Woodland Gardening-Help needed for beginner

ldummitt(z6 OH)April 20, 2005

The previous owners did not do much to develop the yard. The area to consider is approximately 60' wide by 200' deep. It's peppered with trees of ash, hickory, walnut and other's I've yet to determine. The area is divided into two sections, one which is fenced (split rail) and the other completely natural. Inside of the fenced area, we cleared out the thicket, vines, larger sticks, etc last summer to see what we were dealing with. What is left is a leafy covered ground with patches of moss, some type of woodland plant (weed?) that is growing in patches throughout the yard and quite a bit of hard, rocky, rootbound soil that has never been amended. The previous owners did create two beds by the house that are usuable, however they look awkward against the undeveloped yard.

My dream is to create a beautiful woodland garden. I see pictures in books and magazines showing the beautiful varieties available however I don't know where to begin. We aren't set on a particular style other than keeping the natural feel and working with the landscape.

We don't even know where to begin with developing the yard. Would we begin by amending the soil? If so, do we only amend in areas we want to plant or do we amend and re-work the entire yard? We also want to rid of the UGLY dirt! Do we get a chipper and chipchop anything and everything that's been left behind to use as mulch? We really need help with where to begin. Any suggestions would be appreciated!

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nacnud(z3 Indiana)

What a coincidence: I just joined GardenWeb because I'm making a shade garden myself at the back of my yard, due to start this weekend. It's not quite as big as yours - 60' x 200' is A LOT of garden! With ash, hickory, walnut? Sounds wonderful. I have a large lot myself, but the shady area is only a small portion of land at the back that has several large ash and maple trees that make some very deep shade in the summer. We've been in the house since January before last, and our previous owner wasn't a gardener either.

I've already done some research on shade gardens, and here's what I've come up with.

First of all, do some planning. Are you interested in flowers, or leaf textures? Most shade plants don't flower nearly as well as full sun plants. Overall, I'm going with differnt textures myself, trying for a calm, quiet, cool place to relax, very natural, almost wild, away from the summer sun. I'm concentrating on native shade plants, stuff like monkshood, solomon's seal, cardinal flower, celandine poppy and maidenhair fern because these usually do better than other non-native species, they are more drought tolerant, and less invasive. Also, I'm leaving a downed tree along the west edge of the wooded area because it fell in such a way as to make a natural barrier between the shade garden and my kids' playset, and a beautifully curved bench to sit on as well, just the right height and width. I just finished cutting off all of the branches and the tops, leaving only the trunk. The stump is almost eight feet tall, so I've planted morning glory all around the base, so it will cover the stump with a mass of leaves and flowers this summer. At the end of the year I'll decide whether or not to leave the stump.

You do need to ammend the soil. Everything I've read on the subject says that most shade plants need good loose soil with plenty of leaf mold and humus, good mulch and a fair amount of moisture too - the trees soak up huge amounts of water. But, you only need to ammend in the area that you are planting in. Some basic long-release fertilizer should do the trick, followed by mulching after the plants are in. Also, pay attention to the soil's acidity. Some shade/ part shade shrubs, like rhodedendrons and azaelias, need acidic soil.
From the sound of it, you already should have a fair amount of leaves, sticks and stuff that you can use as mulch.

I have a fairly large area (for me!) that I'm dealing with, and I'm going to do it in sections: dig it up, ammend the soil, design a scheme for that particular section, plant and mulch before moving on to the next one. I think that this will mot only not kill me within the first week (!), it will also mean that different sections of the shade garden will have different plants and shrubs, and therefore different textures, colors and "feel", for lack of a better word. Also it'll be more natural, I hope. I'm going to put a flagstone path around the outer edge of the wooded area, with a sun and partial shade perennial border in between, and the paths under the trees will all be wood mulch, so its quiet when people walk there. I'm going to plant things like yarrow and mint along the edges of the border path and let them grow so that when you walk, you bruise their leaves with your feet and get that beautiful herb kind of scent. Then, between the border and the shade garden I'm going to plant a line evergreens, probably juniper, so that the shade garden is more enclosed, kind of secret. It should have the effect of making the shade garden quieter, and greener, and the evergreens will make a good backdrop for the plants and shrubs on both sides of the edge border.
Also (phew!), My wife wants to have either a large patio or a small gazebo under the trees as well. So far I'm leaning towards a patio of natural stone, to keep the 'wild' character under the trees, as it were.
One of the ideas I also had is to plant early bulbs, crocuses, daffodils and maybe tulips under the trees. These all bloom before most trees leaf in the spring, so leaf shade is not a problem for them. This should give me a lovely splash of color under the trees, for a month or so before the native plants take off. I'll be planting these in the fall, so I'll have to carefully mark the areas that I want them in, once I've planted the other plants and shrubs.
Getting a chipper would be a good idea if you have a lot of branches. Or, if you aren't too fussy about having a compost heap (like me!) you could layer the sticks in a bin with grass clippings and leaves instead, wait a year, turning it over once a month or so, giving it a sprinkle once in a while, and you'll have some great compost/mulch the spring after. You should save all your dead leaves and grass clippings for compost and mulch too.

