Fifty years ago, developers cleared lots before building houses. Today’s homeowners recognize the value of a wooded lot; it stays cooler on hot days and provides shelter from storms. Landscape woodland areas using the structure of the forest as a guide for designs. Forests consist of an upper story of tall trees, and understory of shorter trees and shrubs and the forest floor.
Establish a Woodsy Environment
Once the underbrush is cleared away, you will need to replicate that environment of the forest if your landscape is to be woodsy. The forest floor is covered with dappled shade; patches of light and shadow move throughout the day with the sun. In the forest, this dappling is the result of weaker trees dying or animals removing saplings for food or shelter. Layers of decaying organic matter create an acidic soil; use limestone to lower the pH of soil when starting a woods from scratch. A thick layer of compost will keep the woodland floor healthy so it can “eat” up falling branches and leaves. In order to appear truly “woodsy,” the woodland border needs all three levels landscaped; upper story, under story and floor. A woodland that borders a lawn needs a buffer zone of ground cover like pachysandra, periwinkle, bugleweed or winter creeper. Prune the ground cover regularly; ivies, winter creeper or goutweed become invasive if not carefully controlled.
Check with a local native plant society, an arboretum or your local university extension service to develop a list of plants for each level of the woodland environment. The woodland should maintain its own balance without raking, fertilizing, aerating and all the other cultural practices used to grow non-native plants. The University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension suggests choosing oaks, maples or conifers for upper story cover; thin trees to admit light in existing woodlands. Choose native shrubs and multi-stemmed trees for understory foliage—rhododendron, viburnum, mountain laurel, kousa dogwood, red osier dogwood and witch hazel. Use spruce, white pine, bayberry, gray dogwood or viburnum if the woods sit near a pond or stream. Carpet the floor with ferns, lily of the valley, bugleweed, violets, pachysandra and plantain lilies. Bring mosses in on decaying wood and place them in deep shade; the moss colony will grow to cover fallen branches and rotted leaves. Purchase endangered species like trillium and jack-in-the-pulpit only from reliable sources who do not harvest wild plants.
Make Your Woods a Home
In addition to a bench or two and, perhaps, a gazebo for the humans, the woodland garden provides a home for insects, birds and, on occasion, critters like raccoons and rabbits. The insects will come as will the critters if they live in the neighborhood. Set out to attract the birds, though; they eat insects and contribute their song to the woods. Provide a pond or birdbath and keep the water clean. Put out feeders--particularly during the winter--and plant trees and shrubs that will provide natural food throughout the year. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology suggests mulberries, serviceberries, crabapples, wild grapes, holly and Northern bayberry to provide colorful fruits for birds. Eastern red cedar, white oak and spruces provide food but, more importantly, provide nesting sites as well as places for birds to hide from storms and the neighborhood cat.