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Planting up a woodland bank and stream

Tiffany Daneff / 20 April 2016

Tiffany Daneff clears the undergrowth along the stream and plans a wildflower woodland patch for the river bank.

Half-pruned elder on the river bank

After the long wait spring is finally springing here. Some years you only have to blink for the horse chestnuts to unfurl their tacky buds but this year everything is taking its time and the hedges are only slowly greening. And with reason - we’ve still got night frosts here.

I learned the other day that the barn on the hill – a five minute walk from us across a field - is perched on the coldest spot in the county. The sheep, though, seem happy enough. Every field now is filled with lambs and ewes and daily walks are a joy.

Protected by the bank our garden has its sheltered spots so I’ve used the sunny moments to tackle the bank at the bottom of the garden.

Related: a woodland patch for a small garden

Clearing the undergrowth

Some time ago this area must have been loved. It has snowdrops and a few hellebores and a lilac that sprawls out from the shade of the monstrous fir. But when we moved here three years ago the nettles and brambles were taking over.

It took three afternoons and a lot of bloodied legs and fingers to clear the slope of brambles. (Is there a gauntlet that doesn’t let through those killer thorns?) We heaped up and burned some, but to get a decent bonfire going I needed more space. That meant heaving prickly piles down the hill and on to the flat ground beside the stream.

It took a while to get the fire going but once off it took no time to turn three huge heaps into ash.

Along with the brambles I lopped down about forty lilac suckers, half of which were thickening up. At first I thought there were three lilacs but now that I can actually get close to them I realise that its one old tree that must have fallen under the weight of its branches and then continued to grow, spreading itself across fifteen feet.

The lilac branches are tight as snakes and working out what to saw off is not easy. I read that its best to take three or four years over remedial pruning, so that’s the plan.

I also tackled the elder down by the stream, removing perhaps a fifth of the growth but even though I could, for the first time, actually climb down and stand in the water I still couldn’t reach high enough with my loppers. Tempting as it was to climb the elder, saw in hand, for once I was sensible.

Related: how to grow lilac

Overgrown lilac tree

Overgrown lilac

Planting up the woodland garden

Now that the steep bank under the leaning ash is more or less cleared of weeds I am itching to add to the plants both here and along the bank of the stream.

I want to keep the garden’s natural look. It was carved out of a sheep field and, after years of neglect, was looking pretty indistinguishable from the surrounding fields when we took it on three years ago. Nettles, dock, sticky willie and arching briars were dominant on both sides of the garden wall. After endless chopping and pulling I have got rid of the briars, and have – with persistent strimming - got the rest under some sort of control. Not that I can ease up on the strimming yet.

The best thing about living here is that we are bang in the middle of working land. I like the fact that there’s a tractor parked over the wall next to the caravan that the farmer uses when lambing. So when I’m mulling over what to do with the garden I keep coming back to the fact that I want it to belong to its surrounds. In the patchwork of natural greens and browns and the muted tones of the hedgerow and wild flowers I don’t want this to stand out as a gaudy rectangle of unnatural brights.

The first step is identifying what there is already on the bank:

  • A spreading lilac
  • One mature and one smaller elder
  • Three Corsican hellebores
  • Snowdrops
  • Primroses
  • Some red campion, lords and ladies, a few bluebells, a little celandine, some clary and various other bits and bobs.

The second step is to see what else grows wild near by.

There are loads of primroses in the front garden. They’ve almost doubled in quantity since we arrived so once they finish flowering I shall transplant a load of them. I’ll also split some more snowdrops to encourage them to spread. But, actually, clearing the canopy and the nettles has already made a huge difference.

Oxlips and wood anemone both thrive in the area so I shall try some of them. Cow parsley too. Foxgloves I am tempted by, though strangely there are none around here. Why?

After leaving our garden the stream flows through a mixed wood and into a lake. Marsh marigold grows further down stream at the end of the woods so that ought to do well here although I do have a bit of an issue with its powerful yellowness. Yellow flag also thrives in the boggy margins where the stream approaches the lake. So both those are contenders. But really there is very little else that I’ve seen, not even watermint or great willowherb. Again, I wonder why?

What I cannot decide is whether to plant out the white hydrangeas that have been languishing in pots by the back door. They are miserable. They would love putting their roots down into the damp shady soil beside the stream. Of course it would be breaking my rules but then they will be close to the lilac, so perhaps it’s fine. And, anyway, if I hate them being there I can always dig them up again.

Related: getting started with British wildflowers

Where to buy wildflower plants

Make sure to buy wildflowers from responsible suppliers. for Scottish wildflowers 

The selection for a shaded site like mine includes:

  • Bluebell
  • Dog Viole
  • Enchanter's Nightshade
  • Greater Burnet Saxifrage
  • Ground Ivy
  • Oval Sedge
  • Oxlip
  • Ramsons
  • Wood Cranesbill
  • Wood Sedge
  • Woodrush
  • Yellow Archangel
  • Yellow Pimpernel
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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.