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Planning A Woodland Garden by Sue Adams

Planning a woodland garden

I had my morning cup of coffee outside today, sitting at a table we have put under the shade of two very large trees – a fig and a walnut.  It is a fantastic place for meals in the shade during the summer, but at this time of year, when the leaves of the trees are bare, the dappled light makes conditions perfect for a spring flowering woodland garden – and this is what I started to create here five years ago.



Our soil is clay over limestone; typical of much of SW France.  With the addition of a few medium height shrubs (most notably a favourite hydrangea of mine, Hydrangea arborescens Annabelle) it has taken on the character of a small scale woodland garden and is at its best in the late winter and spring – and, providing you add in a little judicious watering, there is something going on there all year round.  Here is a list of the backbone plants in our woodland garden.  They thrive in the mild alkaline conditions and, providing you take care euphorbia robbii with watering and mulch around them (ideally with leaf mould) every year or so are very successful in this part of the world.

Captions left to right:  Hydrangea Arborescens, Acanthus Mollis, Euphorbia Robbii

planning a woodland garden
planning a woodland garden
planning a woodland garden

The following are ideal when planning a woodland garden:

Acanthus mollis – really easy to grow from seed and a valuable architectural plant.  Large, jagged edged, dark green leaves and an imposing flower spike in the summer. In very dry weather the leaves can become a bit bedraggled and you may need to remove some, but in the spring it burst back into vigour.

Euphorbia robbii  (E. amygdaloides var. robbiae to give it its full name) – a complete thug if it is happy and needs to be regarded with the same caution as garden mint.  However, its redeeming features are that it covers large areas of under tree planting quickly and cheaply, is evergreen and smothers weeds (and other plants too if you are not careful) and has beautiful lime green flower heads which unfurl in the spring.  Watch out though, because, as with all euphorbias, the milk like sap is a serious skin irritant, especially if you then expose that skin to sunlight.  When cutting back or pulling out wear effective gloves.

Aconites – or Eranthis hyemalis, to give them their correct name.  These appear in January with brilliant yellow buttercup shaped flowers (they are from the same family) surrounded by a ruff of green – which gives them their old English nickname, choirboys.  Plant them “in the green’ – that is when they are in leaf rather than as bulbs.  Their tiny dry and shrivelled bulbs are much more difficult to establish. If happy, they seed prolifically.

Captions, left to right: Heleborus Orientalis, Tete a Tete daffodils, Parrot tulips


Hellebores – you could write a book about this genus of plant. It is my favourite plant genus and we have quite a few different species in the garden, but most of them are Heleborus orientalis or close relatives. They are also members of the buttercup family as it happens and cross breed without conscience. You never know what a seedling is going to look like until it flowers. I buy plants occasionally to encourage a wider variety of flower colour and shape. The flowers appear in February in this part of the world and you must cut back (and burn) the old leaves as they usually harbour hellebore leaf spot. By removing the old leaves you also reveal the flowers in all of their beauty – this display lasts for months as the flowerheads gradually fade and set seed – and then establish seedings all over the place. I brought my original plants with me from the UK about 15 years ago and we now have their grandchildren in flower.

Planning a woodland garden never stops.  As spring progresses we get more bulbs –Tete a Tete daffodils, muscari aremniacum and Spring Green, Princess Irene and assorted parrot tulips.  Yellow archangel (Lamium galeobdolon), a lovely yellow dead nettle with varigated leaves provides spring flowers and then a foil of attractive leaf colour for the rest of the year as do assorted geraniums (not perlagoniums, which are the ‘geraniums’ we put in pots in the summer), lily of the valley and aquilegias.  The Annabelle hydrangea then comes into flower with her beautiful showy white pompom flower heads along with one or two fucsia magellanicas – notably a French variety which I think is called Infant Prodigieuse.  If I have gaps I underplant with busy lizzies or add strategically placed pots of white lilies in the summer.

Autumn is heralded by the pretty pinks of Cyclamen hederifolium.  In August we start to get the tiny cyclamen flowers, and over the winter the gorgeous marbled leaves appear.  Then we have a firecracker finish to the year with the bright berries of Iris foetidissima – so called because the crushed leaves smell of meat (lovely). T he iris flowers are an easily missed non-descript mauve in mid summer – but the plant makes up for it with its fabulous seed heads.  I could go on, but these are the basis of a woodland garden and it really is one of my favourite spots to be, all year round.

Captions, left to right:  Cyclamen Hederifolium, Eranthis Hyemalis, Iris Foetidissima