Your Native Woodland: If You Build It They Will Come

Virginia bluebells and Celandine poppy in my woodland

Well you might have to plant a few first.  What am I talking about?  How to create your very own woodland filled with native plants.  I have written before about how important native plants are to our survival.  To read about it, click here.  Now I am going to tell you how to create a shade garden in which mid-Atlantic native plants thrive and multiply with abandon.

my native woods

It is really quite simple.  All you do is take one woodland area, mix with generous amounts of compost, add the appropriate native plants, and wait a few years.  The key is knowing which plants to use.


I started with the worst possible soil in the worst possible conditions.  Not only were the beds composed of the hard baked clay and rocks prevalent in our area, but they were filled with roots from 100-year-old London plane and—hold onto your hats—black walnut trees.  Add to that, years of trash, including roofing slate and coal furnace shovelings, dumped in the woods before municipal collection came along and construction debris from the 1960s.


Nature does not dot the landscape with precious collectibles but  “designs” with large sweeps of single types of plants, and that is what I have done in my woods  To create a woodland like mine, all you do is plant at least five but preferably seven and ideally nine of the plants profiled below in beds amended with generous amounts of compost, mulch heavily with ground leaves, and stand back and wait.  Really….that’s what you do….it works.


I wanted to recommend six plants, but when it came down to slimming the competition, I had to go with nine: seven spring-blooming and two fall-blooming.  All are native to the mid-Atlantic and Pennsylvania and all seed freely in a woodland setting once they get going.  And the winners are:

Virginia bluebells, Mertensia virginica: porcelain blue flowers top blue-green leaves in March and April, goes dormant when hot.  All my plants came from one plant given to me by a friend.


Celandine poppy, Stylophorum diphyllum: lovely filigreed leaves are covered with large bright yellow flowers in April and May.  Again, all my plants came from one plant given to me by a friend.

Dwarf Jacob’s ladder, Polemonium reptans: wintergreen fern-like leaves are followed in April and May by copious blue bell-shaped flowers replaced by ornamental chartreuse seedpods.

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White violets, Viola striata: white flowers in April and May.  All my plants came from one clump dug from my woods.


Blue creeping phlox, Phlox stolonifera ‘Blue Ridge’: wintergreen mat of foliage is topped with blue flowers in April and May.


Creeping phlox, Phlox stolonifera ‘Sherwood Purple’: creeping phlox comes in blue, purple, white, and pink.  The purple is the most vigorous.


Native ginger, Asarum canadense: the reddish purple flowers appear below the leaves.


Golden groundsel, Senecio aureus: the wintergreen leaves are topped by attractive purple buds in March followed by fragrant yellow flowers in April and May.  This vigorous spreader is a great native substitute for vinca, pachysandra, and ivy.

Blue wood aster, Aster cordifolius: the leaves of blue wood aster completely cover the ground in the spring.


Blue wood aster is covered with flowers in October and November.

Northern sea oats, Chasmanthium latifolium: pendulous oat-like flowers grace this native shade grass in October and November.  The foliage ages to a lovely khaki color that remains ornamental through winter.

The flowers of northern sea oats in the slanted light of fall.


As the spreading, woodland plants profiled above establish themselves, you can add pockets of other special natives like trilliums, jack-in-the-pulpits, mayapples, bloodroot, and ferns.  The result is magical.

Carolyn

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71 Responses to “Your Native Woodland: If You Build It They Will Come”

  1. Wayne at WynEden Says:

    Beautiful photos of what appears to be a truly magnificent woodland. I too love violets and would suggest that the Confederate violet with its purple eye on white should also be part of any woodland garden. Unfortunately, I planted the Celandine Poppy in my slightly more cultivated woodland flower beds where it looks lovely, but like the Virginia Bluebells, it is threatening to take over the entire area. The native Jacob’s ladder did a reverse colonization from the neighboring woods to my garden beds. I hope lots of folks are inspired by this post to cultivate their own woodland gardens.

    • Wayne, Thanks. There are lots of plants that work in woodlands. I have the confederate violet in these woods, but it is not aggressive enough to be one of the key plants. All the plants that I recommended “threaten to take over the entire area”. I intend to do another post on plants to add once you get started. Carolyn

  2. I love woodland plantings and yours is so beautiful. I remember woods like this in PA, and I just love drifts of violets, so pretty.

