Editing the woodland ala Rick Darke - your experiences

ginger_nh(z4 NH)August 15, 2004

Recently, I have been drawn away from perennial gardens towards wilder woodland gardens. But not so much the "lots of natives and flowering woodland shade plants and hostas" type of woodland garden, but rather the aesthetic editing of natural woodland areas.

Rick Darke's work would be exemplary of this sort of "garden." I heard him speak at a conference 2 years ago and have his book on the American woodland garden.

I have found a first gardening client who is interested in this approach. I hope to have others and have changed my advertising and business card to reflect this new(to me) approach to gardens here in shady, wooded NH.

Does anyone have experience or interest in this sort of work as a home owner or garden/landscape designer? Stories to tell?


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Flowerkitty(Z6 or Z5 SE MI)

What do you mean by "aesthetic editing of natural woodland areas"? Do you mean removing invasives, non natives or undesirables" On my property I have subtracted more than added. I piled several feet of leaves onto a junky area full of creeping charlie, crabgrass and invasives last fall. This spring as plants came through the mulch I removed ones I recognized like charlie. If I am not sure, I let the plant grow until I can identify it. Plants are much easier to pull from soil softened by leaf cover. It was a slow process, but that area is now a pleasant, grassless woody area with ferns, wild grape and a number of isolated but unidentified plants. As this area is no longer mowed, tree seedlings are coming through. I am isolating redbud, elm, and cottonwood for possible transplant. I am continuing discovering new natives. Frankly many natives look alike to me when they start, a tall stem with oval leaves and buds on top. I have many still not identified. Just identified great blue lobelia when it bloomed. So beautiful. The seeds were either dormant under the original lawn, or brought by birds and wind. Mowing keeps them from ever returning. Mulching with leaves has allowed them to slowly return. Just removed stinging nettles which I had encouraged into a pretty arrangement. Found out the hard way. My brother had similar experience. He was pruning and maintaining poison oak until someone advised him. I had to let the plants take hold to identify them. This can get you into trouble with neighbors who call them weeds. I have learned that there is a whole mass of suppressed plant life waiting for a chance to survive. THey can't get a foothold into lawns. Only the tough guys like crabgrass and dandelions can get into sod. So you have to change the land to make it more friendly.

    Bookmark   August 15, 2004 at 1:47PM
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ginger_nh(z4 NH)

You describe exactly what I mean by "editing" woodland areas. Here is what I wrote on another forum in answer to replies I received on this topic:

Posted by: ginger_nh z4 NH (My Page) on Sun, Aug 15, 04 at 7:56
Thanks for the book tip. You are correct - much of "woodland editing" is understanding plant communities and the ecology of the site. Also, focusing on what is prominent and needs highlighting, framing, emphasis; judiciously taking out that which creates a chaotic or disorganized visual appearance; judiciously adding forest plants, including trees and shrubs, rather than perennials only. Putting in paths. Limbing up trees to give more light, raking off deep layers of leaves, and seeing what the forest seed bank may have that will spring forth, now that there is more light on a patch of the forest floor. And so on.
It is about training(or re-training) your eye to truly see the woodland, with an emphasis on light at different times of the day and of the seasons, shadow pattern, and natural sculptures formed by nature; also using the other senses to enjoy sounds, textures, and scents and emphasizing those parts of the woodland. Time is involved, of course, to truly experience this sort of woodland garden: taking the time to create it and enjoy it, understand it; time to experience the site through the seasons and the years, truly seeing what is there as time goes by.

This is an in-depth style of gardening. In today's parlance, an "extreme" style of gardening and probably only for nature lovers, the introspective and observant, those interested in the natural sciences of botony and ecology, and so on. Actually, nothing really "new", just a minimalist approach to civilizing the woodland to look even more beautiful.

In an aside, I have been reading the Botany Forum threads with interest, Mohave. Nice job getting it started.

