To create a woodland garden, you need to emulate nature by creating layers. The next time you are in the forest, look around and carefully observe the various heights and textural qualities of the plants surrounding you. You will notice that towering high above are the spreading canopies of the tallest trees. These may be evergreen mature Douglas Fir, Western Hemlock, or Western Red Cedar. Others could be deciduous Bigleaf Maples. Below these giants will be the intermediate trees, usually Vine Maples or Dogwoods in the Pacific Northwest. Below these are the various understory plants, such as leathery Salal and delicate textured Huckleberries. Finally, as you glance about the forest floor, you will see incredible variety in the natural groundcover. There may be lacy ferns, large unusual Skunk Cabbage, Wild Ginger, Kinnikinnick, or False Solomon’s Seal. Generally, you will want to copy all of these four layers that you see in the forest. If you have a small yard, however, you would be advised to omit the towering giants and use only suitable little trees or larger shrubs as the top layer.
To successfully mimic nature in your own garden, not only do you need to copy these layers, but you also need to achieve the variety in texture and plant forms that you observe in the wild. This will require you to include a good mix of evergreen and deciduous plants in all of your layers to ensure balance and interest in all seasons. The foliage between plant neighbours should also complement each other. In the fall, a yellow-leaved vine maple drops its golden leaves on a carpet of deep green moss or a sea of Sword Ferns; the different colours and textures create balance. Include boulders on the lowest level to emulate the glacier rock deposited throughout the forest floor. Observe how plant forms complement each other in each layer and also between layers. Upright, linear trunks create exclamation marks in the mounding knobs of salal, false azalea, and deciduous berry bushes. See how fallen trees or their remaining stumps create miniature garden portraits when they begin to decompose and provide rich humus for ferns, mosses, and huckleberries.
If you decide to mix native plants with carefully-chosen imported woodlanders and their cultivars, you can create a serene, low-maintenance landscape that is well suited to our climate; feathery Astilbes, Peonies, and Coral Bells on your ground layer can blend beautifully with second layer Rhododendrons or evergreen Viburnums which both have large, leathery leaves. These foliage relationships will copy the lacy Lady or Maidenhair ferns that complement the thick leaves on the Salal growing nearby. On your third layer, you can imitate Vine Maples and Dogwoods with the beautiful Stewartias, Amelanchiers, Japanese Maples, or flowering Cherries that are available.
So the next time you are in the forest and find a spot that captures your heart, take some time to observe the plant combinations that strike your interest. Take a photograph if you have your camera handy. If you have paper and pencil, perhaps you can draw the different shapes and leaf textures that give the area its specific beauty. Then with your plan in hand, visit your local garden center and try to find comparable plants that will reproduce this natural design. Copying the Great Designer is a free blessing for our garden enjoyment.