Creating A Naturalized Woodland Garden

by Steve McRae (Landscape Consultant & Designer, Entrepreneur)

Back yard Dilemma

Backyard Dilemma

Naturalizing a previously wooded area (stumps still intact) with perennials, grasses, rock walls, water features, pathways, benches, garden sheds, showy shrubs and flowering trees.

I recently received this email from an old friend in need.

“I really don’t know quite where to begin – I don’t know if I should hire someone to help and how much that would be, or if I can tackle it myself bit by bit.

Taking down the trees left a bit of a mess, but I do like the feeling of openness now.  I am not a tree hater, but I definitely had more than I needed!”

“I was thinking of planting perennials, and small bushes that will fill out and disguise the leftover stumps, maybe some ornamental grasses,  And just mulch around each planting as I go.  But, then someone else said I should have someone bring a bobcat in to turn everything over, make different layers and have topsoil brought in.  That sounds like more than I can handle on my own! So, whaddya think?” – Stumped (name changed to protect the innocent)

Garden Tools & Supplies

In response:

Do you have any uses in mind for this area? Recreational I mean or would you like it to be a woodland garden with paths, perennials, woodland border plants like hostas, lilly of the valley, trillium just to mention a few. I’m envisioning raised beds with local stone around the boulders and stumps. You can start the process of rotting the stumps by getting a big drill bit and drilling multiple holes in the tops and sides of the stumps. Then add compost or some top layer composted debris from the woods. keep it moist. Things will begin to grow… once you get some rot started on the stumps you may see lichen begin to appear, moss or small woodland trees reseeding. Once you clear an area you will have to keep up with the rapid growth of stubborn root systems you missed when you cleared before.

“I do just want the area to look natural – a woodland garden is a great description.”

Woodland Secluded Cabin - Berkshire Botanical Gardens

Woodland Secluded Cabin - Berkshire Botanical Gardens

I’m envisioning a woodland garden with secluded “rooms” connected by pathways. Maybe a water feature or koi pond, a bench, a whimsical gate and fence, a small gazebo with wisteria climbing to the roof, a garden shed or a pergola covered with grapevines. Flowering and berry producing shrubs and small trees will compliment the design and attract butterflies and birds. Even lilacs would be welcome in this environment.

Keep the bobcat or tractor out of the yard unless it is to move material or large plantings. If Don’t turn over the soil. The top 2 feet is probably already rich in nutrients. If you plant perennials you might amend the already rich soil, but use naturally composted materials. For inspiration you can go to the Asticou Azalea Gardens & Thuya Gardens in Northeast Harbor, Maine. Lots of rhododendron, mountain laurel, woodland plants, low bush blueberries, rock walls, stairs, secluded areas and of course azaleas.

Take the time to measure your overall space and before you plant anything run grid lines of string 10 to 12 feet apart and make squares. Document everything onto some graph paper or computer program if you are so inclined. Locate all the trees, stumps, rocks and plants you intend to keep. Then use this grid to plan your garden. You don’t have to keep the strings up but you can mark the corners of all the squares with numbered grade stakes to use as reference points. Then do your garden design (will probably change many times) and then do one square at a time. Don’t try to do it all at once. It will overwhelm you.

Berkshire Botanical Gardens - Naturalized Pond

Berkshire Botanical Gardens - Naturalized Pond

You’re in a great area in Western Massachusetts for growing a huge variety of plants that will work nicely in a naturalized setting. The Berkshire Botanical Gardens in Stockbridge, Massachusetts would be a great source of inspiration for you. The gardens are well documented with signs and you could incorporate elements of several displays into a natural woodland garden.

All this will take time to mature. The more mature the plantings you put in the costlier it will be, but the results will be stunning within a few years. Starter plants are going to be something the next generation will be able to enjoy more than you will, but I always felt a responsibility to design and plant for future generations anyway. If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to write.


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