  3. Carolyn, very inspiring and timely, thanks. I was just starting to read up on natives. Will these plants spread through English Ivy and pachysandra. I have an existing woodland area with those two, mayapples and vinca. I’ve been debating about ripping out the English Ivy (which I hate) but that seems so daunting.

    • Iggy, I would rip out the ivy, pachysandra, and vinca before I started all three are invasive and aggressive. I am not sure if the native plants I recommend would spread through them, but you wouldn’t be able to achieve the look you were going for if these plants remain. Carolyn

  4. I was very excited to see this post as this is similar to what I hope to accomplish in some areas of our gardens… in fact I just added the celadine poppies to our mertensia area and it’s fun to see photos of how they will work together! Larry

  5. Kristen Says:

    This post is what I have been needing! I’ve been ripping out honeysuckle and amending soil and planting here and there, but I was ultimately unsure if my approach would ever amount to anything. Now I have the motivation to keep going! Thank you so much :)

    • Kristen, I forgot to mention that this woodland was full of invasive plants when we started. We are still beating back vinca, honeysuckle, lesser celandine, and garlic mustard from the neighbor’s property. All were removed organically, by hand—the only way to do it as far as I am concerned. The soil in the area was also compacted because it was a former carriage path. Carolyn

  6. This is what I am trying to accomplish in my shade garden. It is absolutely beautiful. Mine is slowly getting there with some different plants (solomon seal, ginger, snakeroot, virginia bluebells, ferns are the main ones). I can see better where I am going wrong -more plants of the same !! Thanks for a great post.

  7. Carolyn I am finally getting in some natives that I can then divide and spread throughout the garden..that is my plan this year..take an inventory and then plan for next year…I usually plant too few of one plant so I will be remedying this…great post and gorgeous woodlands!

  8. nwphillygardner Says:

    In my woodland garden, Ostrich fern which I believe is a native plant seems to qualify as something that threatens to take over, but is surely beautiful. Slower to arrive and to expand its turf is the native Solomon seal….less showy and aggressive than the variegated form.

    • Eric, My woods are too dry for native ostrich fern to multiply at all much less aggressively. I do have a meadow of it down by my stream, and it is out competing Japanese knotweed and other nasty invasives. The native Solomon’s seal is also not a good enough spreader to be one of the major colonizing plants. I do have it as a secondary plant, and will try to do a post on recommendations for the second level. Carolyn

  9. It is beatifull woodland ,I love plants and woodland plants.You post is wonderful .Everything in nature is fantastic and gorgeous .

  10. I have a area on the edge of my property with a lot of young maples and pagoda dogwoods that have selfseeded. The house sat empty for a couple of years before we bought, and during the almost 6 years that we have owned it, these trees/shrubs have been growing. They are now about 8 -10 feet tall, and I have long wanted to make this scrubby area into a Woodland Walk. Great ideas about plants I can use in this area.

  11. How absolutely breathtaking! Great post and excellent recommendations some of which will work in other zones as well. I adore my woodland poppies. They are really amazing this year.

    • Karin, I would imagine that many of these plants will work in other zones, and many are native to the whole eastern half of the US. I wanted to focus on the mid-Atlantic because the idea is to plant plants that will maintain the native ecology against the daunting forces wreaking havoc on it. Carolyn

  12. Louise Thompson Says:

    I love it all, and grow some of it, although I don’t have room or enough trees for a whole woodland garden. But I tried Northern sea oats and took it out, because it was way too invasive for my small garden – almost as bad as that horrible gooseneck loosestrife. Louise

    • Louise, All these plants are “invasive” in the sense you are talking about perhaps with the exception of the creeping phlox. Most plants native to a particular place are hard-wired to “invade” a large swath of space (that does not make them invasive the way I define it). That’s the whole point. You put them in, you stand back, and they take over. The area shown in the photos is not very big. I should measure to give readers an idea. If a gardener wants to do what I have done, they have to dedicate a space to it and then give up control. Carolyn

  13. It looks amazing, and if I had room for it I’d head down that road in a split-second! As it is, though, I think my garden space is so restricted that the attempt would look a bit “twee”, so instead I relish in the fact that the white woodland anemones are beginning to bloom in the forest near my garden; that’s a scenery I could never even begin to rival.

