With a young deciduous forest as its foundation, the roughly 2 1/2-mile Woodland Garden’s gradually paced growth has involved learning curves along the way. (Photo courtesy Bonnie Pavlak)

When you think garden, do you envision open space graced by boundless sun?
If your answer is “yes,” walking in the woods might open your eyes to other possibilities.
Smaller trees and shrubs — think rhododendrons and dogwoods — enhance the understory.
Shade-tolerant and dappled sun loving florals—think spring cyclamen and lady slipper—discreetly please the eye.
If your homestead harbors arbors of stately oaks or elms, a charming garden paradise can still be yours by layering.
Heather McCargo, of Maine’s Wild Seed Project, advises using the forest as template for a woodland garden, first analyzing your site’s light levels then deciding on plants.
Deciduous trees allow greater amounts of direct and indirect sunlight to filter down to the forest floor than evergreens, she stated.
Early spring — before the trees fill in with leaves — is a prime time for many wildflowers (and bulbs) to bloom.
Other understory plants seem able to wring enough light from less optimal locations.
“These are the plants that can tolerate the immediate north side of a building which is usually in complete shade.
Farther out, the light levels can increase depending on the time of year,” she advised.
Varied vegetation layers, including smaller understory trees and larger shrubs, help to duplicate the ecosystem found in natural forest habitat, adding visual interest and attracting wildlife and pollinators, McCargo attested.
Woodland soil, nutrient laden courtesy of naturally occurring leaf litter and decaying plant matter, can be simulated on your shaded plot by fortifying with “compost, leaf mold, or very well-aged natural hardwood bark,” she advised.
If packed down it should be gently loosened manually with a fork (not turned over), taking care to leave tree roots undisturbed.
While it may seem possible to pile fresh soil around and under trees as a planting medium, the National Gardening Association and others caution that doing so may smother shallow roots; limit new soil to three inches or less, carefully working into existing dirt close in to trunks.
Horticulturalist Doris Taylor believes when picking plants for personal woodland gardens, its best to select the smallest specimens available, planting more gradually, always at least a foot away from the trunk working outward.
To help young plants compete with tree roots, Taylor advises spot watering to supplement rainfall until they are well-established. She warns against fertilizing the first year, as it spurs top rather than root growth.
Later, a slow release fertilizer will benefit both trees and plants.