Plant suggestions for small woodland garden

lavender_lass(4b)December 8, 2009

Hi, I'm new to this forum, but spend most of my time at the cottage garden forum. I have a question about plants for a small woodland style garden. I have some pre-school aged nieces and I want to design a child-sized "fairy" garden for them on the shady side of the house. I want to include small woodland type plants that will look like something you'd find growing in the woods, but must be non-toxic. For example, I plan to use violets, but not lily of the valley. I'm in zone 4, so hardiness is also an issue. I already have some pansies and violas, some columbine and a few smaller ferns. The garden is about 26' x 4'. Thank you for any suggestions :)

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fatamorgana2121(Zone 5/6)

A number of plants I would suggest (native shade-loving and woodland plants) are toxic to varying amounts and so out by your requirements.

You could look up info on various hardy ferns for their toxicity.

Bunchberry have edible fruit and star-like flowers and whorled leaves.

Wild ginger is a nice plant with heart shaped leaves. Flowers are hard to see but quite unusual and the roots are edible.


    Bookmark   December 8, 2009 at 6:07PM
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Fatamorgana- Thank you for your response. I don't plan to leave the girls unattended in the garden, but I am trying to stay away from very toxic plants and also those that would be highly toxic to cats, dogs or horses.

What about woodland phlox? That's supposed to be hardy to zone 3 and looks fairly safe. I was also hoping to use some real geraniums and I also already have some forget-me-knots. I'm not sure what kind, but they're the little perennials that turn mostly blue, but sometimes pink.

I was hoping to use bleeding heart, but I've heard that is toxic. Wild ginger sounds exotic and I was also thinking about sweet woodruff. Maybe some alpine strawberries? It's partial shade in most of the garden, but it does get about four to six hours of sun.

    Bookmark   December 8, 2009 at 8:04PM
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Phlox is very nice and the real geraniums are too.

Wild ginger's botanical name is Asarum canadense and it is native to much of the eastern US and Canada. Not exotic at all - and not the tropical ginger you might be thinking of.

You might try looking at the Washington State native plant society page for some ideas.

Here is a link that might be useful: Native plants by county

    Bookmark   December 9, 2009 at 7:10AM
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Esh- Thanks for the list of native plants. I recognize many of the ones that grow in my pasture :)

I do have to be careful that what I grow is not poisonous to horses, or will spread into their pasture. I really like rhododendrons and azealeas (probably wrong spelling) but they're highly toxic to horses.

I like sweet peas (I have an arch at one end of this garden) but since we grew peas in the garden last year, the girls love to eat them raw. I found a pretty climbing pea that has edible pea pods. The blooms are a rose pink on top and a darker rose purple below, so while not as showy as the sweet pea flowers, same idea and if the girls eat them, no worries.

What about feather fern? That's suppposed to be good in zones 3-9. Anyone have that in their garden?

    Bookmark   December 9, 2009 at 2:28PM
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In your search for non-toxic plants it is well to be aware of what part of the plant is toxic. Tomatoes and potatoes are listed a toxic because the leaves and stems will make you sick. In large doses they could perhaps make you die. Then you get into the mildly toxic vs very poison. Almost all plants are toxic to a certain extent or they would be unable to grow.

With a fairy garden you might want to look at some of the very dwarf trees. Many are conifers but I have seen others. I have a very less than a foot tall elm tree that I purchased this spring. I am hoping it makes it through the winter. However not certain that type of elm is native.

    Bookmark   December 9, 2009 at 9:45PM
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fatamorgana2121(Zone 5/6)

esh_ga's suggestion of a geranium is a great idea. The native Geranium maculatum would look wonderful in a fairy woodland garden and are native to most of eastern & central US and Canada. That said, it should do fine with zone 4.

I don't know of the toxicity, but the native maidenhair fern Adiantum pedatum would look at home in a fairy garden.


    Bookmark   December 10, 2009 at 8:51AM
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alexander3_gw(6 Pennsylvania)

Sweet cicely (myrrhis odorata) is a great one. Most sources say it's hardy to zone 3, but some say zone 5. Definitely worth a try. It has fern like leaves that smell like anise. Very woodsy to my eye. In the summer it produces seeds that, when still green, taste like sweet licorice. The leaves reportedly can be added to recipes to add sweetness, but I've never tried it. I get a few volunteers under mine each year, but it's not aggressive.


    Bookmark   December 15, 2009 at 9:22PM
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Thank you all for the suggestions. I did get some maidenhair ferns and a few other kinds of ferns at Lowe's yesterday. They had little bags of perennials that are supposed to be okay until spring when it's time to plant them.

    Bookmark   December 17, 2009 at 1:19PM
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Put those in a pot. Although the packages say a lot of things most of the plants will not live until spring. If the same company supplies your Lowes as supplies mine there have been questions about these actually being nursery raised or just put into a pot at the nursery until being packaged. I will not name the company but do a search.

Having said this these I am always torn. Do I purchase and try to make them live just because if someone does not purchase they will die. Or do I show my dislike for the companies that sell these tiny plants and not purchase. Lowe's will not stop having these or so I have been told by the local manager.

    Bookmark   December 17, 2009 at 7:37PM
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fatamorgana2121(Zone 5/6)

I take my business elsewhere. I'm a huge supporter of buying from locally owned and operated businesses - your local nurseries included. Those are the people who try to have quality products, not just the cheapest. I say support your neighbors and their businesses. You'll get a better product plus you are putting money back into your community.

