Send Letter to Editor
Hiking for inspiration | Finding a planting site
Choosing plants | Establishing your woodland garden
Woodland hikes provide plenty of opportunity to enjoy native flora. Whether you favor spring ephemerals like Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) and spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), or you prefer the radiant bloom of cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) in late summer, there are countless woodland plants to admire all year long. Unfortunately, most of us don't have the luxury of enjoying a day in the woods whenever the mood strikes us, particularly if we live in urban areas and have to travel to be surrounded by native woodland. But don't be discouraged, because there's a simple way to increase your access to native woodland plants: begin a woodland garden at home.
Planting native woodland plants in your yard is easy and environmentally sound. These indigenous plants, which have evolved in response to the light, moisture and nutrient conditions of the forest landscape, are well-suited to our soil and climate. Most species need minimal watering and are self-seeding, so they will spread naturally once established.
Native plants also attract other natives, such as birds and butterflies. Grow some of Wisconsin's most captivating natives at home in a backyard woodland garden and you'll have a daily opportunity to observe and learn about the plants and animals you usually see only on forest hikes.
Hiking for inspiration
Hiking or walking the woods is a great way to find ideas for your woodland garden.
Wisconsin boasts over 2,730 miles of hiking trails to introduce you to spectacular woodland scenery. don't know where to begin? I recommend starting your search at a library or bookstore. Look in the travel or nature sections for books that recommend woodland hikes. One I like is "Hiking Wisconsin" by Eric Hansen. Hansen hiked over 800 miles to create an excellent guidebook, with routes organized by appealing features. His hikes in northern Wisconsin will take you through some of the most pristine woodland in our state. [Editor's note: Other good guides include the "Walking Trails of Wisconsin" series by Bob Crawford, "Great Wisconsin Walks" by Wm. Chad McGrath, and "Hiking Wisconsin: America's Best Day Hiking" by Martin Hintz.]
Many of the fall colors and spring blooms you enjoy in the woods will also thrive in a home garden plot, provided you create the right conditions. To understand what kind of conditions you will need, go for a walk in the woods closest to where you live, and bring along a notepad and pencil.
Notice the entire ecological community around you. How much shade is there? Is the soil damp or dry? What is the ground cover like? Use your field guide to identify the plants that interest you. When studying plants, never remove them from their natural habitat. Removal disrupts the ecological community and is often illegal. Instead, focus on clearly identifying the plants you enjoy, and observing their needs for light, soil and water. If you can, return to the same trails in different seasons. Notice when the white snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum) is in bloom and when it is dormant. Try to identify the plants growing around it. Forest plants grow in communities; if you can create a similar woodland community at home, it's more likely your native plants will thrive.
Finding a planting site
If you already have an area shaded by a tree or large woody plant in your yard, you're well on the way to providing the dappled light, ground cover and weather protection the understory of lower-growing native plants requires. If not, you can begin to mimic the natural conditions of a woodland by planting a tree or shrub.
The amount of shade you receive will determine the maximum garden size. A well-shaded north side of a house or building usually offers the best planting spots; the east side, which receives the gentler rays of the morning sun, is also a good bet. You don't need a lot of space for your woodland garden. My 8'x10' garden is shaded primarily by the north side of my house, which provides some wind relief on stormy days.
Fallen leaves from nearby trees are the best ground cover for a woodland garden. A layer of leaves keeps the soil surface from drying out and helps maintain the moist, cool atmosphere woodland plants prefer. As the leaves decompose, trace nutrients are returned to the soil and valuable organic matter builds up, loosening the soil and increasing its ability to hold water. If you don't have trees in your yard, you may need to rely on neighboring trees for leaves, or gather leaves others put on the curb for pick-up.
When preparing your garden site, remember you are trying to duplicate the conditions observed on your hikes. Turf grass does not grow in the forest, so if you have grass, you will need to remove it, either by pulling it up or killing it off. Here's an easy, nonchemical, non-backbreaking way to get rid of grass: Place a thick layer of wet newspaper over the grass, topped with a heavy layer of mulch. Leave it for a few months. The grass will die, and decompose into the soil. Other plants on the site can remain if you like them, or you can move them if you want to create a completely native environment.
After you have prepared the site, you can begin considering which plants are suitable for your garden. It's important to match your plants to the available sunlight and moisture conditions.
