese maples, amelanchiers and witch hazels are just a few that exhibit exciting autumn leaf tones reminiscent of New England’s national parks, and magnolias, rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias pack a floral punch in spring if you prefer to emulate Exbury gardens. Cornus, pieris, chimonanthus and osmanthus are all good choices, too, and perhaps Dicksonia if you’d like to add a touch of the Jurassic. Narrow, meandering mulched pathways lined with hosta, pulmonaria, arum, erythronium, dicentra, hellebore and polygonatum tempt you around hidden corners, and boardwalks floating above the ground are ideal for accessing more boggy areas. Here, vigorous foliage plants such as rodgersia, matteuccia and carex would all hold their own.
Species and structures
While few of us can celebrate our rolling acres with a boastful planting of Cardiocrinum giganteum, there are plenty of gems to opt for if space dictates the selection of compact species. Paris, trillium, corydalis, dodecatheon, arisaema, cypripedium, narcissi, anemonella – this tantalising list is endless. Such delicacies can occasionally demand a more sizeable price tag, so dedicated beds might be a sound investment if you get hooked (the plant lists of specialist nurseries such as Jacques Amand and Crug Farm Plants make addictive reading). Counteract a guilty spending spree by establishing economical froths of cow parsley, alkanet or red campion. Small clearings would also allow the positioning of Digitalis purpurea, Primula vulgaris and other species that like to sit on the sidelines with their faces in the light.
Mass plantings never fail to impress – who hasn’t been brought to silent admiration by a bluebell wood? Emulate this with swathes of other ground-covering flowers, such as galanthus
, Anemone nemorosa
, Ranunculus ficaria
. Alternatively, create a tapestry effect – heucherella
and Arum italicum
are just a few perennials with jaw-dropping foliage. Don’t forget structures like wood piles
, either and, if you feel so inclined, why not include a fanciful footbridge
? For those of us lucky enough to have the room, there’s nothing more delightful than pushing past eye-high foliage to discover a hidden clearing, complete with simple rustic seating politely positioned to admire the view. Well, it would be rude not to…