Learning to garden with shade – the woodland

Raised beds can be desirable, but not in tanalised timber

Raised beds can be desirable, but not in tanalised timber

When you start a new garden, especially on a blank canvas, it is hard to imagine dense shade and sheltered conditions. Fast forward some years and the picture changes dramatically. If you have planted trees and larger growing shrubs, your open, sunny conditions change gradually to the point where you realise the whole micro-climate has altered and the sun-lovers like roses and lavender are struggling. You either cut back or remove large plants to regain the earlier, open conditions or you change your style of gardening. Most larger, more mature gardens move naturally into woodland or shade gardening.

In their simplest form, woodlands are a natural occurrence – but not here. Our native forests are just that – forests. In their natural state, they can be near impenetrable and are more akin to cool climate jungles. I have seen the bluebell woods in flower in Scotland and they were enchanting. A carpet of blue, spread beneath comparatively small deciduous trees which were just breaking dormancy. I can’t recall what the trees were – chestnut, maybe, or sycamore, possibly oak – I was more charmed by the bulbs growing wild. I have only seen the flowering of the English snowdrops in photographs. A particularly memorable image showed a dense carpet of snowdrops beneath the graceful, slender trunks of the white barked birches. However, I can tell you that in general, British and European forests are quite open. You can walk through them without needing a slasher and tramping boots as you do in our forests. Robin Hood and his merry men could probably move through Sherwood Forest without having to keep to tracks. While there are conifers growing which are evergreen, the vast majority of other trees are deciduous. This means that light gets through in winter and early spring and that there is a seasonal carpet of leaf mulch below. In their predominantly dry summers, the shade inhibits the rampant growth we expect here.

But gardening is not about reproducing nature. It is about reinterpretation. Those natural woodlands, which are essentially a shade meadow garden full of wild flowers, peak for maybe two weeks of the year. We are not going to be happy with that in a home garden. England’s wonderful grand dame of gardening, Beth Chatto, has planted her woodland in a succession of spring flowering bulbs which extends the display but even so, by early summer, there was nothing left to see. I was still sufficiently inspired to return home and do the same in one small area. Here, I had to make sure there was no grass and the ground surface is bare soil and light leaf litter. And I can tell you that in a small triangular area about eight metres long and five metres at its widest, it took hundreds of bulbs – snowdrops (galanthus), Cyclamens coum and repandum, assorted dwarf narcissi, rhodohypoxis and lachenalias. The sheer volume of bulbs required rules it out for most gardeners.

The allure of the woodland garden path

The allure of the woodland garden path

Shade gardening is the option for extending display and keeping some definable form in a garden. With huge trees here, dating back to 1880, we have a lot of shade garden, usually referred to as woodland. The basic principles of gardening still apply – it is the variations in foliage, form, height and colour that give interest. Achieving it under a canopy of foliage is different to being out in the open. There are three obvious keys to remember.

Firstly, few plants are happy in dense shade. There is nothing else for it. You have to lift and limb – raise the canopy sufficiently high to allow filtered light below. The trunks of the trees are a feature in their own right and if you want to garden below, getting a four metre vertical clearance will allow space and light to give the plants a chance.

Secondly, there will be a great deal of root competition from established trees. In fact it can be damned difficult chiselling out a hole large enough to plant into and even then, there is little chance of many plants thriving when they are competing for space, nutrition and moisture. That is why many bulbs do so well – because they can cope with harsh conditions and little soil. Clivias, too, will foot it in this environment, as will some of the plectranthus, but many other shade plants such as hostas are never going to be happy and healthy. We get around this in some areas by building informal, raised beds and moving in soil and compost to get the plants established. Ponga lengths and fallen branches still look natural but spare me from the idea of tantalised timber. I don’t like the look of tantalised timber anywhere in a garden but it is even more incongruous in woodland. Casual and natural are the words to remember here.

Thirdly, woodlands are usually dry, a fact many people fail to realise. That is because when you have large trees, their massive root systems suck up the water, leaving little for smaller plants. Often the canopy of foliage and branches will deflect the rainfall away. You really do not want to be creating a garden where you have to water regularly so it is better to choose plants from the start which will take dry shade. Fortunately, the fact that they are growing in shade hugely reduces their water requirements (little evaporation from the sun) so even hostas, which are generally regarded as needing plenty of water, can thrive in dry shade once established.

You can manage flowers and colours for most of the year in a woodland garden - a tricyrtis or toad lily

You can manage flowers and colours for most of the year in a woodland garden - a tricyrtis or toad lily

I will return at a later date to plant options for shade or woodland gardening but here, we are strongly of the view that mass planting of herbaceous material in a shade garden is even duller than mass planting in a formal garden (where the structure and straight lines give form). Give us variety and mixed plantings. The aforementioned clivias are fantastic plants but you only want so much of their strappy foliage and predominantly orange flowers. Combine them with filmy ferns and the extravagance of the massive, split leaves of Monstera deliciosa (the fruit salad plant) and you have a combination with some zing.

It is possible to garden with flowers in woodland and to have colour for most of the year. And, a huge bonus for most, weed growth slows in the shade so you don’t have to be so vigilant on the weeding front. The invitation of a winding path into the woodland can be so much more mysterious and full of promise than the open, sunny section, but, like all forms of gardening, it does not just occur of its own accord.

You have to make it happen.

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