Gardening: How to tame your woodland garden

Carol Klein emptying a wheel-barrow full of leaves onto heap. PA Photo/Jonathan Buckley

Carol Klein emptying a wheel-barrow full of leaves onto heap. PA Photo/Jonathan Buckley - Credit: Archant

Everyone has their favourite wild place and for BBC Gardeners’ World presenter Carol Klein, that place is the woodland

Japanese Knotweed. See PA Feature. PA Photo/thinkstockphotos

Japanese Knotweed. See PA Feature. PA Photo/thinkstockphotos - Credit: Archant

“I love trees, but it is the plants that grow under them, the woodlanders, that really seduce me. They may be little flowers, but they have giant charisma,” she writes in her latest book, Making A Garden: Successful Gardening By Nature’s Rules.

“Woodlands are magical and they are nearly always intimate. It’s all about what’s behind the next tree and what’s at your feet and I love it when the canopy fills in overhead.”

Undated Handout Photo of the Acer palmatum 'Osakazuki' in autumn colour at Glebe Cottage. PA Photo/J

Undated Handout Photo of the Acer palmatum 'Osakazuki' in autumn colour at Glebe Cottage. PA Photo/Jonathan Buckley - Credit: Archant

Few of us may be lucky enough to have a woodland area in our garden, but it’s amazing what we can grow in our own gardens where shadows are cast if we look at how Mother Nature deals with similar circumstances, she says.

“Even if you just have a tree in your garden, the conditions under that tree are going to be similar to those that you find in a woodland,” she explains. “It’s worth trying to emulate it and to go with the flow.”

Woodland plants shouldn’t be overfed - just add leaf mould to the ground and don’t try to improve the soil greatly, she advises.

“When you are planting things, just add compost, don’t add lots of bonemeal. Natural rules apply. And if you’ve inherited a garden, be careful when you prod around because lots of woodlanders are dormant until the spring. They tend to be Cinderella plants, coming up and then going back to sleep again.”

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Snowdrops are Carol’s favourite Cinderella plants. “Everybody can grow them. They will grow best if they are reasonably damp, not too dry, and they love shade.”

She recommends Galanthus nivalis ‘S. Arnott’, which has a powerful scent, along with wood anemones, which you can grow well in the shady garden, and they are great fun to increase and colonise, she says.

“The native ones are lovely and there are pale blue ones including Anemone nemorosa ‘Allenii’ which has pale blue-grey flowers. I love the way they follow the sun. They’ll hang their heads on a cloudy day, but as soon as there’s a lot of sunshine, the flowers open wide and follow the path of the sun.”

Once spring is over and the Cinderella plants have disappeared, don’t do much tidying up, she advises. Snowdrops may look untidy, but you have to let all the goodness go back into the bulbs and it doesn’t last very long.

“You should keep on top of weeds, but a lot of woodlanders are colonisers anyway. We don’t get vast invasions of weeds because there isn’t enough light.”

Trees are important and if you don’t have a huge amount of space, small trees which pack a punch include any of the flowering cherries, which also have autumn colour, and crab apples, which are a magnet for wildlife.

“If I had light, sandy soil I’d probably plant a rowan or two. Birch, whose vernacular name is ‘Lady of the Woods’, gives you this lovely dappled light, but it’s better on a lighter acid soil than it is on heavy clay.”

The way you plant is also extremely important in a woodland setting, she explains.

“It isn’t a question of creating little cameos like you might in a perennial garden, or even making a big, clumpy statement, plonking everything together. It’s much more a question of planting little colonies and letting them intermingle, so you can underplant with bulbs. I’d use bulbs hugely, but always go for types which come from that sort of setting.”

Klein has lots of hellebores which adore dappled shade, and ferns for dense shade. “I think ferns are just the most phenomenal plants,” she says.

Other plants which may suit shady, woodland areas include hardy geraniums, many of which love shade, which can take the show on further, while autumn is also a big window of colour when Japanese anemones come into flower and trees become the focal point.

It’s the time when the leaves of one of Klein’s favourite trees, the katsura, change to amber and soft pink, as its perfume fills the air.

Other parts of the garden may be set ablaze by brilliant crimson stems from dogwood, while the UK native spindle turns to cerise and vivid pink.

She is adamant about following in Mother Nature’s footsteps.

“When we are not sure about something, if we look at what Nature does - how she behaves and what she decrees - and we try to emulate her, we are well on the way to success.”

Making A Garden by Carol Klein (Photographs by Jonathan Buckley) is published by Mitchell Beazley, priced £25. Available on September 3