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A spread of Virginia Bluebells

How To Build A Woodland Wildflower Garden

When Chy and Ray Allen, the original founders of American Meadows, first moved to Vermont, they were delighted to find botanical treasures in their woods. Trilliums, violets, cardinal flowers, and many more lit up the woodland, so they built gravel paths and placed benches to make the woodland more inviting, and added even more plants to the wooded gardens. 

Anyone who has seen America's native woodland wildflowers in bloom in spring knows how magnificent a woodland garden can be. You can create a simliar natural showcase in most shaded gardens!

Choosing A Site For Your Woodland Garden

Woodland gardening is like no other kind of gardening. With these more traditional gardens, you can pretty much dictate the location, make a few adjustments, and begin. In the case of woodland gardening, it's all important to work with nature, not against it. Start with a plan to enhance an area that's already attractive, an area that nature has chosen for rich growth and good conditions. In extreme cases, you may have to create such an area, but it's usually best to start with a naturally shady location. Bonus features are existing woodland wildflowers, ease of access, attractive rocks, and maybe a water feature.

  1. Light Requirement: The first requirement is shade, as you'd normally find in a wooded area.
  2. Moisture: Most of these plants enjoy moist conditions year round, in what is usually called "wet woodland", but there are some exceptions.
  3. Soil Type: For a woodland garden, your soil type is critical. A little work at the beginning to find out if you soil is acid or alkaline will pay big dividends for years once your garden is planted. For example, a White Trillium cannot survive in very acid soil under some pine trees. Conversely, Mayflower (Trailing Arbutus) cannot survive without heavily acidic soil. Testing your soil for acidity/alkalinity before you begin is absolutely necessary. There are large groups of these plants that enjoy various soil types. For example, the Red Trillium doesn't care if it's in neutral/alkaline woods or a pine thicket that has heavily acid soil. You can buy a soil test kit at any garden center, and if you need help, your local Extension Service always has an expert ready to help you, free of charge. Test your soil type, and then proceed with plants that thrive in your soil.
  4. Organic Matter: Woodland wildflowers need soil that's rich in organic matter. They naturally grow in areas with decades of leaf mold, and usually plenty of decomposed branches, etc. If your area does not have this sort of soil, you can help it by preparing the soil with composted leaves, adding peat moss, or importing some woods soil. Iit's best to prepare soil a season in advance, if possible.

What Does "Acid" or "Alkaline" Soil Mean?

You've probably heard that all soil has a "pH." That's a measure of the amount of lime (or calcium) you have in your soil. Generally, moist climates have soils that tend toward acid, and dry climates tend toward are alkaline. On the pH scale, soils with a pH higher than 7.0 are considered alkaline, and below that number are considered acid. Soil with a rating of 7.0 is considered "neutral."

The way these various soil types affect the natural occurrence of Vermont's three common trilliums is a classic illustration. In fact, many trillium species, like lady slippers, are markers for various soils.

Red Trillium, T. erectum Occurs all over the state since it is adaptable as to soil type.
White Trillium, T. grandiflorum Prefers neutral to alkaline soil, so occurs in huge drifts along the Lake Champlain shore, but is rare throughout the rest of the state.
Painted Trillium, T. undulatum Absolutely demands acidic habitat, so is absent along the lakeshore, but is found throughout the rest of the state, and is quite common in high-elevation evergreen forests.



Tips For Your Woodland Garden

  • Let nature be your guide. Maybe there is a shaded spot at the back of your lawn. Maybe you have a rich woodland spot where there are already some wildflowers. All wooded areas have their prime spots, often a low spot, or beside a brook, or a slight hillside.
  • Choose a spot where your wildflowers will show off well, and you and your friends and family can enjoy them.
  • If you don't have water in the woods (a pond or brook), be sure you can get your garden hose or sprinklers to the area for watering. This will be important for helping your woodland wildflowers establish themselves.
  • Consider creating or improving pathways through the garden, and maybe install a bench in a favorite spot. When you create pathways, top them with clean gravel, and if the soil is muddy, build it up so the path stays dry.
  • If you have water, or at least a spot that is always very moist in spring, you're in luck. This wet area can be a centerpiece spot for your woodland garden. Of course, if you have a brook or pond, that suggests certain flowers you'll really enjoy. And you may want to create a pond in a low spot.
  • Most woods have places that are wet or even flood in spring. If the water drains away by June or so, this may be a prime spot for many of your wildflower plants. Trilliums, for example, love to grow on hills in wet spaces. Water may be all around during spring, but the raised areas make great sites for trilliums. Cardinal flowers and Irises like Blue Flag will be very happy right in the wet spots; they'll grow right in shallow brooks and love other spots that stay muddy all summer.
  • Once you've chosen the site, there will probably be some plants there you'll want to remove—unimportant young tree saplings, for example. This brings us to the usually solid mat of old roots that are present in most woodland. When you begin your garden, get out your pick and shovel, and be sure to remove enough unwanted root mass to give your incoming plants plenty of good free soil in which to grow. This can be a lot of work, but it's important, as young, new plants cannot compete with a mass of old roots that have been there for years.

Choosing Flowers & Foliage Plants For Your Woodland Garden

The plants you're working with fall into several categories, based on their bloom times. Woodland is famous for spring bloom, but if you plan correctly, you can have good color at other times, too. The groups in the box below show just a sampling of the plants you might consider.

