Spring in the Woodland Garden

By Cindy Gilberg

Bluebells - Mertensia virginicaThere is a specific smell to spring, especially in our woodlands, that I can only describe as ‘spring green’. It is the awakening of not only emerging plants but of the microorganisms in the soil that hasten to finish converting last year’s leaves into this year’s rich compost. Reminiscent of long ago childhood explorations, I am compelled to once again head for the woods and take it all in.

Spring comes not soon enough for most gardeners. By the time the first spring peepers are heard in February and March, we have a bad case of cabin fever. And always, we begin the spring season with more garden plans than time and more new plants than space. Ahhh, springtime!

Since the new leaves have not yet grown, sunlight penetrates the tree canopy to shine upon and warm the woodland floor. Slow at first, most plants are shy to reveal their flowers. By the first of April it warms up enough that – voila!!! – the woodlands become a fast-paced show of green and flowers with something new every week or so. Adding to the scene are accents of the spring-blooming understory trees such as serviceberry, redbud and wild plum.

Sessile Bellwort

Yellow, or sessile, bellwort

This warmth awakens the spring ephemerals, those plants that grow, flower, set seed and die all within the spring season. They lay dormant for the remainder of the year so that they can delight us once again next spring. This group includes such beauties as bluebells, blue-eyed Mary, yellow bellwort, bloodroot, wake robin and the aptly named spring beauty. Interplant spring ephemerals with ferns, summer-blooming Indian pink, and include some fall-blooming woodland asters and goldenrods to keep the shady garden green and showy through autumn.

Fiddleheads of native ferns pop up and unfurl amongst the spring ephemerals, revealing fronds that are excellent complements to many of the larger leaved woodland plants. Migrating hummingbirds have a way of knowing just when in April the red columbine flowers appear to offer a sweet nectar snack after their long journey. Whether you are considering a new shade garden or wanting to convert more garden space to shade-loving native plants, where does one begin?

In a new space, a tree survey will help decide which trees should stay and whether some need to be removed (always remove any invasive honeysuckle). Assess the quality of light. Is it dappled sunlight or light shade because of widely spaced large trees? In deeper shade, consider removing a few trees or at least prune lower branches in order to raise the canopy and lighten the shade. As always, determine whether the soil is dry or moist and match plant lists to the soil type.

From a design point of view, plan the woodland garden to include plants that flower and provide interest in different seasons as well as those with striking foliar qualities. Always combine plants that provide good foliar contrast. For example, fine textured ferns or native woodland sedges combine well with larger leaved plants such as the low-growing coral bells and wild ginger, or can be used with shrubs like wild hydrangea and beautyberry. In drier soil, the rounded leaves of squaw weed form a low, evergreen ground cover that blends nicely with Christmas fern foliage, Jacob’s ladder and crested iris. Look for plant combinations that bloom at the same time and repeat those throughout the garden. Some old favorites include celandine poppy, wild sweet William and wild geranium. In addition, try Indian pink, with its surprisingly star-shaped flowers that open to reveal a rich yellow color, underplanted with a ground cover of woodland sedum. This sedum produces white flowers atop glossy round leaves. These all flourish in average soil and provide lots of color in April and May.

Solomons Seal

Solomon's Seal

Consider using taller plants as accents. Ostrich fern thrives in average to moist soil. In late summer, a cinnamon colored spore frond appears adding extra interest that persists into winter. The gracefully arching Solomon’s seal provides yet another option for height, as does goat’s beard, a good choice for its white plumes that appear in May.

A final note on design is to include a pleasantly meandering path through the woodland garden. I highly recommend placing a comfortable bench so that gardeners and visitors alike can relax in the shade at the end of the day and reflect on a job well done.

Spring Blooming Native Plants for Woodland Gardens

This is a short list of native plants that are available and is by no means all that you can use in your woodland garden!


  • Bluebells – Mertensia virginica
  • Blue-eyed Mary – Collinsia verna
  • Yellow bellwort – Uvularia grandiflora
  • Bloodroot – Sanguinaria canadensis
  • Wake robin – Trillium
  • Mayapple – Podophyllum peltatum

Native Perennials:

  • Indian pink – Spigelia marilandica
  • Woodland asters – Aster anomalus, A. cordifolius, A. patens
  • Goldenrod – Solidago caesia, S. flexicaulis, S. drummondii
  • Red columbine – Aquilegia canadensis
  • Sedge – Carex jamesii, C. glaucodea, C. albicans etc.
  • Coral bells – Heuchera villosa, H. puberula, H. americana
  • Wild ginger – Asarum canadense
  • Squaw weed – Senecio obovatus
  • Jacob’s ladder – Polemonium
  • Black cohosh – Cimicifuga racemosa
  • Crested iris – Iris cristata
  • Celandine poppy – Stylophorum diphyllum
  • Wild sweet William – Phlox divaricata
  • Wild geranium – Geranium maculatum
  • Woodland sedum – Sedum ternatum
  • Solomon’s seal – Polygonatum commutatum
  • Goat’s beard – Aruncus dioicus
  • Spiderwort – Tradescantia subaspera

Cindy Gilberg, horticulturist and Missouri native, founded and ran the garden center at Gilberg Perennial Farms with her husband Doug for 28 years, also teaching classes and workshops on gardening and garden design. She now focuses on garden design, consulting and teaching, and also works part-time in the Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve, emphasizing the use of native plants in home landscaping.


About Mike Perry

Husband, Father, DIYer, Gardener, Runner, Tea-Drinker, Traditional Wet Shaver...
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