Sue Langley

Creating a woodland shade garden

By Sue Langley

Trim branches to ten feet off the ground to groom your woodland trees.
Trim branches to ten feet off the ground to groom your woodland trees. Submitted Photo

The best place to sit on hot summer mornings, is in a shady, woodsy garden area you can create. Here’s what I did to plan a sheltering woodland garden surrounded by colorful flowers in spring and cool, green foliage plants in summer. All the plants I suggest are deer resistant.

Choose a place under existing tall oaks or pines in your garden, then plan out where you’ll place a couple of comfortable chairs and perhaps a small table. Rake out a clear area for them about 8 feet around. You’ll grow taller plants on the outside of your circle of shade, then medium and low growers in the center. This is the opposite of most garden beds.

Choosing woodland plants. First of all, let nature guide the design of your garden. Because a woodland garden grows at different levels, tuck in an ‘understory’ of small trees like native Red Bud, Dogwood or Japanese Maple. In our mountains, these airy, wispy-branched trees grow under high open shade of the forest. I chose to plant a Japanese maple in a container to use as an ‘umbrella’ over our two chairs. In another design where no existing tall trees were available, one gardener planted four flowering cherries at four corners of a square sitting area to create shade.

Next, add a third level of foliage by planting shrubs well suited for our climate, like Rhododendron, Spirea and Lilac. Also try Vibunum, native Oregon Grape or native Snowberry. All these will provide you colorful spring blooms.

Fill in with shade loving perennials that are also drought tolerant. Columbine and Coral Bells are two of my all-time favorites for dry shade. Also try Ferns, Bugleweed, (Ajuga) and Bellflower, (Campanula), all of which will need some added watering but have the advantage of being deer resistant.

Be true to your Mountain Area when you select plants. You want a woodsy look and growing plants that do well in our foothills will offer the best results.

Preparing your ‘forest floor.’ A rich, cushion of soil that holds moisture will make most shade loving flowers thrive. To prepare your spot for planting, turn over the existing leaf litter about 12 inches and add more from other shady areas of your garden. A thick layer of leaf matter will attract earthworms and beneficial bugs that will further cultivate and enrich the soil. If you're tucking some plants into existing rock areas, just amend the soil in each planting pocket you can find.

Mirror a forest floor by planting low growers, like true Geranium, Santa Barbara Disy (Erigeron) and Creeping Jenny, in clusters of three or so per variety to fill in the ‘carpet’ of your woodland garden.

Care and maintenance. Circle your garden with a drip hose and attach sprayers where needed to supply water in hot summer months. I normally turn on drip in early July or whenever the temperature reaches triple digits. Once native and drought tolerant plants are established you can remove some sprayers.

In autumn, let plants fade into the ground naturally, and let fallen leaves gather as a winter covering. As they decompose, the leaves will restore nutrients to the soil, feeding the plants for the next sring.

Complete your cool woodsy garden with interesting logs and a few well placed granite rocks, buried a bit as they appear in nature. The logs will weather and act as ‘nurse logs’ sheltering small plants and holding moisture, while giving your garden a natural, serene look. An informal group of stepping stones will create an ‘entrance’ to your sitting area, and stones or branches for edgings will protect tender plants underfoot. I bring a magazine down to my woodland garden, but I never have time to read it. I mostly daydream.

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