The Garden Plot: Woodland Gardens Grow Multidisciplinary Learning

Woodland Wildflower Gardens

Woodland gardens, also known as shade gardens, are one of the most pleasant types of gardens to create and enjoy. Just like the educational value of growing and annual food garden, preparing and attending a woodland garden with your kids has many embedded multidisciplinary learning opportunities too: Determining the proper pH can support an interest in chemistry; Understanding how the different layers of a woodland garden depend on one another and how they support native insect populations can support and interest in ecology and biodiversity… Yet it is one that seems to confuse both novice and intermediate gardeners alike. If you follow these 5 steps, you will be well on your way to a successful garden:

1.) Right plant-right place
“Right plant-right place” is my horticultural mantra. If the plant requires deep shade, give it that environment. If it wants part sun/part shade, give it that environment. Finding a plant’s “sweet spot” in the landscape is not easy. It often takes some research and experience with the actual kind of plant itself. The importance of the rule can not be understated.

2) Structure
Gardens that have a more natural feel are layered. They have a canopy (trees), understory (shrubs) & ground covers (low plants). This simulates the natural environment and gives wildlife a place to thrive.

3) Soil issues
Because you are planting in a shady area, it is likely shady because it is in the vicinity of large trees. Trees will compete for soil nutrients and moisture with your new plants. The best way to deal with this is to put down 3-4 inches of topsoil and compost in the area (not against any trees trunks). Raising the grade will make it easier to plant as you will not have tree roots in which to compete.

4) Plant selection basics
Because woodland gardens come with distinct challenges, you might want your plant selection to err on the side of caution. If you delve into esoteric plant choices like jack-in-the-pulpit, trillium, lady slipper, etc.. be aware that these plants often have particular growing conditions for them to survive, let alone thrive. Those ubiquitous plants, like hostas, ferns, lily of the valley, etc. may be how you want to start and use the unusual plants as accents in the garden. At least until you have seen which ones have done well and where.

5) Not all shade is created equal
A birch tree which leafs out late in the spring and has its first branches dozens of feet up in the air will give far less shade than an evergreen hemlock that branches out low to the ground. 

If you are looking for woodland native plants at a local nursery, think about the non-profit New England Wildflower Society. UMass also has a good online resource: Woodland Border Wildflower Garden.


Jim McSweeney

Jim is a certified arborist, certified horticulturist, licensed pesticide applicator (needed for the application of organic pesticides in MA) & a professional landscape designer with over 15 years experience. He is also the owner of Hilltown Tree & Garden LLC. Jim is on the faculty at the New England Wildflower Society, teaching courses on a diverse range of topics. He lives and works in Zone 5 (Chesterfield, MA) with his family. Once a month here on Hilltown Families you will find timely gardening tips, from a pro in the field, that can be easily used by both avid and novice gardeners, specific to Western MA.

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