More than a Walk in the Woods: Woodland Gardening

By Ron Sullivan
Friday January 11, 2008

On Boxing Day we took a stroll with friends through the Blake Estate gardens. Allen had had the very good idea to go there; the place was devoid of humans except for brief walk-ons—one groundskeeper with a wheelbarrow, one woman with a dog—and the four of us.  

I hadn’t been there in years, but most of the good stuff I remembered was still there: the long pool between the house and the built grotto, the native meadow, the woods garden on the north side. This is founded on native redwoods and includes native ferns and some understory, but also has deftly sited exotic irises, dogwood, cyclamen, and the like.  

Woodland gardening is, for most of us, a fairly high-end practice simply because it requires custody of a woodland. When Elizabeth Lawrence wrote The Little Bulbs, her informant “Mr. Krippendorf”—a real person and his real name, a lifelong friend of Lawrence’s, but never addressed more familiarly in the text than that—and “my dear Mrs. Dorman” and her daughter Caroline, among others she cited, had acres of woodland in Ohio and Louisiana respectively. They weren’t upper-class, not even as much as Lawrence’s garden-design clients in North Carolina were.  

Of course it’s possible even now, a generation or two later, to be poor while owning a good hunk of land; it’s just not likely here and now in the Bay Area. It’s amazing how our species’ rapidly increasing numbers in so many places have turned what used to be the most mundane pleasures into unaffordable luxuries. I myself am given to bouts of lonesome yearning for dark nights, with or without stars.  

There’s more going on in woodland gardening than shade. What’s casting the shade is a living element of a woods garden, and trees’ requirements and compatibilities must be respected as much as their role as design elements. I saw a garden east of the hills some years ago where the live-oak woods bordering the flat “civilized” area had been inlaid with pie-slice patches planted with azaleas. It might have looked nifty on paper and even in the ground for a season, but frying azaleas in summer or watering established live oaks to preserve the shrubs would be bad choices to have.  

Those azaleas would have looked pretty garish to a locally practiced eye anyway. We have glorious native azaleas but they’re mostly white-flowered and rarely understory dwellers. Where rhodies and rosier forms of azalea live, farther north, they live under redwoods and Douglas-firs, in wetter woodlands. You don’t have to be an expert to find the bad pairings aesthetically bothersome; it just takes learning to understand why. 

The Blake garden is well done in its transition from formal to more natural areas, and the way its imported plants fit into the woods is part of that. The bank plantings of Cyclamen hederifolium, for example, relate to the native shooting-star, the several Dodecatheum species. Native irises—in bloom on Dec. 26!—and exotic Japanese-type irises echo each other amicably.  

More on woodland gardening next week.