    • Soren, You are so right. We can’t hope to have our gardening efforts rival what nature would provide if we left it alone. I am merely trying to take a degraded landscape back to what I think nature would have done. Carolyn

      • It looks amazing.

        I will restrain myself to planting some small woodland flowers under the shrubs in my hedgerow towards the road; they might not give the sweeping display that nature creates, but it will be flashes of colour, and plants that have developed to grow in that sort of environment.

  14. So beautiful Carolyn, amazing that those lovely drifts of plants come from a single plant. I always marvel at what you have achieved on your property … simply beautiful!

  15. Carolyn, you really do show me where I go wrong with our woodland. One reasonably large area is smothered with Geranium macrorrhizum and it does look good. The other larger area is dotted with as many different woodlanders that I can fit in, and as you well know it just doesn’t work. I will have to rethink it. I am very taken with your Mertenisia Virginica and the Polemonium Reptens.

  16. Useful advice, good writing , and stunning images that illustrate your text, all contribute to making your blog consistently superb. This post is what great blogging is all about.

  17. Your garden is my dream garden. I had to smile when I saw the title of this post as my post on Friday will be similar. It seems woodlands are so definitely the place to be. I find the amount of the flowers you have to be so great.

  18. paulinemulligan Says:

    Amazing how similar our 2 woodlands are, I have used English bluebells, Hyacinthoides non scripta, and the yellow Welsh poppy, Meconopsis cambrica, both are allowed to self seed to their hearts content. We also have an area of Fritillarea meleagris, which is also a native here, in a damp area of the woodland and again it is seeding itself about happily. This is my favourite area of the garden.

  19. I did enjoy that film … Not much happens in my woodland garden after spring. Interesting to see that you have some options for other seasons. I’ll take on board your tip that less is more.

  20. So inspiring. Just lovely.

  21. Nice, Nice, Nice! :-)

  22. patientgardener Says:

    It looks wonderful. I would like to do something similar but I feel that when you look at the UK’s native floral you need to decide where you are going to draw a line. We have had imports for centuries, going right back to the Roman times and so many plants that we consider to be natives arent actually but it is certainly food for thought and I shall have a think.

    • Helen, It depends what you are after. If you want the look of wild abandon with large swaths of plants, then you could use any perennial that does this. If you want plants that support your native ecology and particularly the insects, then you need to weed out the imports and include plants that shared an evolutionary path with them. Carolyn

  23. Loved your post. I think you convinced a few people that natives are the way to go to create a natural landscape.

  24. Heidi @StatelyKitsch Says:

    Carolyn, What a lovely and inspiring post! I wish I had a shady garden big enough for these natives. I do have 2 small patches of Virginia Bluebells that I adore (I just have to remember where I planted them which is sometimes a problem). My mom has the perfect woodland garden for these plants. Now if I can just get her to take your advice and pull out some of her pachysandra! I also just ordered “Bringing Nature Home”. One of my friends just recommended this to me last week.

  25. Great photos and native combinations Carolyn. All your hard work has really paid off!

  26. You must have put in a lot of time to clean out all that junk. The planting is beautiful, a reward for all your work.

    • BB, It was a lot of work to remove the stones, and then I used them to line the paths. The slate and coal refuse is still in the soil. If you look at the photo of the Celandine poppy, it is on the side of a small hill. The hill is formed by the construction rubble, which we also left. There is almost no actual soil but the poppies don’t mind. Carolyn

  27. I have a few of the same plants in my garden. A wood poppy showed up in my garden this spring. What a wonderful surprise! Your woodland is really beautiful.

  28. Great post! Fab pics that would inspire anyone to start a woodland garden. We intend starting one next Autumn.

  29. Now THAT’s a garden–just glorious.

  30. You make me feel so much better! our ‘new’ woodland is being created from a former cottonwood/concrete/beer can swamp. Layers of cardboard, truckloads of Moo-doo and hours of backbreaking work and we are just beginning to make progress. Our native bleeding hearts are moving in already.

