Woodland Garden Updates – Ideas Needed!

This spring has seen some major changes in our woodland border – the long-overdue removal of three large Bradford pear trees.

Taken exactly 5 years ago, this shows the three Bradford pear trees in full bloom

We inherited them and used them as a starting point for this entire border, underplanting with Japanese maples, adding columnar Swedish aspens and planting the banks of our seasonal stream with moisture loving favorites.

With the Bradford pear trees removed we can now see the structure of the columnar Swedish aspens we planted

It will be another few weeks before this area looks its springtime best, but as I was working there this weekend I became aware of three areas that need re-planting and would love your creative ideas! I'll go through each of the areas in turn and show you photos but here are a few basics to keep in mind:

General Criteria

  • Hardy in zone 6b
  • Plants need to be
    • drought tolerant once established
    • deer-resistant
    • low maintenance
    • tolerant of voles and moles – they wreak havoc in this area!

Area 1

Area 1: a columnar barberry was removed from the left side of this entrance. What shall I plant here?

We often enter the woodland border from this direction so it is an important statement opportunity.

Area 1

I'm leaning towards a mounding evergreen that will hide the faucet and balance the vertical forms. The gate can be moved as needed – it's just pushed into the soil.

Key Facts:

  • Space is approximately 3-feet square
  • Receives full morning sun but is then shaded by trees after ~1pm.
  • Nearby: Midwinter Fire dogwood with a gorgeous red maple behind and to the left and golden locust tree behind faucet.
  • Soil: average, moisture retentive but can be wet in winter although not for long periods

My ideas:

  • Rhododendron or azalea (but historically these have not done well for me due to lack of regular summer water)
  • Drooping fetterbush – maybe Scarletta? The spotted lungwort under the white-barked Himalayan birch is so pretty I think the Rainbow variety might be too much.
  • Kalmia – these don't seem to do well here
  • Andromeda – Flaming Silver? Would that variegation balance the white bark??

Your ideas?

I'll insert these here as you leave me comments 🙂

  • Picea abies 'Tompa' with Mukdenia in front – nice ideas! Spruce could work – but rabbits would destroy Mukdenia sadly
  • Oak leaf hydrangea (white flowers to echo bark) – oh nice!
  • Birchleaf spirea with white flowers – love this too. Maybe the variety Glow Girl?
  • Group of orange hair sedge – I've had mixed success with this in my garden. Lovely but short term.
  • Hardy geraniums – got plenty of those I can use!
  • Heptacodium (go for symmetry) – ooh nice! And I have one waiting for a new home as it happens!!
  • Miniature Moss False Cypress to repeat golden tones of the snowberry – love this idea but maybe go bigger with Juniper 'Daub's Frosted'?
  • Blue Star juniper – I do have a couple that need transplanting into a sunnier spot so that may be just the ticket!

Area 2

There is a narrow planting strip – on the right of the following photo, that is really key.

Area 2: the narrow planting strip on the right side of the photo.

When you enter the woodland by the tall blue-green urn this is the view you have:

Area 2: the narrow strip seen as you cross this bridge. I need something to 'stop the eye'

Clearly I need to distract from the "scrub" on the property boundary. I'm thinking something tall and columnar. Could be evergreen or deciduous/herbaceous since this border is rarely entered during winter.

I tried Karl Foerster grasses but they didn't like the wet feet in winter or amount of shade. Neither Oregon grape nor barberries don't do well here due to wet winter soil (and I mean really saturated) and even Fine Line buckthorn wasn't happy.

Key Facts

  • Area is ~ 6 feet x 2 feet
  • In winter soil can become saturated for days at a time
  • Major deer pressure
  • This is in dappled morning light with some direct sun around midday then shaded by conifers i.e. tricky!

My ideas

Your ideas?

  • Joe Pye Weed with lambs ears at base: LOVE the idea of Joe Pye Weed – even the dwarf version 'Little Joe' which would be less floppy. Not sure lambs ears would tolerate the soggy soil but I do have some elsewhere in the garden and could try that in drier, sunny areas
  • Aconitum – love this perennial! Need to research to see if it can tolerate wet winter feet though :). Do Have a young grandaughter to consider so the fact that this is so poisonous makes me think it may not be the best choice by an entry point
  • Clethra – GREAT idea! Just need to check it wont encroach on the path way. Beautiful shrub though
  • Cardinal flower – I'd forgotten about this one – good call
  • Button bush – Hmm I have Fiber Optic on order as it happens… It is too wide for this space – BUT I intend to plant it nearby 🙂
  • Swamp azaleas – had to look this one up LOL! Nice idea  – but probably too wide right here
  • Canna – great form but probably too tropical for an entry into a woodland garden
  • Cornus sanguinea 'Compressa' – I hadn't heard of this one either!
  • Primula japonica – I certainly need more of these but probably need more structure in this particular area

Area 3

Area 3: having removed a sickly David viburnum I have space to play around this weathered vessel!

I'm not sure if the herbaceous ferns I have here will emerge but let's assume this spot is entirely empty. I probably need to move them anyway. I need something to fill in the area and frame the urn. It's quite a prominent spot on the woodland walk.

Area 3: is the area behind the weathered urn. That's a golden full moon maple in the center of the photo, just starting to leaf out. English bluebells are clustered at its base. Other plants visible include a wide, low holly, Rainbow drooping fetterbush and a struggling rhododendron with gorgeous purple on the undersides of its leaves.

