I guess I’d have to attribute my love of woodland gardening to Errol Flynn, the swashbuckling MGM heartthrob of the '30s, '40s, and '50s. My mother had a serious crush on the daring star, and whenever one of his movies was on The Late Show, or The Late, Late Show, or The Late, Late, Late Show, my brother and I were permitted, almost forced, to stay up and watch.
But there was one Flynn movie in particular that caught my attention—“The Adventures Of Robin Hood,” 1938. Though we were watching a fuzzy picture on a tiny black-and-white set, complete with a set of “rabbit ears” festooned with aluminum foil for an antenna, there was something enchanting about Sherwood Forest that called out to me. As soon as I discovered how to use my thumb, my quest to find my own Sherwood Forest began.
Flash ahead, back to the future, and here I am in my own Sherwood Forest in Greenbrier County, an area acclaimed to be one of the most botanically rich areas on Planet Earth.
Even if you’re a “townie” on a small city lot and don’t have acres to play with, you can still create an island of forest to enjoy. All you need is a little shade or dappled sunlight. You don’t have to be like me, immediately biting off more than you can chew. Start slow and small, and see how easy it is.
The first thing you have to evaluate is the quality of your soil. Is it rich in organic matter? Is it rocky and dry? Is it clay? Is it a struggling lawn in the shade?
No matter what it is, it’s pretty easy to amend. If there’s not much organic matter in the soil, you can get bales of peat moss at Lowe's for not much more than $10 each to mix in. If it's clay, you can use a gypsum-based product like “Turface” (brand name), which is only a few dollars a bag, and it eats that clay up, then you can add dehydrated cow manure and peat moss for organic matter. If it’s a lawn on which you’ve been trying to grow grass in the shade, tear it up.
If all this sounds like too much work already, fear not, it’s really pretty quick and easy. If you have a small rototiller, that will make your job even easier. I like the Honda FG-110. It’s small, lightweight, and very easy to use. Not to worry if you don’t have a rototiller: you can cultivate the soil with a digging fork.
Once you’ve prepared your soil, you’ll want to think about your plant palette. Probably the easiest plants to grow in a woodland shade garden are ferns. In this part of West Virginia, we have many, many species of native ferns, and chances are, if you’re a city dweller, you’ve plenty of friends that are more rural than you are. They most likely have acres of ferns in the woods on their farms, and surely they’d be happy to share some with you. Ferns transplant super easily and are perfect for the backbone of your new woodland garden. There are also a plethora of mail-order nurseries that have an incredible palette of ferns to choose from, native and non-native.
Should you embrace this undertaking on a grand scale, I suggest you consider an inexpensive auger that will fit perfectly on your DE Walt 20V, cordless, half-inch drill. In good soil, you can drill more than 400 holes in an hour. Be forewarned: hold the drill with both hands, for should you encounter a big rock or root, it could twist your wrist like a pretzel.
Rocky soil? No problem! You don’t have to be a stonemason to dry-lay rocks, whether they are rounded creek rocks or flat and shale-like. Just stack them up. If you’re on sloping land, stack them on the lower side of your beds as in the image above.
If you’re working with a small space, you can create your “fernery” in just about any shape imaginable. My fern-island bed prominently features Adiantum pedatum (Maiden Hair Fern), Osmunda regalis (Interrupted Fern), Phegopteris hexagonoptera (Broad Beech Fern) Onoclea sensibilis (Sensitive Fern) to name a few.
These fern species are all native to the east coast and very easy to grow. With a little topsoil, a good mulch, and some recycled railroad ties to stabilize a crumbling slope, these ferns naturalized themselves pretty quickly.
There are so many other woodland plants that transplant as easily as ferns do, but at 867 words so far, I kinda ran out of space here, so you’ll have to tune in next time for more.
Visit and shop Sunshine Farm & Gardens near Lewisburg, West Virginia, for more native plant information, and be sure to sign up for their newsletter.