A Shade Bed for Woodland Plants
by John Richmond
Every time I walked out of the front door I knew there was something wrong. My front garden slopes upwards from a retaining wall. Since I bought the house three years ago I'd put in a gravel path at the top of the slope; prepared a raised border at the top of the garden; and put in twin sets of steps to give me access. The central area had been left as a grassy slope. Shaded by the house for most of the day, it was damp and cool - not the best environment for grass. Weeds were abundant and even underplanting with spring bulbs had been a failure. It had to go.
When I first moved in I had a dream of a terraced peat garden. Somewhere to grow plants that needed moist, humus rich, acid conditions. Plants such as rhododendrons, small woodland plants, blue poppies - there is no shortage of varieties that thrive in this environment. All I needed to do was create it.
First Phase of Construction
There are numerous options for terracing a slope. I could have used stonework, sleepers, peat blocks, or bricks. What finally decided me was walking into the garden centre in February this year and seeing a whole pile of pressure treated 1 x 4-foot log rolls. They were reduced in price - always a bonus - but they gave me the idea. If I hammered them into the bank I could build my terraces by back filling with prepared soil. I bought eight and the following weekend began the project.
Stripping the turf was the first job. There was no way I could get a machine onto a thirty degree slope so it had to be done by hand. Gradually the weed-infested turf was sliced away and then stacked turf side down in a corner of the rear garden. Two years earlier I'd done a similar exercise to prepare the top and side borders and the gravel path. That had left me with a stack of good loam that I could use as the basis for preparing the soil.
Construction and Backfilling
As the turf was removed I began to construct the terraces. Each log roll was curved to form an arc and then hammered into the compacted soil of the bank to about half its depth. That left a space behind which would contain my woodland soil. The compacted clay soil of the bank was forked over and a mixture of well rotted manure, garden and leaf mould worked in. On top of this I added a soil mixture composed of nearly equal parts of the turf loam and the same organic material I'd added to the soil of the bank. It gave me a good depth of humus rich soil - exactly the soil conditions woodland plants need to thrive. The final touch was a mulch of composted bark. This suppresses weeds and adds to the organic content of the soil as it rots.
Even without plants it was a more attractive feature. About 16 foot long by 10 foot wide, the eight terraces and a strip at the base of the slope gave structure to this part of the garden. All that was needed was suitable plants.
Some I had. A lovely variegated pieris, 'Flaming Silver', was unhappily resident in another part of the garden. I moved it and a pot grown plant of Skimmia japonica 'Rubella' into the first two terraces. Blue flowered willow gentian, Gentiana asclepiadea, was relocated from an overcrowded spot by my pool. Hosta 'Gold Standard', Cautleya spicata, Sarcococca, Helleborus niger, Geranium 'Salome' and others had been sitting in pots since last year. I moved them to positions on the top terraces.
Some I've bought. A visit to a specialist alpine nursery has added some small treasures. Podophyllum; the diminutive Iris lacustris x cristata; white flowered twinleaf, Jeffersonia diphylla; blue flowered Soldanella; small erythroniums; a diminutive Soloman's Seal; and the double form of the bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis 'Flore Plena' have been planted in two of the terraces which I've reserved for smaller plants. Tiarella and Heuchera 'Beauty Colour' provide foliage interest, while ferns and dwarf rhododendrons have also been added. On one of the top terraces I've planted a lovely Japanese maple, Acer palmatum 'Bloodgood'. This will provide summer shade in the mornings as it matures.
Three months later the result is far from mature. I've still got plenty of planting spaces to fill but the feature is already an asset to the garden. Memories stand out - the vivid red of the Pieris foliage, the intense blue flowers of the Himalayan poppy Meconopsis x sheldonii, a mass of white and pink flowers on Primula sieboldii with the ice blue flowers of Pulmonaria 'Opal' alongside. Weeds have barely shown through the mulch - and those that have appeared can be easily removed.
Where I had an eyesore I now have a feature. It has allowed me to grow more plants - specialist plants that like a cool rootrun and shade from the worst of the sun. The borders above and alongside seem more interesting for the terracing in their middle. Every morning I can leave for work refreshed by something of interest in my little woodland bed.
About the Author John Richmond is a keen gardener who lives and works in the South West of England. He has a scientific background as a professional ecologist. He has written occasional articles for gardening and other magazines in Britain since 1984, specializing in garden wildlife issues and hardy plants. His own garden can be visited via the web, and correspondence from other gardeners is always welcome.