While a woodland garden is not as showy as prairie garden, the depth of layers, texture and variation in green hues create a tranquil yet vibrant space. If you are setting out to create a woodland inspired shade garden, a little understanding of the woodland environment can go a long way. The key is to think in layers. The woodland environment is built up in layers: Herbaceous (floor) layer, Shrub (understory) layer and Tree layer.
If your yard has a tree and few nearby shrubs you have the framework to create a woodland garden. Trees are the structural backbone. They provide the shade and create the framework for your planting environment. The side of a building, a wall, or a hill can provide part of the shade and framework, as well. If you are working without large canopy trees, a woodland shade garden can be created around understory trees and shrubs on the shady side of a building.
In the spring, before the trees leaf-out, the bulbs and spring ephemerals on the woodland floor get all the light they need to bloom, which makes springtime the highpoint of the woodland flower display. These early blooms are among the most popular woodland natives and they put on a spectacular show. But many will disappear completely with the seasons progress.
The “Floor” of Your Woodland
To avoid a bare ‘forest floor’ after the spring blooms are gone, choose a few favorite cover plants as a foundation/base. In the woodland these plants often form colonies and mass in larger groups. After the early blooms are finished these covering plants will provide height, color and texture that remains mostly consistent across the seasons. The different textures and colors of the cover plants will show up best in massed plantings. Massed plantings that vary in height also give structure and shape to this foundation layer of the woodland shade garden.
Mid and Late Season
Native plants from the woodland floor range widely in both bloom time and height. Generally, the later the season, the higher the plant. These taller late season plants can standout against a low-growing foundation and add colorful points of interest as the season progresses.
Whether you’re creating a forest replication or evoking a woodland feel in a small area, consider the natural succession of woodland plants, along with shape, size and color in your planting/design. Your shade garden will look best when it includes a diversity of plants to provide structure, texture and blooms throughout the season.
Here’s a short list of native woodland plants to help you build a luscious herbaceous layer:
Spring ephemerals: Trillium, Bellwort, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Shootingstar.
Low-to-medium ground covering plants: Wild Ginger, Stonecrop, Ivory Sedge, Plantain Leaved Sedge, Pennsylvania Sedge, Ferns, Foamflower, Maple Leafed Alum Root, Wintergreen.
Medium to high ground covering plants: Ferns, Bearberry, Maple Leafed Alum Root, Mayapple (foliage dies down by the end of summer).
Early-to-midsummer blooms, low to medium height: Dutchmen’s Breeches, Wild Bleeding Heart, Columbine, Wild Blue Phlox, Wild Geranium, Virginia Bluebells, Jacob’s Ladder, Early Meadowrue, Golden Alexanders, Blue Cohosh.
Mid-to-late summer blooms, medium to tall height
Golden Alexanders, Culvers Root, Black Cohosh, Heart Leaved Aster, Big Leaf Aster, Tall Bellflower, Bottlebrush Grass, Sweet Joe Pye Weed, Maple Leafed Alum Root, White Woodland Aster, Calico Aster