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10 Shade Garden Ideas to Steal from an English Woodland

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10 Shade Garden Ideas to Steal from an English Woodland

July 18, 2017

Shade is a condition most gardens must deal with, but at Bowood House in Wiltshire there is more than most of us could dream of in the 30-acre woodland garden. Originally planted by the 3rd Marquis of Lansdowne in 1854, this woody expanse is now a rich tapestry of azeleas, magnolias and, most famously, rhododendrons that together form a stunning display in the spring when the garden is open to visitors.

We took a tour and found 10 design ideas that can work in any size shady garden:

Photography by Britt Willoughby Dyer for Gardenista.

Rhododendrons

Rhododendrons will light up dark dells. They might not be considered fashionable, but rhododendrons look stunning in the dappled shade of deciduous trees, where they can scale great heights and create vast clouds of color from April until June. They prefer a moist, acidic soil (at Bowood they sit on a stretch of acid green sand).
Above: Rhododendrons will light up dark dells. They might not be considered fashionable, but rhododendrons look stunning in the dappled shade of deciduous trees, where they can scale great heights and create vast clouds of color from April until June. They prefer a moist, acidic soil (at Bowood they sit on a stretch of acid green sand).

The woodland garden sits in a 2,000-acre estate that was landscaped by Capability Brown; the first rhododendrons were planted here by the current Lord Lansdowne’s great-great-great-grandfather. It was the perfect site for the Himalayan plants, brought to Britain by the intrepid Victorian plant hunters.  The collection is now vast, and a decade ago 30 hardy varieties that were thought to have been lost were discovered in the garden here.

Foxgloves

 Elegant wild foxgloves are dotted around the margins and will be perfectly at home in the dappled shade of the woodland.
Above: Elegant wild foxgloves are dotted around the margins and will be perfectly at home in the dappled shade of the woodland.

Rustic Furniture

Rustic furniture will blend beautifully with the natural surroundings. Here, a delicate bench crafted from trunks and sticks provides a charming spot to contemplate the garden.
Above: Rustic furniture will blend beautifully with the natural surroundings. Here, a delicate bench crafted from trunks and sticks provides a charming spot to contemplate the garden.

The current Lord Lansdowne has been a great reformer, closing down the farm business on the estate in a bid to restore Capability Brown’s pastoral landscape.

Dramatic Foliage

 Natural springs on the estate keep the ground moist which is perfect for the rhododendrons that grow in a thick layer of leaf litter in the shade. In more open areas, damp glades provide the perfect spot for clumps of dramatic gunnera that, given the right conditions, will flourish into enormous plants.
Above: Natural springs on the estate keep the ground moist which is perfect for the rhododendrons that grow in a thick layer of leaf litter in the shade. In more open areas, damp glades provide the perfect spot for clumps of dramatic gunnera that, given the right conditions, will flourish into enormous plants.

Tree Ferns

Create drama with the strong structural interest of tree ferns.
Above: Create drama with the strong structural interest of tree ferns.

A collection of dramatic tree ferns casts dramatic silhouettes on the margins of the main tree canopy.

Evergreen Ferns

Add evergreen interest with shade-loving ferns.
Above: Add evergreen interest with shade-loving ferns.

And on the ground, collections of ferns continue to add to the mix of layered textures.

Swaths of Color

Plant swaths of color with spring wildflowers.
Above: Plant swaths of color with spring wildflowers.

A woodland garden is the perfect environment for spring flowers—including pretty Primula japonica, which will flourish in the damp conditions and grow and flower before the tree canopy provides denser shade in the summer.

Grass Paths

Create contrast with mown paths.
Above: Create contrast with mown paths.

Simple mown paths, wide enough for a couple of people to walk alongside each other, maintain the pastoral mood here and also provide subtle definition between the woodland and its walks.

Water Features

Emulate the sounds of a burbling brook with the running water of a fountain.
Above: Emulate the sounds of a burbling brook with the running water of a fountain.

Flowering Trees

Choose flowering trees to add color to the landscape in springtime.
Above: Choose flowering trees to add color to the landscape in springtime.

Most of the trees here are native oaks and sweet chestnut trees along with specimen trees chosen for their dramatic flowers including Davidia involucrata (the handkerchief tree), which has beautiful white bracts that emerge in May; Cornus capita with delicate creamy yellow bracts in summer and lush berries in autumn, and a collection of magnolias with their beautiful waxy flowers.

N.B.: Here are more of our favorite landscape ideas to make the most of a shade garden:

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