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How to design and plant a woodland gardening patch in a small garden

Val Bourne / 27 March 2014

Gardening expert Val Bourne shares her tips for designing a beautiful woodland patch in a small garden, an ideal planting strategy for a shady garden.

Spring woodland border
Val's spring woodland border

A woodland garden doesn't need the huge amount of space you might imagine. Clever design and the planting of shrubs to create shade for diminutive spring-flowering woodlanders can make for a beautiful space that's ideal for east or north-facing gardens lacking the afternoon warmth of other garden aspects.

Plant shrubs to create some shade 

It’s quite possible to create the intimacy of a woodland garden in a small area. Start by casting some shade and select a medium-sized, deciduous shrub that suits your soil and position.

If you have deep, fertile soil opt for a fragrant winter-flowering witch hazel. The freesia-scented Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Pallida’ is a lucid yellow that stands out well.  

If you’re on poorer soil, opt for the white-flowered Viburnum x burkwoodii, a medium-sized shrub that produces pink-budded white flowers in spring. Or light up a darker corner with the yellow-leaved, summer-flowering mock orange Philadelphus coronarius ‘Aureus’.

Plant shade-loving plants

Once your shrub is established, try to plant right up against the main stem, using non-invasive spring-flowering plants and some that have a year-round presence.

Choose a pale-flowered form of the oriental hellebore (Helleborus x hybridus) because the apple-greens and whites stand out better than the slate-blacks. The widely available Harvington hellebores are excellent. 

Find out how to grow hellebores

Add some snowdrops, miniature narcissi and scillas along with a good wintergreen fern such as Polystichum setiferum  'Plumosodivisilobum’ and your woodland area will shine throughout the year.

Five top tips for designing a woodland patch

  • The secret of success when planting up a small woodland area is to choose non-invasive plants.
  • Opt for the best performers because there’s no room for second-rate plants.
  • You also have to consider your soil before choosing.
  • The easiest plants to grow are spring-flowering. They capitalise on early, spring performing before the leaves of woody plants open.
  • Many woodlanders disappear underground in summer, so you must add some plants with year-round presence.

Woodland garden plants

Woodland patch spring flowering bulbs

Clockwise from top left: Galanthus elwessii, Scilla siberica, Eranthis hyemalis, Cyclamen coum

Ten spring-flowering woodland bulbs

1. Galanthus elwesii

A substantial grey-leaved snowdrop for the woodland edge. January onwards.

Find out how to grow snowdrops

2. Narcissus ‘Elka’

A perfectly proportioned miniature daffodil with long, pale cream trumpets surrounded by milky white petals. Named by Alec Gray after two lady daffodil growers - Elizabeth and Kate.  March.

3. Scilla siberica

Cobalt-blue miniature bulb with bright-green foliage, and dark stems topped with three miniature bells. Best in light soil where it self-seeds.

Find out how to grow scilla and muscari

4. Scilla mischtschenkoana

An ice-blue scilla that hugs the ground, flowering with the snowdrops.

5. Erythronium ‘White Beauty’

April-flowering, with white pagodas held about a foot above (30 cm) foliage that’s marbled in chocolate. Needs good soil in shade and a summer bake.   

6. Crocus ‘Yalta’

A purple and silver-grey crocus that looks superb in bud and opens to show off a fluffy orange middle.

7. Muscari aucheri  ‘Blue Magic’

A non-invasive grape hyacinth with bright blue flowers rimmed in white rims.

8. Cyclamen coum

Early-flowering, with jaunty magenta-nosed pink flowers held above rounded leaves. Position at the front and allow to self-seed.

Find out how to grow Cyclamen coum

9. Iris reticulata ‘Harmony’

Plant deeply on a sunny edge and the gentian-blue flowers, crested in yellow and white, will appear by early spring.

10. Eranthis hyemalis

Winter aconites need shelter and afternoon sun under bare branches. Then the flowers will open and seedlings will appear. Does well in a small trough.

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Spring woodlanders

Clockwise from top left: Brunnera 'Jack Frost', Euphorbia polychroma, Tiarella, Dicentra formosa

Ten non-invasive spring woodlanders

1. Anemone nemorosa ‘Robinsoniana’

The best of the wood anemones, with substantial rounded petals in a soft blue, flowering slightly later than most.

2. Euphorbia polychroma

A deciduous euphorbia that forms a foot-high mound of acid-yellow flowers in March or April, setting off blue flowers and miniature blue bulbs.

Find out how to grow euphorbias

3. Pulmonaria ‘Blue Ensign’

A plain-leaved deep-blue pulmonaria that pushes violet spears through the ground in early spring before April flowers open. A bee pleaser.

4. Pulmonaria ‘Diane Clare’

Violet flowers appear in March, supported by apple-green silvery leaves. Simply the best pulmonaria.

5. Primula ‘Hall Barn Blue’

Diminutive well-behaved, long-lived primula with perfectly formed yellow-eyed violet-blue flowers over many weeks.

Find out how to grow primroses

6. Bergenia ‘Overture’

A small flower-packed bergenia that produces bright-pink flowers set against red leaves. Very special.

7. Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’

Silver-marbled foliage supporting dainty sprays of blue flower.

8. Omphaloides cappadocica ‘Starry Eyes’

Tiny blue flowers, edged in white, on a short woodlander.

9. Dicentra formosa ‘Cox’s Darker Red’

Long-lived red dicentra with ferny foliage. Not happy on limey soils though.

10. Tiarella ‘Spring Symphony’

The best foam flower of all, producing a mass of dainty flower spikes containing white stars that open from tight, apple-blossom-pink pokers of buds. The zoned foliage is also excellent.

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Woodlanders for year-round interest

Clockwise from top left: Daphne 'Jacqueline Postill', Asplenium scolopendrium, Daphne 'Eternal Fragrance', Buxus sempervirens

Ten woodland plants with year-round presence

1. Sarcococca confusa

The best form of wweet box, with glossy green foliage and ivory-white flowers.

2. Skimmia x confusa ‘Kew Green’

A small, rounded shrub with fragrant creamy flowers. The triangular heads of buds are a feature for many months, before the flowers open.

3. Euphorbia amygdaloides ‘Purpurea’

An evergreen euphorbia with beetroot foliage and lime-green flowers in spring. Cut back after flowering to encourage tight basal growth.

4. Daphne ‘Eternal Fragrance’

A new, compact daphne from Robin White of the now defunct Blackthorn Nursery. Small with ice-pink flowers and green foliage.

Find out how to grow daphnes

5. Daphne ‘Jacqueline Postill’

This makes a tall columnar plant when happy, so space may eliminate this one. The evergreen foliage and highly-fragrant pink clusters of flowers appear in January.

6. Asplenium scolopendrium ‘Kaye’s Lacerated’

A hart’s tongue fern, so this must have shade, with full leaves in bright-green.

7. Polystichum tsussimense

The holly fern has silvery white scales which show up well in dark shade.

8. Daphne ‘Rebecca’

A small variegated daphne with green foliage boldly edged in yellow. Flowers in early spring.

9. Buxus sempervirens

Box is an extremely useful evergreen on brighter woodland edges, although not for deep shade. If you containerise it, feed with tomato feed every two weeks in the growing season to prevent the foliage from acquiring an olive-tinge. Then it will always look glossy.

10. Hedera helix ‘Minima’

Hardy ivies come in many guises and you want a minimal grower on the edge. The green ‘Anita’ and ‘Minima’ are suitable but Fibrex will advise choose if you prefer a variegated leaf.

Next article: How to design a herbaceous border >>>

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