Rick Darke's book on this topic is called "The American Woodland Garden." Beautiful photos and a naturalist's attention to detail. Costs $49.50 in bookstores. Amazon has used versions for less than half that. There are also other older books that I am reading and starting to collect that would be valuable for woodland gardening. One is on natural plant communities of the Eastern US, written in the 1920's. Can't find it right now, but if you become interested in this topic, I can let you know the title.

Did your trees survive the storm?


Back to our discussion: You write "I have learned that there is a whole mass of suppressed plant life waiting for a chance to survive."
What plants sprang up once you gave them an opportunity?

Have you read Rick Darke's book?

I am about to do some more clearing of my own land. I have striped maple(moose maple)that I am going to give some breathing room, a huge patch of big-leaf aster that popped up on bare ground I exposed last year, wood asters, lady slippers, may flowers, bluets. hayscented ferns, and lots more. Canopy is of red maple, sugar maple, oaks, beech, white birch, hemlock, white pine and red pine. I just purchased several trays of foamflower and Solomon's seal to plant out. I am looking for a nurse log to add a few woodland iris (mixed iris cristata)and mosses.

I read your page - I love exotic plants, heirloom annuals,old and new roses, cannas and orchids, too, plus trees, trees, trees. Have you visited the new Botany Forum?


    Bookmark   August 15, 2004 at 10:43PM
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I bought a 3 acre lot, and I'm trying to turn 1 of those acres back into a woodland. There were Maple, Oak, River Birch, Spruce, Ash, Pine, Walnut, Cottonwood, Redbud, and Willow trees present, along with the nasties like Honeysuckle, Buckthorn, Creeping Charlie, Garlic Mustard, etc. Some nice plants were present, like Jack in the pulpit, native impatiens, a few ferns. I have been killing off the grass and invasives, planting natives and non-native woodland perennials, shrubs, and trees. After a Roundup round, a second wave of grass and weeds came in before my plantings got established. Its lots of work keeping the bad guys at bay. The number of plants it takes to "restock" the woodland is also an eye opener. I have been collecting seed to help in that department. I wish you success in your business. Its a ton of work and a constant battle against invasive exotics.

    Bookmark   August 17, 2004 at 8:52AM
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Two words for you - winter sowing! I only have 1/3 of an acre and have been trying for a few years now to re-populate the woodland behind my house with low maintenance natives. I've started a fair # of natives from seed which is gratifying BUT it requires alot of patience. Fortunately for me, there are two mennonite nursery's nearby that have a surprising array of natives and related cultivars available. Trading online is another way to fill the area out at minimal cost. Good Luck....

    Bookmark   August 17, 2004 at 5:13PM
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ginger_nh(z4 NH)

We don't seem to have the extent of invasies that you are describing. In working on a property earlier this month, we found only a limited amount of Japanese barberry. We removed quite a bit of purple loosestrife from another client's pond earlier this summer. But usuually we find few of the invasives on our clients' properties. But then again, we have not been doing many woodland properties, so we shall see.

There is a like thread on the Landscape Design forum that I started; you may be interested in following it as well. Title is the same as this one.

Thanks for your reply and look forward to a continuing exchange.


    Bookmark   August 18, 2004 at 9:57PM
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waplummer(Z5 NY)

I have been editing my "woodland" garden a la Bill Plummer come 40 years next year. I distinguish between this and a woodland "garden" where one plants all kinds of shade plants. As many trees as possible were saved during construction, only to lose two oaks off the patio and one in the front woods. The front woods had seen a lot of vehicles and that first year several loads of horse manure was rototilled in and tons of rocks removed. The existing trees were supplemented by native flowering trees, shrubs, wildflowers and ferns, some bought and some rescued from lots not yet developed. Paths were laid out through both front and back woods. Trees and shrubs are pruned selectively and wildflowers and ferns are divided and replanted in other locations. If non-native plants, e.g. Asarum europeum, invade they are potted up if I have time or otherwise ripped out. This is a brief resume of a life's work.

