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by Amanda

easy shade garden - trillium
Many woodland plants, like Trillium, can be planted underneath your favorite deciduous trees and with little maintenance will become a delightfully natural garden.

We’ve all seen (or possibly grown) an elegant shaded landscape featuring spiked Astilbe, colorful Bleeding Hearts, vibrant green Hostas, and more. These shade gardens have their place — rightfully so — in many landscapes, but while at the Philadelphia Flower Show last week I learned about another type of shade garden. A truly “no fuss” wild shade garden. A type of woodland shade garden that can be planted peacefully underneath your deciduous trees and purposefully forgotten about year after year until the ground is covered in native Trillium, Bloodroot, and more.

Why plant under a deciduous tree? A deciduous tree is one that drops its leaves during the colder months (unlike coniferous trees). This early spring sunlight gives woodlands just enough sun to grow before the tree leafs out.

Easy Shade Garden: Start Small

One of the biggest takeaways I got from this lecture about adding woodlands around your deciduous trees (or large shrubs) is to start small. Trying to plant a mature plant that comes in a gallon-sized pot will not only be near-impossible, but would also require disturbing the trees roots which could cause damage. Furthermore, this large plant will probably not be able to acclimate and grow a healthy root structure underneath the tree.

easy shade garden - trillium root
Woodland plants do best if planted from bareroot (like this Trillium seen here).

The solution? Get your woodland plants as bare roots or tiny plants. Use a hand trowel and dig little holes where there are natural gaps in the root structure of your tree. Pop your tiny woodland plants around the tree and they will grow in harmony around the tree’s roots.

Some of our favorite Woodland Plants:

Easy Shade Garden: Don’t Fertilize!

Woodlands are naturally slow growers, which is what you want when planting underneath trees. If you fertilize these plants and they grow too quickly, you’ll have a problem with the root systems fighting underneath the ground. At the end of the season, shred the leaves you’ve raked from your lawn and cover your woodlands with a thick layer (several inches). These shredded leaves will decompose over the winter months and help build nutrients back into the soil. If you think about where these woodlands are found naturally (in forests) there is no one around to rake the leaves away, which is part of the reason why the soil is so rich. Mimic this practice in your own landscape with shredded leaves and your woodlands will be content year after year.

easy shade garden - Virginia Bluebells
Virginia Bluebells seen naturalized in a forest. Spread shredded leaves on your shade garden at the end of the season to mimic nature's way of doing this in the forest.

Easy Shade Garden: Practice Patience

We’ve already gone over how slow Woodlands are to grow, but that’s OK! We’re so programmed these days as gardeners to want instant gratification — to get the biggest plant at the garden center, to look for varieties that are going to impress us right away. And those quick, showy plants have their place in the landscape. But we can also balance the garden out and practice patience with slower-growing varieties that aren’t necessarily more difficult to grow, just a little slower to bloom and spread. And a carpet of woodland wildflowers blooming in the early spring is absolutely worth the several years it may take for them to bloom.

easy shade garden - Virginia Bluebells
Most woodland plants (like this Jack in the Pulpit) take years to bloom, but are so worth the patience!

Easy Shade Garden: Forget About Them

One of the best things about your new woodland garden sitting elegantly underneath your favorite Maple tree? You can totally forget about it! Unlike other perennial gardens, you’ve placed your plants in a place where they won’t need any supplemental water, fertilizer, or even weeding. This shade garden is a true set it and forget it type of garden project. What’s not to love?

Easy Shade Garden: Bring You Landscape Back To Its Roots

Native woodland plants aren’t just an easy, perennial addition to the shady spots in your yard, they’re also a fantastic way to bring your landscape back to its roots. Trilium, Virginia Bluebells, Bloodroot and other plants are supposed to be growing underneath large, leafy trees. As gardeners, we’re often trying to grow things that may not be so happy in our soil, our sunlight, or even our climate. But with native woodlands, tuck them underneath one of your favorite deciduous trees and they’ll be effortlessly happy for decades to come.

easy shade garden - Red Trillium
Searching for early-blooming Trilliums will quickly become one of your favorite treasure hunts in the garden.