Picking the perfect trees for your woodland garden
By B. Durbin Wean
It’s May, but it feels almost like the middle of July with these unusual high temperatures that we’ve been enjoying here in the Northwest. It makes us think about how to grow shade trees and the woodland garden beneath them.
You may already be one of the fortunate ones who has shade from the gorgeous conifers and broad-leaf deciduous trees native to this area. Lucky you! It takes many years for a tree to mature. When the English landscape designer Capability Brown designed the picturesque tree and meadow landscapes in the English countryside in the 1800s, the owners knew that the trees wouldn’t mature in their lifetime. Unlike today’s society that must have instant gratification, these folks planted for the future. Well, we can too and if we plant native trees that grow fast we will also be able to enjoy the beautiful woodland garden today and leave a legacy for future generations.
If you carefully look at forests, you will notice that the growth is visible as layers in the woods. The top canopy is usually made up of alders, maples, birch, Douglas fir, Western red cedar and Western hemlock. The middle tier makes up the main fabric of the woodland garden and may include dogwoods, vine maples, serviceberry and elderberry. The floor of the woodland may include Western Bleeding Heart, Woods Strawberry, kinnikinnick and salal. Some of the plants that I recommend for your woodland garden are cultivars that may be a better choice because of a deeper root system or more suitable for your particular area and soil.
If you have a damp site for deciduous trees over 50 feet, consider maples such as Autumn Blaze and Sunset. They have red flowers in spring and a good fall color but require a damp site. I love the birch with the whitest bark called Jacquemontii. They are beautiful planted as a group of five or seven trees on the edge of your woodland because the leaves turn golden and in the winter the white bark is striking against the dark green of your conifers. If you have a particularly dry site you could plant a thornless honey locust. This becomes a large tree with beautiful fernlike foliage. A ginkgo tree is easily grown in clay soil and is pollution tolerant. It has clear yellow leaves in the fall. You could consider a larch that is tolerant of acidic and poorly drained soils. Try a sweet gum for moist soil and great fall color.
For conifers try dawn redwoods. They grow very rapidly in moist sites and have fernlike foliage, graceful habit of growth and rusty brown stems. Other evergreen conifers that grow well in moist or wet soil are noble fir, grand fir, Nootka cypress and western hemlocks. If you are on sandy soil or need drought resistant trees try deodar cedar, cypress cedar, Japanese red pine, Scots pine and our very own douglas fir. If you live on the coast try maritime pine or shore pine or if you need a windbreak try monterey cypress. A good windbreak for your woodland in an inland area would be fast growing Leyland cypress. This also makes a great hedge but needs to be topped out at a reachable height, as it can grow very tall.
For your middle layer, one of my favorite trees is vine maple. It is very common in the Northwest and grows easily here, with brilliant fall color and attractive green stems. I also like the very hardy Amur maple and paper bark maple. Try dogwoods, with hazel or red or yellow twig dogwood, Canadian redbud, katsura tree, silverbell tree, Japanese maples and rhododendron.
For your shrubs plant dwarf white pine, dwarf English yew, Saskatoon berry, quince, rockspray, cotoneaster, oakleaved or lace-cap hydrangea, winterberry, kerria, star magnolia and salmonberry. There are many more shrubs that will do well under trees in filtered light so check out your public library or the internet.
For the floor of your woodland don’t forget a crushed rock path so you can enjoy walking through it to renew your spirit. One of the great joys of a woodland garden is to look down and observe the seasonal changes. Grow trilliums, dogtooth violets, hostas, and primula. Experiment with new and unusual plants that are available in plant and seed catalogs. If you are not sure where to find them, buy a magazine that has an extensive section in the back for catalog ordering. This way you can look forward to trying plants that are unusual and beautiful. Create a forest for future generations!