    Bookmark   August 20, 2004 at 11:20AM
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ginger_nh(z4 NH)

Read your homepages with interest. Quite a quote for the ages that you have selected: "If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need" Cicero

Your 4th photo looks similar to my front yard in grade, distance from the road, and naturalized plantings. We have 1.44 acres of woodland, including large stands of pink lady slippers. Just found a 2'x3' patch of Indian pipes by the front stonewall yesterday. An ongoing drama plays out continuously on our little patch of land--enough for me.

I am originally from Western NY state. Corning has long been a special day trip spot for us. I last visited the museum in 2003. Are you an engineer? The creativity of engineering is so dramatically evident at Corning - amazing.

Your writing above is a small hx of woodland editing. So many stories people have to tell who work this closely with their land.


    Bookmark   August 21, 2004 at 9:34AM
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joepyeweed(5b IL)

two more words "fall burn" - excellent tool for woodland restoration...

    Bookmark   August 23, 2004 at 3:28PM
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Ginger, a couple of field guides I have found very valuable are National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers, eastern edition & Wild Flowers of North Carolina, by William S. Justice and C.Ritchie Bell (which also covers most of the eastern seaboard).
I realize they are both wildflower oriented more than woodland per se but I have found field guides very helpful in the planning stages & when cleaning up and revitalizing a wooded area.
In the wooded areas of the parks I don't always eliminate nasties like greenbrier ( Smilax varieties ) for an example, as they provide a food source for a wide variety of wildlife. I do however try to keep its' growth in check (LOL... but that's another story).

I take hikes through the woods @ various times of year during various stages of growth ( old forest vs. new forest) with a small notebook with me, can really be helpful at times, for jotting down what is blooming and other inspiring moments.

    Bookmark   August 24, 2004 at 4:30PM
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ginger_nh(z4 NH)

Burning isn't practical in the heavily populated Lakes Region of NH. Despite a summer of rain and overcast, damp and drizzle, fire stations are posting the risk of fire as "moderate" today. I have read some of your posts on this subject in other threads - it seems you are experienced and knowledgeable. Thanks for responding.

Using a notebook to record growth at different stages of development is good for iding plants as well as planning. Good idea. Also wise to use the books to further understand a plant's use to wildlife, to others in its plant community, to the specific ecology of the area, rather than singularly labeling it as a nuisance plant and always removing it. Two good thoughts. Thanks, Perry. Good to here from you again.

    Bookmark   August 24, 2004 at 5:13PM
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joepyeweed(5b IL)

usually a few years preparation work is required before a woodland area is ready for burning. and most populated areas wont allow a burn anyway. thats unfortunate because it really is one of the most effective tools and imitates mother nature the best we can. the area i am working on right now is probably two years away from being ready for a burn. there isnt any understory growing to burn anyway. but after we open up the canopy this fall - next years understory should be much more plentiful and diverse.

    Bookmark   August 26, 2004 at 9:17AM
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ginger_nh(z4 NH)

What plants do you forsee coming into your understory after opening the canopy? I opened up some soil along the edge of my woods bounding the backyard--a big colony of coltsfoot has moved in. I have never seen this plant before. Some information says it is an unwanted invasive. Looks beautiful right now as a grouncover with heart-shaped, scalloped leaves--somewhat like Canadian ginger.

    Bookmark   August 28, 2004 at 9:41AM
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joepyeweed(5b IL)

based on what i see in the area - after i open the canopy - i expect to see garlic mustard - ick... but i also expect some trillium, bloodroot, phlox, wild ginger and perhaps some woodland sunflower and sweet joe pye weed and then you never know what else ... some surprises might be wild geranium, dutchmans britches, hypatica - you just never know...
at my previous residence after i opened up the canopy - tall blue larkspur, sweet cicely, trillium, virgina waterleaf and false solomens seal filled in wonderfully under the trees... all of these came in as a complete surprise - i may get some of these coming in at our new place - only time will tell....

