“If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire, I won’t look farther than my own back yard!” So said Dorothy after her fantastic adventures in Oz.

Rhododendrons provide year-round interest in woodland gardens.
Photo Credit: Felder Rushing
Trillium can blanket a shady hillside.
Photo Credit: nternational Flower Bulb Centre
Our native silverbell is a lovely woodland addition.
Photo Credit: Felder Rushing
Southern shield fern
Southern gardeners may find Southern shield fern to be easy to grow.
Photo Credit: Grandiflora™

It’s good advice for gardeners, too.

There are literally hundreds of plants native to your area, no matter where you live, and they can be the foundation of a wonderful woodland garden.

You can choose to go completely native or mix in plants from other parts of the world as well. Either way, there are a few simple rules I’d like to recommend for creating your own woodland garden.

Work with Mother Nature and not against her. If you have an area that’s in full or part shade, then place plants that thrive in full or part shade there. Simple enough, right? You would be surprised at the number of “proficient gardeners” who try to force plants into unnatural situations. Choose plants that are adapted to your site, be it an acre of woods or a tiny spot in the shade of a big tree.

Woodland gardens are all about subtlety and gradual change. You don’t have to cram in too many plants for overwhelming bloom all yearlong. Encourage native ferns and wildflowers to re-establish themselves in your garden over time. Have patience – the plants that you find most rewarding may be the ones that take the longest to grow and spread.

Successful woodland gardens mimic the natural conditions for plants in your area. Most woodland plants prefer a rich soil that’s high in organic matter, well-drained but retains moisture for long periods and has good penetration of water and air into the soil. You may live in an area of the country that has long periods of drought, even in wooded areas. Again, the focus is for you to duplicate the climatic conditions where you live and plant things that like those conditions. This is another way of working with Mother Nature and not against her.

Companion planting is a sure-fire way to create a woodland garden. Ferns, wildflowers and groundcovers combine beautifully with bulbs, shrubs, small trees and evergreens under the canopy of overhead shade trees. In my parent’s garden, I planted bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) and redbud (Cercis canadensis) with Rhododendrons, mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), Clethra, spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and arrowwood viburnum. Varying native ferns, bulbs and wildflowers were tucked in amongst Heuchera, Tiarella and other perennials. The groundcover I chose was the native Pachysandra procumbens.

Create a destination or a contemplative journey. Winding paths made of natural materials such as wood chips or pine needles can add interest, fashion a way to a seating area and provide a way for visitors to view your woodland plants up close and personal.

Be careful not to introduce alien invasive weeds. In my area, that means Asian honeysuckles, multiflora rose, privet and garlic mustard. You can always check with your local Cooperative Extension Service for a list of invasive plants in your area – and then avoid using those plants!

Use common sense. Little did I know that when I created a woodland garden at my parent’s house it would be a source of ongoing domestic discord. My stepfather throws mown grass clippings around the woods in the summer. My mother says that it causes a rotting smell and isn’t good for the plants. “No, that smell is from the neighbor’s giant pile of clippings,” I chime in as my stepfather smiles in the background. To appease the mater, I point an accusatory finger at step-pater and say, “Make sure you scatter the grass clippings well and they don’t have a bunch of weed seeds in them!”

Be responsible for preserving and protecting native plants. Admire the woodland flowers where they grow but never disturb them. Purchase plants for your woodland garden from a trustworthy source, either nursery-propagated plants or plants rescued with the landowner’s permission from sites slated for development.

And don’t sweat the small stuff. Woodland plants, as a general rule, need very little tending to be carefree and happy. When you’ve finished setting your plants into the ground, lightly firm the soil around the plants and water them in well. Mulch around them with shredded leaves, shredded bark, pine needles or an organic material that’ll hold the soil moisture and discourage weeds. Water during dry periods while the plants are first getting established. Most woodland plants don’t need fertilization to prosper; just be sure to have lots of organic matter decaying around them.

Weed where you need to, water when plants are young and stand back and watch what happens. Your own back yard can become your heart’s desire with a little patience and some careful planning. (And hey, there’s no place like home, right Dorothy?)