Woodland Edges

It’s time to switch gears and focus on a more naturalistic woodland edge planting. This takes a bit of a mind-shift to think more about evoking natural habitats and less about tightly composed design.

I’ve mentioned before that the back part of property is being restored to a Coastal Woodland habitat.  This means, for all practical purposes, that I am removing invasives, planting some trees and shrubs, keeping some paths mowed, and otherwise letting nature evolve the property as she will.

Except, a long strip in the central part, closest to the front property, is being deliberately composed as a Woodland Garden. Cherry trees, cedars, oaks, and non-native spruces with a path weaving through the trees create the framework.  Initially planted 5 years ago, as seen in the picture below, the shady part of this edge is now well knit together and stable.

Woodland Garden after initial planting 2016

Unfortunately, the half dozen spruce trees in the distance in this photo have failed and were removed in the fall of 2019.  The far end of this space, which faces southwest, is now full sun in the afternoons.  I had to move out several shade plants, such as lady fern, and now I want to turn this into sunny extension of the woodland..

This style is going to be naturalistic, as a transition between the front planted gardens and the woodland in back.  I’m going to treat it as a woodland edge, situated between the Coastal Woodland habitat and my Cape Cod lawn “grassland”. 

Before starting the design work, I went back and re-read two key sources on woodland edges so that their key characteristics were front and center in my mind.  The sources I used were Planting in a Post-Wild World by Claudia West and Tom Rainer, and the Cape Cod plant community descriptions found at http://www.mass.gov/nhesp/. 

I found that a woodland edge is:

  • A place where woodland and grassland plants overlap, so there is high diversity of species that normally occupy different habitats.
  • A mix of sun and shade, so there is competition for the sun; it has more exposure to wind than in the woodland; it often has rich soil from the nearby canopy trees.
  • A mix of plant types such as a single canopy tree with a couple of immature trees nearby; a colony of shrubs that is denser than would be seen deeper in the woodland; occasional herbaceous plants like grasses, ferns, and perennials scattered around; often vines climbing to get to the light.
  • Casually naturalistic, with random distribution of plants, maybe even be scruffy or sparse.
  • Multi-layered, with a depth of plants transitioning in height from trees down to grass.

On Cape Cod, woodland edges I’ve most often observed are along the Rail Trail, the mowed sections of highway and the trails in conservation lands.  I would say these edges follow the characteristics above, especially the sparseness at the herbaceous layer.  Small oaks, pines, blueberries and bayberries seem to be the most common plants, along with ferns and Pennsylvania sedge. I love this combination of textures found occurring naturally.

Woodland edge on the Cape Cod Rail Trail in Chatham, with bayberry, pitch pine, and grasses

For my woodland edge, here’s the base diagram:

On the left, extending beyond the page, and in the area above the path, is the existing shady woodland garden.  The rest is the new space that opened up after removing the spruce trees. The path is now lined with 3”-4” branches recycled from the fallen spruce trees, giving a defined but rustic edge.

The outlined shapes are existing plants, all shrubs and trees that survived the shift from shade to sun.  In the fall of 2019, wanting to get a small-tree layer in ASAP, I planted 2 native witch hazels (Hamamelis virginiana), and scattered some low-grow grass seed around to cover the bare soil.

The goal for this design project is to fill in the empty spaces on the left, where I had to remove plants, then add more shrubs to the right of the witch hazel to step the height down, then underplant low herbaceous plants for a layered effect.  Also, there were a couple of holes in the upper half of the diagram to fill in.

I went through the same process as for the cottage garden, but you don’t need all the details again.  Because I experimented with different layouts, I used tracing paper to keep the base diagram clean.  You’ll notice in the diagram below that I did indeed move the pathway to avoid the oak tree in the upper right and decided to leave a wide space at the lower right (this is to allow access to the far back of the property).  After some iterations, here’s the design. New additions to the space are outlined in green.

Above the path are new perennials downy skullcap (Scutellaria incarnata), and coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillata ‘Zagreb’) while below the path is narrow-leaf mountain mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium).  All are pollinator plants that I have grown in other parts of the garden, so I am optimistic they will do well here, too. Most of the blooms in the woodland garden are white, as is the mountain mint, so the blue of the downy skullcap and yellow of the coreopsis will be a nice change, maybe even a focal point during the summer. One interesting side note: I recently learned that coreopsis ‘Zagreb” has been shown in trials to be more attractive to pollinators than the species, so I am fine with using a cultivar here.

On the right beyond the witch hazel, the new shrubs are 3 chokeberries (Aronia arbutifolia) that I will transplant to here and 3 new-to-me shrubs, maple-leaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium).  I chose this shrub to get some contrast in leaf texture. The chokeberry can grow to 6-8’ while the viburnum is 3-5′, a nice transition. Both have spring blooms for pollinators and berries in the fall for the birds, and both have nice fall color.

 I’m not entirely sure of the arrangement of these shrubs. Both grow by colonizing root suckers, so they appear in the wild as fairly tight colonies.  Three plants might be clustered together or have two growing close together with a third just a little distance away.  I want to mimic that spacing to make it look more naturalistic. Also, the viburnum is more shade tolerant, a woodland plant, while the chokeberry prefers the sun, more a grassland plant.  The alternate arrangement would have a tight group of chokeberries on the outer edge with the viburnum on the path edge in a more widely spaced grouping with some ferns interspersed.  I always do a little tweaking of placement during the installation process, and I will definitely do that here.

Along the outer edge will be a series of grassland-type plants – prairie dropseed, little bluestem, and bearberry.  All are tough plants that will evoke the kind of scruffy edges on the Cape, but will be a little more refined than the wild panic grass we see on the roadsides.

Under the witch hazel and along the inner edge are several kinds of ground covers – Canada anemone, Pennsylvania sedge, barren strawberry, and some ferns. All of these colonize and should make an interesting mosaic under the trees, along with the existing grass, woodland sedge and goldenrod. All I have to do is keep the invasives out and the goldenrod under control.

Above the path, I’m filling in the holes with two new-to-me plants – spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and long beech fern (Phegopteris connectilis).  I’ve seen both of these plants at Garden in the Woods and from the descriptions and conditions required, they ought to work and I’m interested to try.

To test out the visual aspect of the design, I clipped images of the plants and pasted them on some photos of the existing bare space.  This first one shows the downy skullcap and coreopsis in their sunny position in late summer (assuming I cut back the coreopsis for a second bloom).

The second one is shows the witch hazel, the six new shrubs and the little blue stem, in the alternative arrangement I’m considering vs. the layout in the diagram.  This is their fall coloring as they should appear in 2-3 years.  All are more interesting in the fall, so I’m liking this grouping, and think it looks pretty natural, maybe even scruffy, especially since there is no defined edge on the outside.  Mission accomplished.

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