Creating a Woodland Garden

A woodland garden of native species provides homeowners with the opportunity to have a low maintenance and environmentally friendly natural landscape that’s beautiful and attractive to wildlife. The beauty comes in a shady lush green envelope that’s punctuated by the colours of the spring ephemerals such as spring beauties, trout lilies and Virginia bluebells as well as later season bloomers such as blue-stemmed goldenrod and wild lupine. Plus some of our most beautiful flowering shrubs and trees are components of the woodland garden plant list. But don’t forget green is a colour and time spent in the green environment of the woods or your woodland garden is very calming and therapeutic. There is plenty of scientific evidence to support this.

Assuming that there are a number of trees providing shade (the woodland), there are a few fundamental characteristics to give consideration to when creating a natural woodland garden.

Pit and Mound

Pristine, old growth forests have an undulating soil landscape known as pit and mound topography. When large trees blow over in storms, the roots pull soil with them leaving a pit and when the roots eventually decay, that soil and resulting compost creates a mound beside the pit. A pit and mound topography establishes different soil and moisture conditions which provides opportunity for a greater diversity of plants to seed and grow. A flat site could not sustain near the diversity of flora. The pits will keep your woodland garden moist longer and reduce watering requirements. A replica of pit and mound topography can be created using a rototiller or a shovel. The pit should be 15 to 30cm deep and the mound a similar height and about a metre wide and two metres long. Vary their sizes, shapes, heights and depths somewhat and leave some space between them. Several pits and mounds would suffice in the average backyard of 15 by 20 metres.

Highly Organic Soil

Woodland plants grow in an organic/compost/humus rich soil environment created by the leaves that drop each autumn. Even twigs, branches and large tree trunks laying on the ground eventually decay and enrich the soil. This is important for a number of reasons including soil fertility, moisture retention and habitat for small and microscopic (mycrrohizae) living organisms. Humus is the be all and end all of healthy soil. Mycrrohizae are the nutrient and moisture accumulators of the woodland soil. Healthy soil is alive. The fungi that live in the humus/compost rich soil have a very important symbiotic relationship with woodland plants. They co-mingle with plant roots, which assists plants to receive and take up nutrients. Initially incorporating leafy compost into the woodland garden soil and then mulching with leaves every year is essential for growing native woodland plants. Basically just leave the leaves from your trees where they fall. A light top dressing of wood chips on the leaves holds them down from blowing winds (if that’s an issue in your garden) and adds more organic material.

Shade Levels

Deep in the woods, shade is a fairly constant condition but in backyard gardens it varies somewhat. Factors include the number, density and variety of trees your garden has, garden orientation and shade from buildings and fences. Even if all the backyards in your block are wooded, it will not be as shady as a natural forest. Locating the woodland garden under trees that are adjacent to the north side of a building could be a good start. If there is room, consideration could also be given to planting more trees or sun loving shrubs on the south and west boundaries of the garden site. Also, north facing slopes are great locations. Of course, these strategies may not be possible and you will have to make the best of your site. We would not recommend attempting to establish a woodland garden under just one or two trees but if that is your long term goal then step one is planting young trees and shrubs.

Wind Velocity

Wind is greatly reduced within a forest. Winds are diverted over the tree tops with only light winds reaching the forest floor (except perhaps in severe storms). This results in little impact on the understory plants and growing conditions. Wind dries the air and soil and reduces heat values. That is why the first 100 meters in from the forests edge is not considered quality forest habitat. Consideration should be given to reducing the impact of wind on your woodland garden. Planting a shrub wind break, using fences, buildings and garden orientation are strategies that could help. It would be very challenging to grow a woodland garden in a rural location with wide open fields surrounding it.