    Bookmark   August 28, 2004 at 7:45PM
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bob_r(z6 Ontario)

Ginger, may I (highly) recommend another book? You simply must read Forster & Downie's "The woodland garden - planting in harmony with nature" (1999; Raincoast Books, Vancouver). While written by Vancouverites, the book is relevant to North American woodland gardens in general.

You are quite aware of the long-term commitment required for woodscaping projects. No better example than Bill's commitment. (This is also true with woodland gardens that successfully integrate exotic plants in tranquil harmony with a natural setting.) Clients with vision may be willing (and of sufficient means) to retain your services for the long term, but I'm afraid that the desire for instant gratification is far commoner than vision. Good luck! Bob

    Bookmark   August 29, 2004 at 1:30AM
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ginger_nh(z4 NH)

I will try Amazon for the book, Bob. Thanks. I'm afraid you are right about the "instant beauty" gardening style of many Americans. Even annuals are now being sold less frequently in 6-packs and more frequently as bushy, expensive, mature plants in 4-8" pots. It seems that the beauty, joy, grace, and wonder of the growth and change process is being eschewed for "lotsa culla"(New England-ese for "lots of color")!!

    Bookmark   August 29, 2004 at 10:08AM
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david_5311(Z 5b/6a SE Mich)

Hi Ginger. I responded to this post on the LD forum as you know. I have started this process, on the wonderful 4-5 acres of old-growth woods that we purchased this spring and are about to build a house on. The house is at the edge of the woods, not in the woods, so the woods will remain largely intact (though one of my tasks this weekend is to put up 400-500 feet of cyclone fencing to keep the construction workers and equipment OUT of my woods).

We are very fortunate indeed to have a woods which is not overrun with invasives, as are many, even most woodlands in this part of Michigan. The understory was mowed several years ago, and the woods are largely open. But what is coming up again in the shrub layer is mostly native -- Viburnum acerifolium, gray and flowering dogwood, lots of spicebush, some sassafras suckers, serviceberries. So "editing" I will be doing indeed, choosing some of those rejuvenating shrubs and small trees to grow and restore the shrub layer. I can see some pagoda dogwoods (lots of those too) that will benefit from being pruned to a single trunk, others will remain multitrunked. There is a little buckthorn and multiflora rose, but very little. Removal of those will likely be an ongoing task.

You have stated the "editing" concept very well above -- it is not just restoration, but restoration and supplementation with an aesthetic eye, always with respect for the woods. I have already laid out some paths in my mind, where we already walk, and defining those will be an early step. Much of this is very "contemplative" gardening, watching, looking, absorbing, then acting, but slowly at first. SOO different from the kind of gardening I am used to. But very compelling.

    Bookmark   September 1, 2004 at 9:53AM
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julie_mn(z4 MN Henn)

Love and live this school of thought! Over the years we have had many happy suprises in our "woods". I live in the "first ring" suburbs of Mpls. We have a 1 acre lot that butts up to a train track. Most of our lot has been left to populate itself. Thankfully, we and the neighbors love it! Not to mention the wild life! Hawks, turkeys, opossum, fox, deer and more all use this area. We have a few very old oaks which I treasure and a few very old cottonwoods. We now have many newer (up to 20 year)elms and poplars. The sun loving sumac has given away to more shadey prickely ash and mostly buckthorn. We are trying to eradicate the buckthorn. I am very interested in the concept of opening up the canopy. How does one do that? It seems, when we lose a tree, the resulting space is consumed by surrounding trees in less than 1 year! Should we cut many to save a few?
Thanks for your help,

    Bookmark   September 10, 2004 at 3:54PM
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ginger_nh(z4 NH)

Not sure exactly how to answer your question, Julie. I just cut out many small maples, beech, gray birch, and striped maple last weekend on my own property. They will no doubt grow back--have to keep at it. If your trees are larger, it may be that removing them to open the canopy will weaken the other trees around them. Pruning out large branches would be a partial solution.

