A Woodland Habitat Garden
by Ginger Glen-Calvert, Master Naturalist
Creating a woodland garden begins with determining what part of the day to expect shade in the spot chosen for the garden. For instance, if the backyard is sunny in the afternoon and this is the best time and place to retreat to the shade, where's the best spot to plant a tree to make shade? Once you've traced the arc of the sun (or played with that beach umbrella until you're sure you know which way the shade will fall), then evaluate the soil, determine your planting zone(most of Virginia is in zone 7), start visiting nurseries and pricing trees, drive your parents crazy asking advice you never intend to follow, or… consider native trees and seedlings you can purchase directly from the Virginia Department of Forestry (DOF) Web site. DOF also offers a booklet at on their Web site called Common Native Trees of Virginia, which can be downloaded free or ordered by mail from the web for only $1 plus shipping and handling.
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) offers a Habitat at Home© booklet, which contains a very good list of native trees and other plants for wildlife. At their Web site, you can download a form to apply for a Habitat at Home© certificate and find other useful tips.
There are some trees that will grow well in almost anyone's back yard in Virginia, unless you're in a swamp on the coast or a sandbox in the mountains, and these trees are fast growers. Probably the fastest growing and most adaptable to urban stress is Platanus occidentalis, the American planetree or sycamore. This baby will fill up a small back- yard in a very few years; the city of London plants them in relatively small spaces, and their roots do fine. Another fast grower Virginians under-utilize is Pinus taeda, the indomitable loblolly pine. These grow very quickly, and if you create a planting bed with two or three pines, you'll also build up layers of pine straw mulch—just the thing for acid-loving rhododendrons and azaleas.
I have a woodland garden in front of my house (blazing hot sun was baking the front door) which has three loblollies, three Eastern arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis arborescens), five native white hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens), a native white hydrangea vine (H. petiolaris) climbing up one of the pines, several kinds of hosta sprinkled around (not a native), and the native sensitive fern, Onoclea sensibilis, eating up the rest of the space. The birds love this habitat! Please do consider dense conifers and native hollies (Ilex opaca) with thorny leaves when remembering the wildlife. Not only do these trees offer food and places to nest, they are also nifty places for critters to hide when the hawks are hunting.
Another very fast grower is the long lived Quercus palustris, or willow oak, a good food source for wildlife and a beautifully structured landscape tree. For fall color you might choose the scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea), also a fast grower that provides food and shelter for wildlife. My favorite for fall color is blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica), a more delicate tree to watch grow; the birds assure me that this tree bears the most delicious berries anywhere in my back yard. The blackgum, sometimes called a tupelo, is among the first to leaf out in the spring, and oh, those dainty little pale, pale green leaves look good enough to eat.
But suppose you already have full grown, established upper story trees, and you want to place smaller trees under this canopy to form the second layer of your luscious woodland garden. Bet one of the first trees that comes to mind is the beloved flowering dogwood, Cornus florida. It's a great choice for all the above reasons, but why not stray from the beaten path and buy the native Cornus alternifolia, the pagoda dogwood? It spreads with horizontal branches like an oriental pagoda, reaching out further and further with gorgeous layers of white dogwood blossoms. Or you could try an arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum), a wonderful native mid-sized shrub whose berries the birds fight over. It also displays lovely clusters of small white flowers in spring.
Two other native trees that deserve mentioning: the tuliptree or tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) and the sourwood or lily-of-the-valley tree (Oxydendrum arboretum). Grow these not just for their landscape beauty or the food they provide for ordinary animals like birds and small mammals, but also because the flowers on both these trees are very important nectar sources for honey bees.
Another you might consider trying is serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea). Please consider planting this little tree instead of those messy, omnipresent crepe myrtles. Crapemyrtles (from India) have no food value for wildlife and might just as well be plastic as far as insects and birds are concerned. Oh, yes, the occasional nest can be found in one, when no other small tree is available, but in truth the most you'll get in the way of 'wild' life on a crapemyrtle are filthy pest insects like the Japanese beetle, and aphids that excrete waste (yes, feces) which cover the trunks with a sticky black mess. On the other hand, native serviceberry trees flower with delicate white blooms followed by summer berries that the birds love, AND in the fall they turn a blazing orangey-red. Fantastic!
Beneath native trees growing wild in a woodland forest there is usually a mixture of native shrubs, perennials of varying sizes, vines and creepers. Fothergilla major 6' (and now you can buy Fothergilla gardenii 3'), might be one of the flowering shrubby plants found in the woodland forest. They grow well in dappled shade, bear flowers, and have nice fall colors. Kalmia latifolia (mountain laurel), a native evergreen which usually grows 4'x 4', is now available in several height and color varieties. Kalmia must have some shade, and though it does best in western parts of the state, do experiment with the newer, more adaptable cultivars that are as colorful as azaleas but NOT seductive to local deer. Calycanthus floridus (common sweetshrub) is a must for a shady garden if you like fragrance; it has a wonderfully delicious aroma of clove! I'm sure most of us can name more shrubs that grow in shade, but it's time we talked about the last layer of vegetation, creepers and climbers.
A favorite of butterflies in filtered shade is Lobelia cardinalis (cardinal flower). Add a bit of parsley on the edge of your garden where there may be sun, and swallowtails will deposit their eggs, because swallowtail caterpillars love parsley. Together, these two plants embrace the whole lepidoptera cycle. Other native woodland beauties include Heuchera villosa(autumn bride) for its white flowers and bold, chartreuse foliage, and Dicentra cucullaria (Dutchman's breeches) for its irregular, glowing white flowers. Another very striking shade plant is Symplocarpus foetidus (skunk cabbage); yes, it will stun you malodorously if you bruise (abuse!) it, but there's no need for that, and it does have stunning, oversized leaves and graceful carriage. Add to this a native fern to suit your woodland style, a native vine along the edge such as Lonicera sempervirens (trumpet honeysuckle) to tempt the hummingbirds, and, voila! You've created your own wonderful, fanciful, woodland garden.
Variety is the spice of life, but diversity in the wildlife garden is the "stuff" of life. In the wild, Virginia's creatures are dependent on an ecosystem of food, water, and cover/shelter. In your backyard garden, the success of attracting wildlife will depend on not only what plants you make available but how they are arranged. Layering vegetation, from creepers to taller perennials to shrubs, and up through smaller trees to the tallest will provide cover and shelter, and using native species will provide a diversity of food types. Water can be supplied in varying forms, depending on which wildlife you hope to attract. The exciting thing is that the healthier we can make our backyard ecosystem, the greater good for ecosystems in Virginia generally.
So get out there Virginia and go native! It won't be long before those new trees are ready for your hammock, a cold drink, and a lazy hour watching the wildlife.