Key Facts:

  • The area is ~ 4 feet by 6 feet.
  • Plants need to be <3 feet tall due to low branches of maple tree
  • Rabbits seem to love this area – ugh.
  • Average, moisture retentive soil but can be dry in summer
  • Dappled morning sun with some direct sun between 11am and 1pm. It may well receive some late afternoon sun now the pear trees have gone – hoping my golden full moon maples can withstand the change!
  • Can't get a large root ball established here due to tree roots

My ideas:

I usually cut the flowering stems down on my Axminster Gold comfrey as I prefer the basal foliage

Your ideas?

I'm all ears!

  • Lungwort  – yes I have plenty of this I could transplant here.
  • Mayapples (Podophyllum) interplanted with Tiarella – nice ideas but sadly rabbits have eaten both of these in my garden. Ugh.
  • Miniature Moss False Cypress – as with Area 1 I like this idea but might g larger and use Juniper 'Daub's Frosted' as I love the golden tips on the bluish foliage. I think it may well have enough sun with the Bradford pears gone.

Please drop your ideas into the comments so I can add them into the post. We can all brainstorm together. Thank you so much.

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  1. Colette Kelly on April 19, 2022 at 6:53 am

    Hi Karen,

    Here are some suggestions. Please note that I live in a zone 4b/5a zone (Ottawa), so you probably have a wider choice than me.
    For Area 2, you could try Joe Pye Weed – it can reach 6 or 7 feet tall, so will help hiding your boundary. Furthermore, you can leave the flowers (butterfly, including Monarchs, magnets) during the winter for some distraction from the snow. At the feet, you might have some success with Lamb's ears, which rabbits and deer don't like.
    For Area 3, there are some gorgeous variegated Lungwort varieties you could try.

    Keep me posted!


    • Karen Chapman on April 19, 2022 at 7:11 am

      Great ideas Colette – thank you! I've added them into the post. I especially like the idea of Little Joe pye weed as it will be less likely to flop over the path 🙂

  2. Ruth on April 19, 2022 at 7:42 am

    I noticed some tall bushes then very low lying ground cover/plants, how about mid size shrubs like birch leaf spirea( white flowers can get a repeat bloom ) echos white bark of trees.
    And possibly oakleaf hydrangea (peewee ) again their flowers echo the aspen bark, and both shrubs give beautiful display of fall color foliage. A grouping of orange sedge for well behaved grasses.
    Idea of hardy geraniums too.
    So fun to find new plants and be creative!! Enjoy!

    • Karen Chapman on April 19, 2022 at 8:41 am

      Thanks Ruth – some great ideas there! Deer may go after the oak leaf hydrangea in that location as it's right on their route but the spirea would work nicely.

      • Rose Hollis on April 20, 2022 at 4:23 pm

        The deer graze in my wide-open front yard regularly but have never bothered the oak leaf hydrangea. Maybe because it's a full grown / mature shrub? Or maybe there are just lots of other yummy things to choose from. 😀

        • Karen Chapman on April 20, 2022 at 6:18 pm

          Good to know you have well mannered deer – let's hope they mentored my visiting herds!

  3. nancy mellen on April 19, 2022 at 4:28 pm

    area 1- I'd play off the opposite birch for symmetry and go with a hepticodium which is tall, narrow, and has light peeling bark that is attractive all year. The late blooming time is welcome with the white flowers and then the pink bracts.
    area 2- clethra doesn't mind some sun or shade and lives in drainage ditches at the side of highways in the East.
    area 3- mayapples don't mind tree roots and will spread. I love the little umbrella leaves and hidden flowers for your grandchild to find. In a drought or super heat they will vanish; therefore, interplant them with a groundcover like tiarella.
    all are deer resistant or equivalent to a B on Rutger's deer scale and all are cold hardy past 6b.

    • Karen Chapman on April 19, 2022 at 5:08 pm

      Such great ideas Nancy – thank you! Areas 1 and 2 are especially interesting and I even have the Tianshan Heptacodium which is narrower than others, waiting to be transplanted. Thank you so much for brainstorming with me. I've added other comments with the inserted ideas in the main post too.

  4. Naomi on April 27, 2022 at 11:03 am

    I don't have a plant suggestion but I do have a vole tip: inspect every inch of your mulch to try and find their homes. I have a small yard and it took me quite a while, but I found where they were living and excavated a little to add lots of sharp edged gravel to their burrows.

    They aren't totally gone, but there are fewer of them as I think they now have to commute from the neighbour's yard.

    You can also mix some gravel in the soil before planting something they enjoy eating the roots of to help deter them. They dislike hitting the sharp edges when digging.

    • Karen Chapman on April 27, 2022 at 12:27 pm

      Hi Naomi, glad you found something that worked for you. Sadly on a 5 acre property I'm not sure I could do the inspection as well as you but gravel down the burrows I do find is certainly worth a go – thanks

  5. Rob Thuener on May 9, 2022 at 1:56 pm

    Beautiful, Karen.
    Section 1 – Fothergilla 'Mt. Airy' – deer resistant, fragrant white bottlebrush flowers and great fall foliage
    Section 2 – Monarda, especially Sugar Buzz series – deer resistant, shorter plants, more colorful flowers, and less prone to powdery mildew
    Section 3 – hellebores – deer resistant, good size, good year-round foliage

    • Karen Chapman on May 9, 2022 at 5:11 pm

      Great ideas – thank you for taking time to brainstorm with me. Sadly, Fothergilla are NOT deer-resistant here but Monarda and Hellebore are 🙂