Removing a few larger trees shouldn't be a big problem ecologically, though. That's what a lightning strike,ice storm, or high wind would do naturally.

I'm glad to hear you have so many animals taking shelter on your property. There is less and less space for them each year. We have fishercats, deer,moose, an occasional bear, squirrels, chipmunks, foxes, snakes, toads, frogs, hawks, owls, bluebirds, hummers, bluejays, crow, woodpeckers, sapsuckers, lots of other birds too numerous to mention.

Tomorrow I'm working on putting in a dry stream bed where the runoff travels from our neighbor's lot above us.


    Bookmark   September 10, 2004 at 9:06PM
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Something just occurs to me. What is a favorite natural deer food? Of course I want them to leave my yard alone but we have 2 acres of woods that they spend every afternoon in. There are some downed trees and they come and sleep away the afternoons among those tree trunks. Is there a tree or shrub they like best? I wouldn't care if I planted that and they ate it up. Just wondering. Of course 2 acres is not enough to feed deer but it might help.

PS - Rick Dark's book is one of the most beautiful books I own.

    Bookmark   September 11, 2004 at 11:49AM
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ginger_nh(z4 NH)

Here is an interesting site developed by hunters who want to increase deers' bulk so as to get bigger bucks during hunting season. The second page has good information about increasing mast(acorns) by thinning the canopy, planting oaks, fertilizing oak trees(not sure if that is a good idea), etc. They also talk about growing grain for deer. Not a good idea with the herds increasing as they are in the NE US. But giving them more natural browse by encouraging oaks sounds OK.

Our fish and game here in NH are adamant that feeding the deer pellets actually weakens their bodies and particularly their bones. Apparently they have different amounts and types of stomach secretions and bacterias at different times of the year to coincide with the different forage/browse available. They can't digest food eaten out of the natural, seasonal growth patterns, but they will eagerly eat it anyway, even though it is nutritionally pretty useless to their bodies.


Glad you like Rick Darke's book. It is really inspiring.

    Bookmark   September 11, 2004 at 1:29PM
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julie_mn(z4 MN Henn)

Thanks Ginger for your responce. I have planned a BuckThorn removal party for this fall and will mark a few larger trees to come down to bennefit the others that will remain. Your place sounds wonderful! Good luck to you and yours throught your up-coming projects!

    Bookmark   September 13, 2004 at 1:33PM
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Ginger -

Thanks for starting this thread. I've been reading it with interest on both the LD and this forum. I'm probably not too far from you, a bit north of Concord, NH. I live on an old farm, which currently has about 35 acres in corn and the rest overgrown pasture, much of which is good sized trees. I've got variation to my soil type and water, so that I've got hemlock, white oak and balsam fir in some areas and beech, red maple, and red oak in others, along with yellow, gray and white birch, striped maple, red and white pine. I've got 3 kinds of native viburnum, rhodora, sheep laurel, and lots of native wildflowers. At the same time, I've got bittersweet, buckthorn, and wild grape that need controlling to a degree that sometimes gets depressing (I'll probably be fighting it the rest of my days . . .) I've been concentrating on the poison ivy in areas I walk or garden first, since I'm highly sensitive to it, and then the buckthorn. I use Roundup on the PI, and a combo of pulling, brush cutting and Roundup on the buckthorn. The bear in the woods keeps me out of them during much of the warm weather, however.

To the amusement of my husband and various subcontractors, I've flagged plants that I don't want mowed, run over, or otherwise abused, like the viburnum, pagoda dogwoods and a moose maple with glowing apricot winter branches.

I've done some seed starting, and I bought liner trays of native shrubs to plant along the 1/4 mile of driveway into my DH's shop, including mountain laurel, swamp rhododendron, and fothergilla(sp?). That's as far as I've gotten in the 6 seasons we've been there, but I'm still plugging away. With a large area like I have, I'm trying to take it a little bit at a time, and leave much of the woods as they are for the various critters with which we share them.

    Bookmark   September 21, 2004 at 4:59PM
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