I’ve been fascinated with wildlife gardening since childhood. Rather than family shopping trips or excursions to baseball games, my father would take my brother and I out to the woods in search of wildflowers while my mother led the search for fossils at Ten-Mile Creek. So today, most of my gardening adventures are connected one way or another with the wild garden.
And if you like wildlife, there are even more reasons for establishing such a garden, not only on country homes or suburban lots, but even in the middle of a city. No matter where you live, animals, birds, and insects abound. Just come over to my place early in the morning. I live in the middle of the city yet the hoot owls sing at night, the crows talk all day, the raccoons tip the garbage cans, the chipmunks scamper about (if you watch closely, every chipmunk has both individual physical and behavioral traits), you will find out where the word squirrely comes from, and the butterflies visit the flowers each and every day.
The first thing to do about planning a woodland garden is to make a plan. Nothing serious is needed. Just a plain piece of paper and a pen should go with you on a walk around your property. Make a note of permanent landscape features, the rising and setting of the sun, existing trees and shrubs, and a source of water. Remember, you do not need Sherwood Forest to have a woodland garden. Two or three trees along with a few bushes, and some under plantings of native wildflowers and ferns, will create a small woodland even on a small lot.
If you live in a tract house where the developer has removed (yes, Virginia, there are still developers who cut everything down), immediately plant some trees. And the same thing applies to settled land that has never been graced with trees. First get in touch with your local extension agent (every county usually has one), and have your soil tested. Then get a list of the trees that are most successful in your area.
When starting without trees, choose a few fast-growers like birches. The river birch, Betula nigra, and the gray birch, Betula populifolia, can reach a height of twenty feet in five years and are both at home in the northeast. Staghorn sumac, Rhus typhina, is another short-lived tree that grows quickly or can be cut every year to create a shrubby effect, plus the autumn color of the sumac is a wonder to behold.
Other trees that do well in a small garden are the dogwoods, not only for their spring flowers, but for the autumn fruit that squirrels and birds delight in harvesting. Just try for the Chinese dogwood, Cornus kousa, rather than the native species until somebody solves the problem of the dogwood blight. Junipers, Juniperus spp., hemlocks, Tsuga spp., pines, Pinus spp., and other evergreens like rhododendrons, Rhododendron spp., and hollies, Ilex spp., can be mixed, not only to provide winter color but give protection to wildlife the year round. And once again, birds nest in the branches, and most wildlife will turn to such protected spaces for their day-to-day activities.
Among some great shrubs for the woodland garden are: the winterberry, Ilex verticillata, a member of the holly family that is very hardy and provides very popular berries in late fall and winter; Blueberries, Vaccinium spp., a number of viburnums, Viburnum spp; and even hyrangeas, like the beautiful native, the oak-leafed hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifolia, that not only charms the wildlife garden but the proper garden as well. Even a cluster of raspberries and blackberries, Rubus spp., provide both protection and food. Hawthorns, Crataegus spp. and crabapples, Malus spp., also do well, not only in the woods, but in a small garden, too.
The choice of wildflowers is legion. In addition to the columbines, violets, asters, and the white snakeroot, Eupatorium rugosum, are for wooded areas with some shade. There are literally hundreds of others now available to American gardeners through various seed exchanges and smaller seed houses. And don’t forget to include other flowering plants like the grasses and sedges. Both northern sea oats, Chasmanthium latifolium, and bottlebrush grass, Hystrix patula, do beautifully in a woodland setting.
But of all the beautiful plants for the woodland, nothing beats the ferns. While not a popular wildlife food, they bring rustic beauty to any setting, will tolerate (sometimes revel in) acid soil, and delight in shady conditions. The shield ferns, Dryopteris spp., Christmas fern, Polystichum acrostichoides, and the beautiful maiden hair fern, Adiantum pedatum, are among the top fern contenders. And if you have a spot where an aggressive ground cover is needed, try the hay-scented fern, Dennstaedtia punctilobula. Not only is this last fern beautiful to see, it will grow where many plants won’t even try.
While not a perfect choice for the front yard in an upscale subdivision, the meadow garden with its mix of flowering wildflowers and grasses is a great choice for the backyard, especially to attract many birds and butterflies. A number of native plants, especially the goldenrod, Solidago spp., and the black-eyed Susans, Rudbeckia hirta, thrive in hot weather and need little, if any, moisture except for summer rains.
Remember to leave a spot in the woodlands for a water feature. Whether limited to a concrete birdbath or just a rubber dishpan, wildlife needs water and will immediately delight in a fresh source of water. Just be sure to keep the containers clean and the water level up.
Next to read: Gardening in the Fall