Soil Types

This is probably more important to the trees you may plant and grow than to the understory plants. Species such as Sassafras and Black Oak do best in sandy soils and struggle or perish in clay. Assuming that the woodland garden is being created under large mature trees, soil type is not a big consideration. Many woodland wildflower species, such as Trilliums, Jack-in-the-Pulpit and May Apple grow in either sandy or clay soils. The most important soil factor is its organic content. We believe this levels the playing field for woodland plants when it comes to soil types and conditions. Add compost when you plant and remember,,, mulch yearly with leaves.

Sod Removal

If the garden site has lawn it needs to be eliminated. Mechanically removing it with a sod cutter is an option but can be difficult because of tree roots and requires topping the garden with a good top soil. Spraying with a chemical herbicide is an option but requires the use of poisonous chemicals which we never use. The best method is smothering the lawn under cardboard covered by mulch. It’s recommended to do this months before planting but you can plant through the mulch and cardboard if need be.

Woodland Understory Flora

Many showy woodland wildflowers are known as “Spring Ephemerals”. They are long lived perennials that leaf out and flower in early spring before the tree canopy leafs out and shades the forest floor. They basically have to go through their annual life cycle quickly, taking advantage of the sunshine available before the tree leaves develop. Most spring ephemerals bloom for about a two week period, some amazingly early while there is still snow possible. After they have flowered and produced seed, they become dormant and withdraw valuable nutrients back into the roots. Survival through late summer, fall and winter lying dormant without leaves requires the storage of food. So spring ephemerals have evolved with special roots (bulbs, corms and rhizomes) to survive. Gardeners are most familiar with non-native exotic spring ephemerals such as Tulips and Daffodils.

Native ground covers, low maintenance carpets of green, flourish in the woodlands of Lambton County and are essential in the woodland garden. Patches of Mayapple, Ostrich Fern, Trilliums and Wild Ginger (see plant list and plant cards) are a special feature adding to the lushness and appeal of the woodland garden.

Other plants to consider are woodland shrubs such as Dogwoods, New Jersey Tea, Viburnum, Spicebush, Witchhazel, and Serviceberry for your garden. They are important to wildlife such as birds, butterflies and small mammals and provide some additional shade for the woodland perennials. We believe they are important functionally and esthetically and complete the woodland look and appeal.

There are also woodland perennials that flower in the summer and do not go dormant until fall. These include Woodland Asters, Sunflowers, Lilies and Goldenrods. Others are evergreen such as Hepatica, Virginia Waterleaf, Wild Strawberry and Woodland Sedges.

Sedges and ferns complete the woodland garden, so be sure to include them. Christmas fern is a good choice because it is an evergreen species.

Endangered Species Act review could gut wildlife protections

suzuki turtleThe Government of Ontario has set its sights on “improving” Ontario’s Endangered Species Act, posting a discussion paper on the Environmental Registry. However, the paper makes it clear that the province’s primary objective in revisiting the act is not to ensure efficient recovery for Ontario’s at-risk species but, rather, to find even more efficiencies for industries that want to operate in the spaces that species depend upon to live.

Tell the Ontario government to keep species at risk safe

The primary cause of wildlife decline in Ontario (and nationally, and globally) is habitat loss and degradation, for which limits need to be set, not greater efficiencies created.

In 2013, the province passed an amendment that exempts a broad suite of industrial and development activities from the rules against harming endangered and threatened species and their habitats. In other words, the ESA is already failing to effectively safeguard the habitat that wildlife needs.

The provincial government touts itself as a government of the people. If measures to weaken the ESA are greeted with the same outrage that met the province’s proposal to gut protection measures for the Greenbelt, maybe the province will recognize that the people care about wildlife.

We need to ensure that the province upholds a piece of legislation intended to change business-as-usual activities that drive wildlife decline, not pave the way for them. Please send your message to the government now.

Thank you,

Rachel Plotkin

Boreal Program Manager

P.S. Join us for a free webinar on February 20th at 2pm EST to find out what’s at stake with the review of Ontario’s Endangered Species Act and what you can do to help. Register here

Good News: Monarchs show signs of recovery

Monarch butterflies, Mexico

We recently received an email from Pete Ewins, Lead specialist, species conversation for the World Wildlife Fund – Canada:

“I wanted to share with you some fantastic news from our colleagues at WWF-Mexico. The area of mountain forest occupied by monarch butterflies this winter increased by 144 per cent over last year.