Make sure the plants or seeds you acquire are native! A good field guide will tell you the plant's common and Latin name, as well as identify the true natives indigenous to the region before European settlement. Some of the plants you see in the wilderness may have become integrated later and may not be true natives, such as butter-and-eggs (Linaria vulgaris) or field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis). Others, like dame's rocket (Hesperis matronalis) or purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), may be invasive species that threaten native habitats with their aggressive growth habits. An exceptional resource for identifying natives is the Wisconsin State Herbarium, which has the world's largest collection of Wisconsin plants and a large online database of vascular plants with photographs to help with identification. A DNR handout can also put you in touch with a host of nurseries providing native plant stock to Wisconsin gardeners.
When I moved into my house, some plants were already growing in the woodland garden; I added others as time went on. My small garden now includes mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana), twisted stalk (Streptopus amplexifolius), maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum), white snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum) and most recently, sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba). I identified the natives and non-natives, then transplanted all the non-native herbaceous plants to another area of my yard to make room for natives I wanted to add.
Transplanting is best done during the shoulder seasons of early spring and fall to avoid the dry heat of summer and the freezing cold of winter. You want to give the plants time to root and establish themselves before any extreme weather arrives; this holds whether you are planting new arrivals or moving transplants from elsewhere. If you are unsure about transplanting, put your native plants in alongside your "exotic" or non-native plants. This will give you time to consider if you want exclusively native plants in your garden space and where you might relocate other non-natives when you are ready.
In my woodland corner, one shrub is a well-established exotic (Henry Lauder's "walking stick" Corylus avellana 'Contorta'), but I leave it alone to provide shade and shelter for the birds. Remember, a woodland garden is a small community. Once established, the less the garden is disrupted, the better.
Establishing your woodland garden
Starting native plants from seed can be a slow, albeit rewarding process. Some seeds take years to sprout and mature into the plants you see trailside. Wisconsin is extremely fortunate to have many experienced hands in this field. Lori Otto of Milwaukee founded Wild Ones Natural Landscapers in 1990 to promote preserving and planting native species; the group has grown into a national organization of 50 chapters in 12 states. There are 13 Wild Ones chapters around Wisconsin whose members will gladly provide advice on collecting and propagating seed and raising Wisconsin natives in your garden.
Another option is to purchase plants from nurseries that specialize in raising native plants. Most local nurseries carry at least a small selection of natives. When choosing plants, make sure they are true Wisconsin natives. Knowing a common name may not be enough. For example, tall bellflower (Campanula americana) is a beautiful woodland plant native to the southern half of the state. Creeping bellflower (Campanula rapunculoides) is a prairie wildflower from Europe that was popular as a garden plant over half a century ago. It has since escaped into the wilderness and is so common it is often mistaken as a native wildflower. Be sure to look up the Latin genus and species name before you visit the nursery.
Native woodland species are planted in much the same way as other garden sets. Water the new spot in the garden before you plant. Dig holes large enough to hold the existing root system and settle plants at ground level. Anticipate the plant's full size and make sure it has room to grow.
In the Chicago Botanic Garden's online guide to creating a woodland garden, Conservation Ecologist Jim Steffen recommends planting all of your natives at one time. In native woodland communities, the competition for light, water and nutrients is great, and plants added years later may not thrive. This is sound advice, but it is not always practical for the amateur gardener. Time, space and budget rarely allow planting a garden all at once. I have successfully added several plants to my woodland garden over the past two years, always making sure the new plants had ample space and light. Not all your woodland plants may survive, but it is interesting to watch how the new plants progress. Planting any garden is a continuous learning process; create a garden space you enjoy and you'll learn plenty as the years pass!
Keep watering your new plants until you see signs of new growth – an indication the plants have taken root. Once your native garden is established, additional watering and fertilizing are both unnecessary and unhelpful. Natives thrive in natural conditions. I do not prune, weed or rake out my woodland garden, just as I would not prune, weed or rake out the woods I hike through. There is one exception: If you find invasive or overly aggressive species in your woodland corner, pull them out before they threaten your remaining plants. I remove the highly invasive garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) from my yard every year regardless of where it turns up.
Gardening is an excellent way to bridge your life with the natural world. I still go for woodland hikes whenever I can and each time I do, I discover new wonders. Now I also enjoy those discoveries in my own back yard, as I watch my native woodland garden change over time. Having a woodland garden can make time at home as well as time on the trail more meaningful and satisfying.
Eva A. Counsell is a certified Master Gardener and writes from Shorewood.