Woodland gardens can be an early spring paradise and a cool place to retreat in the heat of a summer day. Begin your painting with the backbones of the garden – the beautiful understory trees such as the spring blooming dogwoods and redbuds. Add splashes of colorful foliage and bold strokes of coarse texture mixed with delicate dabs of finer foliage. Complete the scene with an interesting focal point, perhaps a rustic bench, a piece of statuary, or a large urn planted with beautiful shade loving annuals.
Whether they are native species or cultivated forms, the number of wonderful plants that thrive in the shade is amazing. Shade loving species are often better known for their foliage than for their flowers. Since capturing the available light is more important than conserving moisture, many plants that have evolved in woodland habitats have developed very large, bold leaves. Some of the best known examples are Hosta, Ligularia, Bergenia, and ferns.
Woodland plants can add a variety of interesting textures to the landscape as well. Japanese Painted Ferns add a delicate, lacy texture with their colorful silver, red, and green fronds while the leathery-leaved Christmas Ferns bring a coarser texture to the garden. The large, heavily corrugated leaves of some Hosta cultivars make strong focal accents. The beautiful Epimedium provides a mixture of textures with their delicate flowers on fine stems dangling above attractive heart-shaped leathery leaves.
Color doesn’t always have to come from flowers. All-season color can be introduced in the woodland garden through the use of foliage – splashes of silver and green from Pulmonaria, reds and burgundy from Heuchera, stripes of gold and white from Hosta, Tricyrtis, and Polygonatum. Shade loving plants with silvery foliage are great for bringing life to dull, low light areas of the garden. Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ is a striking addition to a shady corner!
But don’t get me wrong, you can still have a beautiful palette of color through flowers in the shade! Consider another fantastic group of plants for the woodlands – Astilbe. These plants have lovely foliage and amazingly colorful, often fragrant plume flowers in shades of red, pink, and white. They bloom for weeks in mid summer and provide bold splashes of color to your woodland scene. A colorful fall bloomer for the shade is the Japanese Anemone. These plants have attractive foliage all season and reward you with dazzling blooms in the fall. Anyone who visits André’s gardens in the fall can’t helped but be overwhelmed by the masses of color provided by his plantings of Japanese anemones.
Consider interspersing some colorful shade tolerant annuals into your woodland landscape or hanging colorful baskets of annuals from lower branches of your trees.
In early spring, most deciduous woodlands actually get quite a bit of sun. Many of the shade tolerant flowering species take advantage of this seasonal variation in light by producing their flowers in the spring before the trees fully leaf out. Pulmonaria, Dicentra spectabilis, Alchemilla, Epimedium, Helleborus, and Bergenia are all wonderful spring bloomers that welcome in the spring season with a flush of color. You can add drifts of early spring color to your woodland garden by naturalizing spring blooming bulbs like Narcissus, Crocus, and Muscari.
Woodland gardens offer your wild bird friends many places to forage, play, and hide from predators. Consider plantings that provide food sources for the birds in winter. The deciduous holly, Ilex verticillata, tolerates high shade and produces attractive red berries that the birds love. Dogwoods and crabapples are also great for providing food and shelter for the birds in winter. A source of fresh water will draw in many song birds, especially in winter when water in liquid form may be scarce! The addition of bird houses attached to trees in your woodland retreat will provide additional housing space for bluebirds, wrens, and other desirable species.
Aquilegia - Columbine
Asarum - Wild Ginger
Dicentra - Bleeding Heart
Heuchera - Coral Bells
Pulmonaria - Lungwort
Tricyrtis - Toad Lily
Viola labradorica – Violet
Callicarpa spp. - Beautyberry
Clethera alnifolia - Summersweet
Corylopsis - Winter Hazel
Ilex verticillata - Winterberry Holly
Schizophragma - Climbing Hydrangea