Woodland

By: Lee Neff

Lee Neff is a garden writer and occasional contributor to Pacific Horticulture. She lives and gardens in Kingston, Washington, where…

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Idesia polycarpa brightens the author’s woodland garden in October. Photographs by John Neff

Idesia polycarpa brightens the author’s woodland garden in October. Photographs by John Neff

I did not inherit my love of gardening from my mother, who insists she is a member of “the asphalt block.” But she did pass along to me her addiction to working jigsaw puzzles—not the ordinary, cardboard sort, but beautiful, wooden jigsaw puzzles, usually made in England. The old Victory brand was our first family obsession. With every trip abroad, a few new ones were purchased and shared. Even now, they make the rounds, from one household to another, with the date last assembled carefully noted on the back of the box, along with the number of pieces missing on that occasion.

One of my favorite family puzzles was a print of Monet’s “Girl with a Watering Can.” Another, a rather sentimental Victory puzzle entitled something like “A Woodland Lane,” looked just as you might expect—lots of dappled shade with many subtle variations of green and a few wispy strokes of soft floral yellow and red in the mossy shadows. It was a challenge to work.

When I first started choosing plants for my current garden, I often felt like I was starting a new sort of jigsaw puzzle—one with rather raggedy edges, no crisp corners, and an unknown quantity of pieces of disparate color and shape, most of which were not even in the right box!

Creating a Woodland

So I began with the basics: sorting patches of dark and light (ie, shade and sun). And, as the garden evolved, it became obvious there was just too much sunshine and not enough damp, lightly shaded corners. So, about seven years ago, after selecting a large, grassy area of embarrassingly little interest, I laid out a shape that would become a woodland, something like that puzzle I recalled sorting pieces of years ago. Having saved months of newspapers, an unlikely stockpile of puzzle pieces, I began laying them in place—ten sheets of newsprint at a time, wetting them down and covering them with six inches of compost. No relative or visitor was immune to wheelbarrow duty. By February, the underlying grass of the new woodland was successfully doomed.

But, a woodland is three-dimensional and requires trees for a canopy—the ceiling that will shelter the imagined collection of spring treasures, the woodland carpet. Selecting the trees—trying to figure out how to acquire all that nice, filtered shade—proved to be the hard part. And quickly. For once I began working on this puzzle, just like working on the romantic Victory version long ago, I impatiently wanted to put all the pieces in place at once.

I have a tendency to need many of the “new,” fashionable plants that cross my path: the blackest Sambucus, the earliest Mahonia, the most elusive Hepatica, or the shrub with the best fall color or most breathtaking winter fragrance. I was proud that my garden already included several rather fashionable trees: Styrax obassia, Stewartia monadelpha, Acer griseum, Franklinia alatamaha. But puzzling out the perfect woodland garden canopy was perplexing; I turned over lots of potential pieces, but none fit the area perfectly. The goal? Trees providing moderate shade with several seasons of interest—fall color, attractive flowers, or fruit—and an enthusiasm for living in this particular setting (southeastern Seattle, Sunset zone 5, USDA hardiness zone 8). And I wanted them to fit well into the picture I was creating.

The woodland garden in winter, with yellow spikes of mahonias and pendant clusters of red berries on Idesia polycarpa. Inset photograph by Lynne Harrison

The woodland garden in winter, with yellow spikes of mahonias and pendant clusters of red berries on Idesia polycarpa. Inset photograph by Lynne Harrison

A New Tree

My friend Spencer had the solution. Every time we visited, he had discovered a new tree to recommend. His garden was a veritable arboretum. On the day he brought over wood samples for our new dining room table, I was not surprised when he asked, “Lee, have you seen the Idesia polycarpa at the Hiram Chittenden locks?”

Nope. Hadn’t.

“Then you’ve got to go out there right away. Don’t buy another tree until you’ve seen it.” He described its elegant, heart-shaped leaves, held gracefully on red petioles; its clear yellow, fall color; and, best of all, its chains of red winter berries. We arranged a field trip, which was quickly followed by a search for every scrap of information I could find about Idesia polycarpa.

Plants That Merit Attention: Volume I—Trees, a publication of the Garden Club of America, offered a photograph that did not even begin to reflect the beauty of the specimen at the Locks. But the description of its landscape value was tantalizing: hailing from Japan and China, and sometimes known as the Iigiri tree, Idesia is hardy at least in USDA zones 7-9. Since they are dioecious (having male and female flowers on separate plants), it is necessary to have blooming trees of both sexes to produce berries. “Interesting and seldom used tree. Little is known about its hardiness range and its tolerances. In general appearance, it resembles the catalpa, but the leaves are not as large and are thicker. The attractive fruits, which hang like a bunch of grapes, create fall and winter interest.”

By the time Spencer began making our table, I knew I wanted an Idesia canopy in the new woodland.

Naively, I strolled into my favorite nursery to buy my new Iigiri trees. My lofty request for “five Idesia polycarpa, please” was met with puzzlement; and a few phone calls revealed that there were no such trees available in the Seattle area. But Forest Farm Nursery had five! “Of course we can ship them.” Each tree was $23, and shipping would almost double the cost. But, to this infatuated gardener, they were a bargain. I hung up the phone, got five bamboo stakes from the potting shed, and, poking holes in the soggy newspaper and mulch woodland, planned the placement of my new trees.

The arrival of five, six-foot-long, brown cardboard boxes was daunting, although the sticks that emerged from them looked more like my bamboo stakes than potential woodland canopy. They definitely were not the expected size, color, or shape; in fact, they looked suspiciously like pieces of an altogether different puzzle. Dubiously, we cut holes in moldering newsprint and carefully planted our scrawny twigs of anticipated shade.

A Woodland Grows

They grew. Gradually, I had to admit that pieces were falling into place. Beneath the idesias, woodland plants prospered: red and yellow primroses, hostas, variegated lily-of-the-valley, yellow Cypripedium and lesser celandine, salal, ferns, false Solomon’s seal. And by the summer of 2003, when dry soil and warm temperatures conspired to reduce the gardener’s goal to merely keeping shrubs and trees alive, the Iigiri trees had formed a real woodland canopy. The golden full-moon maple (Acer shirasawanum ‘Aureum’, syn. A. japonicum var. aureum) did not have a single scorched leaf; plants of Rhododendron prunifolium were mature enough to produce their orange-red flowers in July; and all three female idesias promised abundant clusters of red fruit.

This year, seen from the porch, myriad red berries lure us into the garden on dreary winter days. Already buds are swelling on the upright Cornus mas ‘Golden Glory,’ and behind the idesias, early-blooming mahonias are opening, bright yellow against dark hollies and yews (Taxus). Ranunculus ficaria seedlings pop up unexpectedly, everywhere. The red, yellow, and green of summer are repeated in the woodland’s winter colors.

Unlike that remembered wooden jigsaw puzzle, my woodland garden will never be complete. In fact, there is no single “solution” for this puzzle. Every year, new seedlings change the picture. In fact, gardeners enjoy never completing their puzzles, even appreciate pieces that change shape and color and sometimes move from one part of the picture to another. Change keeps the garden—and the gardener—alive.