Rotten stumps make good mulch as well. I've got a huge old stump of a willow tree at the east edge of my yard, a real eyesore, almost four feet high and as wide across, but it just comes away in my hands, so I spread it on my bulb bed down the side of the house. I've got so much that I'm going to use it in my shade garden too.
In terms of shade plants to use, try this: go to google and search for "shade plants". There are a number of nurseries around the country that specialize in them, and some of them have shade garden packs that give you several different plants, and suggestions for arranging them. Prices of these packs range from $500.00 to $200.00.
In terms of ground cover, I have ground ivy that's been established for years. The stuff is very tough, grows quickly, has nice shiny, sculpted leaves and pretty purple flowers in the spring, but it's horribly invasive, chocking out everything. It's taken over almost a third of my lawn, and it'll be years before I can get it all out. Again, you probably want to go with something local.

Can you tell that I LOVE gardening?
Hope this helps!

    Bookmark   April 22, 2005 at 12:00AM
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knottyceltic(S/W Ontario 5b)

Hi there. I have a similar property although not so big I don't think. Like you, it's a change for me because we moved here in the summer of 2003 from a zone 6b hot/parched/sunny property, to this new property that is zone 6a and often cool/shady/forested and damp part of the year and bone dry the rest of the year. I have had to learn all new stuff about gardening because everything at my old house was sun gardening and now most everything here is shade and woodland gardening and a new zone as well.

Our new property is a city lot that was established in an old 2nd or 3rd growth farmer's woodlot. The woodlot has really been desecrated but we are trying to do our part in revitalizing or reestablishing what was once a nice woodlot.

In our first year here all we did was what you folks have been doing... CLEAN UP. We spent untold hours pulling out an invasive, alien vine called "Oriental Bittersweet". Then we spend time getting rid of (digging up) poison ivy. And THEN we spent a whole season removing zillions of these invasives called "Garlic Mustard". That took about 9 months of pulling and digging. We had decided when we bought the lot that we would return it to a native woodlot making sure to remove the aliens and replace them with "native to our area" plants, shrubs and trees.

We started that process by drawing out our little piece of property on a piece of paper. Then we plotted all our existing plants and trees. After that we designed paths winding about in the woods. Then we really took a look at the canopy to see where there was need for various heights of plantings. Because the woodlot is several generations old the canopy is high and there is nothing between the canopy and the floor. So our plan is to fill in that huge gap to form a more natural looking woods. To do this we first looked up all our native "local" trees. Then we looked up their mature heights and noted the pros and cons of each species. We did the same with shrubs and plants too. On our little map of our yard we plotted out where some taller trees would need to go, where shrubs would fit in nicely and then loosely where we would put wild flowers and ferns in amongst all the existing stuff. Initally all we had in the way of wild flowers after we ripped out all the invasives and aliens was a few trilliums, a lot of blue cohash and a lot of dog-toothed violets. We planted an Elderberry tree for a bit of height, a serviceberry which will eventually give us a bit more height, a redbud and some pin cherry. Now we are looking to finish up the shrubs with some spicebush and maybe another native dogwood. And finally that brings us to the present...we have room for one more tall tree which will either be a Tulip Tree or a Bur Oak. Over the course of 2 years we have added quite a lot of ground plantings as well.. all locally native. We've added ferns, bloodroot, wild ginger, more white trilliums, red trilliums, one painted trillium, solomon's seal as well as false solomon's seal, touch-me-not's and virginia bluebells. Things are just popping up and blooming right now so we are hoping that the woods will look much more lush this summer than it did the previous 2.

Take your time, decide on a theme if that's what you want to do and most of all, have fun with it.


S/W Ontario
Zone 6a

    Bookmark   April 22, 2005 at 12:02PM
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ahughes798(z5 IL)


you may not need to amend your soil, depending on what you want to grow. If you want to grow plants native to your area, I doubt you will have to...if you want to grow stuff like hostas, etc, you probably should, but only in the hole you're planting in. With all the trees you have, I'm sure there is plenty of leaf mould/mulch already on site, lucky you! And if you leave the leaves in place, they will continue to break down, fertilise the soil, and eventually turn into the rich humus you want. No need for chemical fertiliser, you already have plenty of organic fertiliser!

If you plant plants where they should be, i.e., in the conditions they need, instead of where you want them to be, you should have great success! I still do silly things like planting sun things in shade and vice versa.

I have a 1 tree woodland. It's a large old maple. In the fall, I leave the maple leaves over the garden. In the spring, about the end of march, I pull a lot of the leaves off the bed, because maple leaves compact down and form a wet layer that plants have a tough time getting through. Only maple leaves do this, leaves from other trees don't. If I would take the time to shred the maple leaves, it also would not be a problem, but it's too time consuming.

Please don't use a slow release fertiliser...you very likely don't need it, and have a woods full of it already! Save the money and spend it on more plants. April

    Bookmark   April 24, 2005 at 12:37PM
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