    • Karen, There are many plants that I have tried to establish in this woods without success and bleeding-hearts are one of them. They stay for a couple of years and disappear. I now got them growing at the entrance by making a small berm and planting them on top. Carolyn

  31. debrasweeps Says:

    This is truly beautiful; and among walnut trees, too! You have an inspired touch. Thank you so much for all of the tips – I have bookmarked this post so I may refer to it many times over. I wish I had such a wooded setting so I could create this to enjoy . . . but my parents do; perhaps I’ll surprise my Mother in a small area to begin. You’re an inspiration! Debra

  32. Thanks for the recommendations, Carolyn! A lot of those plants are native/grow well in the Midwest, too. I inherited my woodland garden, but I must say once established it’s not too difficult to maintain. I love the Sea Oats–I’m thinking about planting some here.

  33. Not only beautiful plants but they look so great together. I think your work is what so many dream about when we are taking walks through the woods.

  34. Your woodlands are a testament to your skills as plantswoman Carolyn and this post very encouraging as the rules are simple and you did not start out with heaven at your fingertips.
    Happy Easter.

  35. Just beautiful. You are a great teacher. Sounds simple, but it certainly doesn’t look it! And – not sure if you accept awards, and I know there are mixed feelings about awards, but I am giving your blog The Sunshine Award because I appreciate you. I hope you will take it as a compliment. The post is here: http://dreamingofroses.blogspot.com/2012/04/delivery.html

  36. You’ve had so much success changing your property to one filled with so much plant life, it’s a real inspiration. We have tiny pockets of trees right now that I’m trying to add to with the hope that one day they will expand to little stands of woods. My greatest hope would be to see the ground of these tree pockets coated with native flowers like yours.

  37. This post is inspiring. My woods could really use a nice introduction of some of these wonderful plants – especially love the sea oats!

  38. deborahelliott Says:

    Your woodland garden is inspirational! I love the sweeps of native flowers that you have. It is my dream. You do give me hope. I have a single Jacob’s Ladder plant. Now, how many years before mine spreads to look like yours?

  39. nwphillygardner Says:

    One warning for your readers is that there is another form of the Wood Poppy which is not native, and some say worth weeding out of your woodland landscape. On the surface it looks similar with smaller yellow flowers and finer cut foliage. It doesn’t produce the handsome pendulous seed pods, but an upright linear one filled with seeds that will invade.

    • Eric, The plant you are talking about is NOT another form of the wood poppy. They just share the word Celandine in their common names (another reason why I hate common names). The wood or Celandine poppy is Stylophorum diphyllum. The nasty non-native invasive weed lesser Celandine is Ranunculus ficaria. Carolyn

  40. Carolyn, the garden is stunning! I lust for the bluebells and the celandine poppy. A question that I don’t see asked (but I may have missed) is what happens in this area when the bluebells go dormant? I have a large bed that is filled mostly with hosta and some fern. I have sprinkled in some other woodland plants. Could the bluebells and celandine poppy be added to my garden so they come up first and then be followed bt the hostas and others woodland plerrenials?

    • Terry, The Celandine poppy doesn’t go dormant so it continues to take up its place. The bluebells are followed by hostas and ferns, but they are also planted towards the center of very wide beds so they really don’t leave a hole. Carolyn

  41. Lovely woodland. As I continue to remove invasive English ivy and a host of other nasties, I will look to this as inspiration — the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. I think I will draw the line at the sea oats, however. After years of ivy pulling, the idea of planting something equally vigorous and hard to remove worries me a bit. Also, in my southern garden, Celandine poppies generally do go dormant at some point in the summer, so I do look to ferns and hostas to provide lushness throughout the summer. And snail food too (at least the hostas)!

  42. Hi Carolyn, Some of these plants I am well familiar with, others are new to me. Love the Celandine poppy, Stylophorum diphyllum, Blue wood aster and the Golden groundsel, Senecio aureus.

  43. [...] A good friend of mine just heard him speak and was really inspired. Then I was reading a post on Carolyn’s Shade Garden about her Native Woodlands  last week in which she linked back to this post about planting an oak tree. Carolyn’s post [...]

  44. Carolyn, Taking a break from reading papers (okay, procrastinating :-|) by catching up with your blog. This suggests yet another project for my “garden of the imagination.” A good place to create this kind of woodland garden would be along the woods side of my driveway.

  45. [...] Your Native Woodland: If You Build It They Will Come (carolynsshadegardens.com) [...]

  46. Jennifer Golden Says:

    This is very helpful! I’m in Virginia with pretty much the same conditions (clay, rocks, trash, etc..) Can’t wait to rescue my woodland!!!

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