Learning To Garden In A Forest

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Just starting out…

When we purchased a home and moved to a neighborhood near Williamsburg, Virginia, several years ago, I was filled to the brim with ideas for gardening on our beautiful property.  It appeared that we had a wonderful combination of shady woodland areas, a deeply shaded ravine, and a meadow which enjoys full sun for most of the day.  We could see that the original owners had loved flowers and left behind “good bones” of camellias, dogwood, now struggling azaleas, drifts of daffodils, and mature peonies and hibiscus.April

My last garden was a level, fenced suburban lot with a high water table in zone 8.  It was originally a dairy farm, and I could practically throw a shrub or a handful of seeds out of the door and know they would grow. So, I was disgustingly confident in my ability to create a lush garden of roses, herbs, perennials, and flowering shrubs on our new property.  That was before we had met many of our new neighbors, and learned it just isn’t that easy here…

New flower bedAs soon as we unpacked, we began making trips to the local garden centers. Over those first few months we spent hundreds of dollars and many happy hours planting away in our new garden.  As I got to know folks, the older and wiser residents of our neighborhood tried to warn me with a gentle smile, but I was determined that I could make roses grow in a desert.

Reality sets in…

Hardy Hibiscus and Rose of Sharon shrubs dominate this border in late July.

Hardy Hibiscus and Rose of Sharon shrubs dominate this border in late July.

Well, our first clue that something was amiss came the morning we admired our new hedge of camellias along the street, and realized all of the buds were missing.  By the onset of winter, most of the leaves had followed into the mouths of hungry marauding deer.  Now I’ve learned that flower buds are really “deer candy”, and the Bambis are delighted to nibble the buds off of roses, camellias, lilies, impatiens, violas; or most anything else that blooms.   We were lucky that the camellias had a strong will to live, and threw out new leaves in the spring.  They were too cautious to produce new flower buds that fall, and we’re still waiting to see them bloom.  The dozen or so hybrid hollies we planted weren’t as hardy.  The deer must have been starving to strip the hollies of leaves, but they did, and all were dead by April.

Azaleas badly pruned by hungry deer.

Azaleas badly pruned by hungry deer.

The voles love to tunnel under newly planted areas to feast on the roots of plants.

The voles love to tunnel under newly planted areas to feast on the roots of plants.

In addition to the deer who cruise the yard, there is also a thriving colony of voles. Deer nibble leaves and flowers; the voles devour roots.  That first spring, as I planted new herbs and perennials, within a day or so many were struggling.  Regular watering and generous soil amendments weren’t enough to get them off to a good start.  I soon noticed the raised, cracked earth leading to each dying plant.  The voles were happily tunneling everywhere I had dug and then noshing away on the tender tasty roots.  Some plants just disappeared completely, leaving only a large gaping hole leading to a tunnel.

Butterfly

This blooming tree, at the edge of the ravine in the back yard, attracts hordes of butterflies from when it blooms in early July through frost.

Our acre of forest also hosts rabbits, whose appetites lead them beyond the grass to the flower beds and low pots, and thousands of digging squirrels. A healthy population of ticks and chiggers, who prefer the very blood of the gardeners to the smorgasbord of the garden, hitchhike in on the deer from May until September.  Turtles dig in the soft ground to lay their eggs, frogs hide in flower pots, and skinks sun themselves on the sidewalk.

Mountain Lauren in our front yard in May.

Mountain Lauren in the front yard blooms in May.

It’s the journey…

Purple Coneflower, Echinacea, feeds hungry bees and butterflies.

Purple Coneflower, Echinacea, feeds hungry bees and butterflies.

I’m not relating this tale from self-pity, but rather to help all of those other aspiring gardeners who move to similar properties.  We have such a beautiful wooded neighborhood full of hummingbirds and butterflies, waterfowl, skinks, frogs and song birds that the urge to go out and make a garden is strong.  After nearly five years of experience on this property, I’ve finally learned to work with the steep slope; poor soil, erosion, hungry animals, and shade to grow a productive garden full of plants I love.  Now I’d like to share a little of what I’ve learned about Gardening in a Forest with others, in hopes that I’ll continue to learn more in return.

"Josee" re-blooming lilac, in its second flush of bloom in late June, is appreciated by all the nectar lovers in the garden.

“Josee” re-blooming lilac, in its second flush of bloom in late June, is appreciated by all the nectar lovers in the garden.

A Tiger Swallowtail butterfly feeding on Buddleia in the butterfly garden.

A Tiger Swallowtail butterfly feeding on Buddleia in the butterfly garden.

A large box turtle visits each summer.

A large box turtle visits each summer.

Walking the quiet streets of our neighborhood, it’s clear that there are those who have learned to cope, who have learned the secrets of creating beautiful gardens, even in this very challenging environment.  I learned to seek out these generous gardeners as my friends.  And so now I’ll share a little of what I’ve learned from neighbors, a little study, and from making lots of mistakes.  I hope you will find a useful idea, and perhaps leave a comment with your own creative solutions to our common challenges.

The beauty is worth the effort.

The beauty is worth the effort.

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About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

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2 responses to “Learning To Garden In A Forest

  1. ‘Learning to garden in a forest’ sounds so familiar to me! Living in upstate NY state in a small rural town we have all the same critter visitors who love to snack in our garden. After several years of trial and effort I now use mostly deer resistant plants/shrubs and life is a lot easier and gardening is more rewarding as result. Getting glimpses of the wildlife in my garden is always wonderful.

  2. farseems

    What a wonderful intro to the joys and sorrows of gardening in our beautiful neighbourhood. Am learning something everyday and so much from you. Looking forward to all the tips, tricks and hints for the joys of gardening in this area.

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