I guess I’d have to attribute my love of woodland gardening to Errol Flynn, the swashbuckling MGM heartthrob of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. My mother had a serious crush on the daring star. Whenever one of his movies was on the Late Show, or the Late, Late Show, or the Late, Late, Late Show, my brother and I were permitted—almost forced—to stay up late and watch.
But it was one movie in particular that caught my attention, “The Adventures Of Robin Hood,” from 1938. Even though we were watching a fuzzy picture on a tiny back-and-white set (complete with a set of “Rabbit Ears” festooned with aluminum foil for an antenna), there was something enchanting about Sherwood Forest.
It called out to me.
As soon as I discovered how to use my thumb—the green one—my quest to find my own Sherwood Forest began.
Flash ahead, back to the future, and here I am in my own Sherwood Forest in Greenbrier County WV, an area acclaimed to be one of the most botanically rich areas on Planet Earth.
Even if you’re a “Townie” on a small city lot and don’t have acres to play with, you can still create an “island” of forest to enjoy. All you need is a little shade or dappled sunlight.
Now, you don’t have to be like me, immediately biting off more than you can chew.
Start slow and small and see how easy it is.
Feed the Earth
The first thing you have to evaluate is the quality of your soil. Is it rich with organic matter? Is it rocky and dry? Is it clay? Is it a struggling lawn in the shade? No matter what it is, it’s pretty easy to amend. If there’s not much organic matter in the soil, you can get bales of peat moss at a home and garden store for not much more than $10 each to mix in.
If its clay, you can use a gypsum-based product like “Turface” (brand name), which is only a few dollars a bag. It eats that clay up, then you can add dehydrated cow manure and peat moss for organic matter. If it’s a lawn that you’ve been trying to grow grass on in the shade, tear it up.
If all this sounds like too much work already—fear not. It’s really pretty quick and easy. If you have a small rototiller, that will make your job even easier. I like the Honda FG-110—it’s small. lightweight, and very easy to use. And not to worry if you don’t have a rototiller, as you can cultivate the soil with a digging fork.
Once you’ve prepared your soil, you’ll want to think about your plant palette.
Probably the easiest plants to grow in a woodland shade garden are ferns. In this part of West Virginia, we have many, many species of native ferns. Chances are if you’re a city dweller, you’ve plenty of friends that are more rural than you are. They most likely have acres of ferns in the woods on their farms and surely they’d be happy to share some with you.
Ferns transplant super easily and are perfect for the backbone of your new woodland garden. There are also a plethora of mail-order nurseries that have an incredible palette of ferns to choose from, native and non-native.
Should you be embracing this undertaking on a grand scale, I suggest you consider an inexpensive auger which will fit perfectly on, for instance, a DE Walt 20V, cordless, ½” drill. In good soil, you can drill over 400 holes in an hour. BE FOREWARNED: Hold the drill with both hands for should you encounter a big rock or tree root, it could twist your wrist like a pretzel.
Rocky and Roll
Rocky soil ? No problem! You don’t have to be a stone mason to dry-lay rocks, whether they are round creek rocks or flat, shale-like rocks. Just stack them up! If you’re on sloping land, stack them up on the lower side of your beds—i.e.: the upper side of your pathway as in the picture below.
If you’re working with a small space, you can create your “Fernery” in just about any shape imaginable. Check out the “wedge” of fern varieties in the image below. This bed prominently features, The Maiden Hair Fern (Adiantum pedatum); The Interrupted Fern (Osmunda regalis); The Broad Beech Fern (Phegopteris hexagonoptera); The Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis), to name a few.
These fern species are all native to Greenbrier County and very easy to grow. With some recycled railroad ties to stabilize a crumbling slope, a little topsoil, and a good mulch, these ferns naturalized themselves pretty quickly on my property. This image is a sort of before-and-after since the right hand side of the road to the barn is about exactly what I started with on the left side—I just haven’t gotten around to that project yet.
There are so many other woodland plants that transplant as easily as ferns do, but with this many words so far, I kinda ran out of space here. So, you’ll have to tune in next time for more.
Till our next horticultural excursion.
Peace Out | Glickster!
Barry Glick, a transplanted Philadelphian, has been residing in Greenbrier County, WV, since 1972. His mountaintop garden and nursery is a mecca for gardeners from virtually every country in the world. He writes and lectures extensively about native plants and Hellebores, his two main specialties, and welcomes visitors with advance notice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, www.sunfarm.com, or 304.497.2208.
The Glickster’s Pix: A Sea of Gold: As WestVirginiaVille grows its roster of things we cover as a Mountain State feature magazine, we also need to cover growing things. Enter our new occasional column: ‘”Glickster’s Pix.”