Your local nursery may not be the cheapest but I would rather have 2 nursery-grown plants of quality in my garden than 12 puny pee-wees of which only a couple **may** survive.

And I agree. If you can't put them in the ground at least pot them and put them in an unheated sheltered area like a garage. They will have a better chance of survival that way. Just keep the soil from completely drying out. A sprinkle of water every 2 or 3 weeks might do it. Don't keep them soggy or they will rot!


    Bookmark   December 18, 2009 at 8:46AM
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Good to know! I may try to pot some of them up, but I knew they were a gamble at $2 a piece :)

While I do sometimes shop at local nurseries, I also like to go to our closest Lowe's and Fred Meyer. They are two stores that take returns without question and the staff (at least in our area) is very friendly. Many of the other chain stores are not the same and even some of the nurseries have poor return policies. I bought six bare root roses last spring from Fred Meyer and four of them did not make it (they were put out in the garden section too early and there was a late frost) but I was assured they would refund my money for any that did not come up...and they did, no questions asked.

While mom and I have gotten plants at local nurseries, their return policies (at least the ones we've tried) have not been so good. We're going to try some different ones next year, so we're hoping for a better experience :)

    Bookmark   December 18, 2009 at 3:04PM
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I do not shop at most of the local nurseries not because of the return policies. I am one of the odd one's that unless the plant is not what it was supposed to be I feel if the plant dies I probably did something wrong. So no returns. Most of the nurseries have poor selections of plants and the larger ones do not take care of their plants. I find most of what I do purchase locally at our various plant groups sales. I would rather purchase a smaller plant and acclimitize it to my soil and growing conditions that pay $40-200 for a larger plant that has been stressed by living in a nursery for longer. Of course tree peonies the sky is the limit if it is really rare but other than Fen Dan Bai which is not native but would make an excellent fairy garden plant most peonies tree and other would not be good for what the poster wanted.

    Bookmark   December 19, 2009 at 1:03AM
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fatamorgana2121(Zone 5/6)

I have exactly the opposite experience. The local nurseries where I live are excellent. They are quality places, selling quality items. Their return policies are fine and the knowledge and service of the staff is exemplary. It is the big-box places that are poor in regards to all save cheapness and summer annuals. Oh yeah, they have a fine return policy - they'd have to given the lack of performance their plants have.

Obviously the experience you have at various nurseries and lawn and garden businesses is going to vary by location. But I urge to try your local nurseries first. If you are unhappy with your experience, take your business elsewhere. But do know that in the garden, cheapest with anything other than summer annuals is very rarely the best.


    Bookmark   December 19, 2009 at 9:16AM
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Fatamorgana- I wish we had some of your nurseries in our area. We are going to try some different places this year, but so far not much luck. One place I am looking forward to trying is Northland Rosarium, which is supposed to have a very good reputation. They are an hour from my house, but it should be a fun time :)

I called all over this fall looking for some apple trees and so many of the nurseries carry plants that are not hardy in my area. We're only one zone difference, but I was amazed how many plants they carry would be questionable in Spokane's zone 5b. I guess they carry what people request, but I can't see buying plants that won't make it through out winters....and that's with last year's almost 100 inches of snow, which broke all records. The year before was third most snow ever. Before that, eastern Washington hadn't seen that kind of snow since the 1950's.

As much as I do try to support local businesses (no one in our immediate area has a nursery) I am thinking about trying more Internet sites. I hope that by staying in the Pacific Northwest, I'm buying regionally, if not locally.

    Bookmark   December 19, 2009 at 7:19PM
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fatamorgana2121(Zone 5/6)

The plants I can't find locally I order from various vendors and there are some nice ones in the Pac-Northwest.

For apples I would try Raintree Nursery. They too are in Washington and I've ordered from them for years with great luck.

And you can also try Forest Farm for all manner of tree and plant. They are in Oregon and would carry any of the plants you would want for your fairy garden. I've gotten some really nice plants from them that I can't find elsewhere. Shipping to me in NY State is costly but you wouldn't have the same concern. ;)

And snow....we get on average around a 100 inches of a snow a year. Any plants I've suggested in this thread grow where I live and would be able to stand up to winter conditions.


    Bookmark   December 20, 2009 at 9:51AM
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Lass, if you are making the trip to Northland, there's various other Spokane area nurseries I'd suggest visiting as well. I was the eastern WA sales rep for a large NW wholesale grower and I am quite familiar with the retail nurseries and garden centers in that area - used to make the trek over the 'hills' (Cascades) on a regular basis :-)
I don't have any firsthand knowledge of their return policies but know the staff to be knowledgeable and helpful and the stock at most to be first-rate.

Spokane area:
Smart Plants/Environment West
Tower Perennials

Post Falls/Coeur D'Alene area:
Northland Nursery
Aspen Nursery
Westwood Gardens
Riverview Nursery

You could make a day trip or a weekend of it! btw, Carol at Northland Rosarium tends to focus on just roses and clematis - as my former employer is one of the largest wholesale growers of clematis on the west coast, we did a lot of business with her.

    Bookmark   December 22, 2009 at 1:22PM
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Gardengal- Thanks for the recommendations. I've been to Stanek's (to order flower arrangements) and they are very nice. I have not been to the other nurseries, but will try to visit some this spring. The ones we had gone to last year are not on your list. Thanks again :)

    Bookmark   December 23, 2009 at 6:53PM
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