When browsing our selection of Woodland Wildflowers, use the "Bloom Season" filters to find plants based on bloom time.

Early Spring Bloom

These are the first flowers. The bloom is always before leaf-out, and well before the big bloom of most spring flowers. Here are a few examples to represent this group:

  • Wildflowers: Hepatica, Marsh Marigold, Bloodroot

Mid-Spring Bloom

This will be the glorious peak of bloom for any woodland garden. When tulips and daffodils are bloom in your yard, these flowers will be in bloom in your woodland. Here are a few examples to represent this group:

  • Wildflowers: Trilliums, Violets, Solomon Seals, Bellwort, Virginia Bluebells, Wild Anemones, Mayflower, Trout Lilies, Foam Flower, Bishop's Cap, Dutchman's Breeches, Wild Ginger, Spring Beauty

Late Spring-Early Summer Bloom

This group carries your garden into summer, as your woodland leafs out and becomes shady. Here are a few plants to represent this group:

  • Wildflowers: Wild Lilies, Wild Iris (Blue Flag, Crested Iris, etc), Wild Columbine, Meadow Rue

Summer-Fall Bloom

After your woodland canopy is fully leafed-out, there will be fewer wildflowers to add color to your garden. But plan for the few that do make a big difference. They are taller, larger plants, and all-important for summer/fall highlights.

  • Wildflowers: Wild Blue Phlox, Cardinal Flower, Foxglove, Woodland Goldenrods, Tiger Lilies*
  • * Naturalized wildflowers common in the US.

Ferns For Foliage

There is no group that can add more interest in less time than North America's famous native ferns. Ferns are the natural companions for your woodland wildflowers, and they can be used to fill spaces, define areas, and provide magnificent background for your flowering favorites.

  • Ferns: Christmas Fern will add texture and grace to your garden. Larger ferns such as the Ostrich Ferns make stunning natural focal points wherever they grow. 

Plant Your Own Woodland Garden

Patience: The Most Important Ingredient

Trilliums and other Woodland Wildflowers can take several years to establish in the garden and bloom, but are definitely worth the wait!

As much as we all love the instant gratification of easy-to-grow varieties such as Black Eyed Susan, Daylilies, and Echinacea, gardening isn’t just about that quick color – it’s also about challenging ourselves to do better and create a landscape we’re proud of.

These woodland wildflowers do take 2-3 years after being planted to establish themselves and delight with their delicate blooms in the early spring. So if you’re looking to create a woodland garden, remember to have patience. 

Helpful Resources

Wildflower Associations and Native Plant Societies

As soon as someone gets interested in woodland plants, the interest almost always leads to a native plant society or other wildflower conservation organization. These groups often include local experts, have plant and seed sales, and introduce you to other wildflower gardeners. Nearly every state and Canadian province has an active Native Plant Society, and your nearby group or groups would be more than happy to welcome you into membership. Two of the most famous are The New England Wildflower Society, in Massachusetts, and the groups in North Carolina. The California Native Plant Society is very large and has chapters all over the state.

Learn More With Our Planting Guides

Woodland Wildflower Books

For identification on hikes and visits to preserves, you'll want at least one of these. Almost every bookstore or website has them. Be sure the one you buy covers your area.

Audubon Field Guide

The official title is The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers. This famous book has an Eastern and Western edition for the US. Both are famous for their great photos, which some think make identification easier than the use of drawings that are found in the other guides.

The Peterson Guide

Official name is A Field Guide to Wildflowers by Roger Tory Peterson and McKenny. This classic guide covers most of the US, and lists thousands of species. Like the Audubons, it is arranged by color, and easy to use. However, the flowers are shown in Peterson's famous drawings, not photos. Some people think this makes identification easier.

Armitage's Native Plants for American Gardens

by Allen M. Armitage. This is the newest of the group, published by Timber Press in 2006. Allen Armitage is a great garden writer and a true expert. His information is clear and useful.

Growing and Propagating Wildflowers on the US and Canada

by Wm. Cullina of the New England Wildflower Society. This is a large book published by Houghton Mifflin in 2000, and is often considered the definitive volume on the subject. Great photography and clear, concise information.

Wildflowers In Your Garden

by Viki Ferreniea, published by Regina Ryan of Random House in 1993. A great book that is unfortunately out of print. Ms. Ferreniea is one of America's leading plant experts, and her book remains one of the best. Excellent writing, and clear how-to for gardeners.

Growing and Propagating Wildflowers

by Harry R. Phillips. This book, published by The University of North Carolina Press in 1985, is often available in paperback and very useful for wild gardeners. It is a result of the great work done with wild flora in North Carolina. Edited by well-known experts there, C. Ritchie Bell and Ken Moore. Highly recommended.

Sources of Native Plants:

Today, we're fortunate to have many very dedicated nurseries that are propagating our native woodland wildflowers It's well-known that over the years, many unscrupulous people have gathered many of these precious plants from the wild, sometimes devastating their habitats. So as you go about creating your woodland garden, be sure you acquire the plants you need from reputable nurseries.

The question to ask is whether the plants are "nursery propagated". You'll find several well-known, fine native plant nurseries on the internet. And if you have any questions, just ask your state's Native Plant Society. The societies in North Carolina and Massachusetts (The New England Wildflower Society) list "certified" nurseries and will be happy to help you.