The Woodland garden - Five Years on
Over the last five years, the woodland garden has definitely developed into my favourite part of the garden. Why? I am not altogether sure. Perhaps out of necessity I spend more time there than elsewhere in the garden. Perhaps because I like a challenge. Our very dry and in places quite deep shade is certainly that. Or perhaps because it is a still (relatively) and calm place where one can find oneself closer to nature, or failing that, I can indulge my second passion of wildlife woodcarving.
I have met, or at least in part, the challenge of deep shade by thinning out the understorey, in this case fairly ancient blackthorn, fifteen feet or so high, draped by all enveloping ivy, hanging in great festoons down to the ground and back up again. Looks quite jungly but there was too much of it. Have left a bit of it for the birds, hedgehogs and grass snakes, but that which I removed has certainly let a lot more light in good, but so too more wind not so good. Blackthorn is a very hard wood, so I have laid the trunks as durable (I hope) edging to the paths.
Some years ago I enhanced a slight depression in the ground to give the appearance of a dried up water course, lined it with a porous plastic fabric, and covered that with limestone rubble, collected from around the garden. Gave a half reasonable impression of a river bed, (sort of!), but I felt it needed spicing up a bit. Rocks were the obvious answer. Went to a reputable stone merchant at Langley Mill, Notts. and saw a fabulous range of Purple Schist, Druidic Donegal Quartz, Firebird Gneiss, not to mention common or garden mixed glacial boulders and standing stones. Of a size that would impress round my river bed, sadly we were looking at a tonne or more per stone. Now, how do you get stones of that weight up an established garden, with narrow paths and grass walks? A fork lift truck, weighing 2 or 3 tonnes itself, would, I guessed, cause too much damage and would only get me part way up anyway. Abandoned that idea, and instead went for imitation (thoughts of Coade and Pulhamite two hundred years ago). Made to order in any shape or size, being hollow the equivalent sizes weighed only 2 or 3 hundredweight, and so needed only a sackbarrow to transport into position. Given that all stone, whether imitation or the genuine article, needs time for lichen encrustation and moss accrual, I dont think the result looks too bad.
The other major challenge of dry and unimproved soil conditions I attempt to meet by throwing mountains of garden compost at it, as a surface mulch. But within six months a two or three inch layer has virtually disappeared. Disheartening, but never mind, eh! Just keep on doing it. I think very gradually there is some improvement in moisture retention, but if a mature ash tree can siphon a thousand gallons a day up through its foliage, boy, is it hard going. The other disappointing thing is that the natural leaf fall from the deciduous trees seems to get nowhere near forming any leaf mould, although needle fall from conifers does begin to form a bit of a carpet.
In terms of plants, the improvement in moisture retention does allow me to grow pulmonarias on a more perennial basis than before. The plain leaved varieties like 'Diana Clare' (silver) and 'David Ward' (green) seem to fare better than the spotted ones. I try to pick the moist spots for hostas and some of them seem to be establishing OK 'June', 'Wolverine', and 'Whirlwind', for example. I use Growing Success Organic S&S safe pellets around them, which seem to work provided you re-apply when you cant see them any more. I also use it on asarums which are clearly five star snail breakfast, other than the basic A. europaeum which they barely touch.
I have given up on Veratrum nigrum, too gross a feeder, and doesnt show up well in flower in the shade, also lobelias in variety, not enough moisture. Darmera peltata is just about living with me, at three feet rather than six, but provides some much needed broad leaf to contrast with the many ferns, Dryopteris, Polystichum, and Athyrium mainly, which do thrive with me, in spite of the dryness.
I lurrve my oh so slow to bulk trilliums, T. cuneatum my favourite so far, and my oh so fleeting roscoea. R. humeana, my favourite there. Very, very slowly the aspidistra are beginning to establish, having sulked and done absolutely nothing for several years. They seem to be hardy enough, as the nursery men promised. The basic A. elatior is the one to grow, A. 'Milky Way' is much more problematical.
I have struck up a friendship with mat-forming mitellas, M. breweri and M. ovalis being easy between stepping stones. The Wynn-Jones can supply other quite fascinating ones but you need to visit Crûg Farm. M. yoshinagae is neat leaved and mottled, M. makinoi, similar but slightly larger leaved. Or try one with a plant collection number, if you want to be upmarket. M. stylosa BSWJ 5669 is the one I grow, much larger bronze tinted leaves.
Finally, I am trying to do more with hydrangeas, following an unforgettable visit to Mill Cottage Plants at Wookey in Somerset, for two reasons. Firstly, because it was incredibly difficult to find (all the best nurseries are), and secondly because of the incredible range Sally Gregson grows in the garden and then sells in the nursery. I am trying H. serrata 'Hallasan', which is dwarf with light mauve lacecaps, H.s. 'Aigaku' which will be pink, not blue in my garden, and an old favourite H. aspera 'Villosa Group' with gorgeous velvet textured leaves.
Oh, and I shall keep trying with arisaemas. Two out of three attempts so far have keeled over and died within a fortnight, in spite of assurances from the nursery that they need quick draining soils. Fascinating, sinister plants, though.
First published in the Rutland Group Group Newsletter Spring/Summer 2009
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 26.
© Copyright for this article: Organoman
This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2010. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.