This is the biggest growth in 12 years and is a sign that the population of monarchs that migrate from Canada and the United States to Mexico may be on the rise, in part due to efforts of supporters like you.

Because we can’t count butterflies individually, scientists instead measure the area of forest the iconic butterfly occupies to get a sense of the overall population. The survey, conducted by WWF-Mexico and partners, found monarchs in 6.05 hectares of forest compared to 2.48 hectares during the same period in winter of 2017-2018.

This increase in butterflies is a testament to the power of conservation and the efforts of committed supporters like you across the continent.

Jorge Rickards, the general director of WWF-Mexico, attributed the increase in monarchs to better protection of the fir and pine forests monarchs hibernate in each winter and collective efforts to restore native plant habitat along the butterfly’s epic migratory route.

Here in Canada, more than 60 elementary and secondary schools have replaced monoculture schoolyards with vibrant pollinator gardens through our Living Planet @ School program. Through our In the Zone native plant gardening program, Go Wild grants and with the support of individuals like you, many more have transformed backyards and community spaces into vital habitat for wildlife.

While these results are to be celebrated, we cannot claim victory just yet. Monarch populations are still drastically lower than they were two decades ago. With you by our side, we’re taking steps in the right direction and will continue to address the threats monarchs face.

Let’s keep the momentum going for this iconic species! Together, we can reverse the decline of wildlife.”

The Countdown to Earth Hour is On!

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For the past 10 years, people around the world have come together for Earth Hour to support efforts to change climate change. Together, we have created a powerful movement that helped deliver strong global commitments to address this threat. Climate change remains a big challenge for us all. But another urgent threat now demands our attention: the loss of nature.

Join us on 30 March 2019, 8:30 pm your local time for Earth Hour. Switch off💡in solidarity with global efforts to secure nature and our home, and speak up on why nature matters to you.

This is our moment to #Connect2Earth.

For more information, visit https://www.earthhour.org/

Photos from Beachville Hike

IDNC enjoyed a great hike along The Thames River at Beachville on January 19th. Thanks to Ken Westcar, Oxford County Trails Council, for the guided tour, outlining work done by volunteers and future plans. Thanks, also, to Ingersoll’s Chocolatea for their delicious hot chocolate that warmed 18 hardy souls at the end!!! Best sighting of the day – a bald 🦅 eagle!

Photo credit – Bill Grant, Club Member
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Bill 66: Important Updates and Actions

Recently, we received an email from Ontario Nature, discussing Bill 66 (Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act):

Dear Carolinian West Nature Network Members,

As most of you are likely aware, Bill 66 (Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act) passed first reading on December 6th, 2018. If passed, this legislation would trump critical environmental protections for land, water and wildlife throughout Ontario. There is a serious misconception that the overriding of environmental protections that this Bill enables is confined largely to the Greater Golden Horseshoe Greenbelt and surrounding areas. This is not true. It affects all municipalities in Ontario and all of your communities.

There are some very important deadlines that you should be aware of:

•        January 20th: Deadline for comments on Bill 66 through the Environmental Registry for Ontario (ERO postings were previously referred to as EBR postings).

•        Bill 66 is on the order paper for second reading on February 19th when the Legislature returns.

•        After passing second reading, Bill 66 goes to committee. So the anticipated third reading and passage of the Bill is early March.

Further Action: Read Ontario Nature’s blog post which which explains the very serious environmental implications of Bill 66: What You Need to Know: (https://ontarionature.org/bill-66-facts/). Sign the online letter that is being sent to Premier Ford, Todd Smith (Minister of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade) who introduced the Bill, Steve Clark (Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing) and Rod Phillips (Minister of Environment, Conservation and Parks) and to share the blog with your networks.