If an area of ground is left for long enough, it will usually return to woodland, which is the natural habitat for Britain. Native woodland is a rich habitat for wildlife, however, it is the woodland edge that provides the most diverse habitat. Most of us don’t have room for a real woodland in our gardens, however, many of us can create a woodland edge type of habitat. Even if we don’t have room for the big native trees such as Oak (Quercus robur), Ash (Fraxinus excelsior), Beech (Fagus sylvatica), Birch (Betula pendula), Alder (Alnus glutinosa), Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) or Yew (Taxus baccata), we can grow smaller trees such as Hazel (Corylus avellana) (which, can be coppiced), Crab Apple (Malus sylvestris), Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), Field Maple (Acer campestre), Wild Cherry (Prunus avium), and Juniper (Juniperus communis), and large shrubs such as Spindle (Euonymus europaeus), Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) Guelder Rose (Viburnum opulus), Elder (Sambuccus nigra), Dogwoods (Cornus sanguinea), Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), and Holly (Ilex aquifolium).
To create a woodland edge habitat, we need to use a good range of native species and develop different layers in the woodland, from tree canopy through shrub layers down to woodland edge wildflowers. We also need to build up a good layer of dead and decaying material on the woodland floor, from big logs down to fine leaf mould. This encourages insect activity, which in turn encourages birds. Birds populate different layers in the woodland edge – song thrushes, long tailed tits and woodpigeons like the tree tops; finches and robins appreciate the shrub layer, and wrens, dunnocks and blackbirds feed mainly in the leaf litter and low vegetation.
Smaller shrubs that can be grown in the woodland edge include wild roses (Rosa canina) and blackberries (Rubus). If you are worried about a wild bramble becoming too rampant, use a cultivated Rubus. Climbers can also be planted in a woodland edge habitat, including honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum), and the native clematis – Old Man’s Beard, or Traveller’s Joy (Clematis vitalba), though I would wait until trees and shrubs are established before planting them. The native ivy (Hedera helix) will turn up of its own accord so doesn’t need planting. It is very good for wildlife, especially if allowed to climb to over a metre, when it produces flowers that provide late nectar for pollinating insects and berries for the birds when very little is available. However, it is less good for trees, competing with them for sun, water and nutrients, so I would only allow it to grow up well established, large trees, or confine it to robust fences or walls away from the house.
Wild flowers which grow well in or next to a woodland edge habitat include one of my favourites – Rosebay Willowherb (Chamerion angustifolium), Foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea), Primroses (Primula vulgaris), Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) – make sure you get the native, English bluebell, not the Spanish one, Wood Anemone (Anemone nemorosa), White and Red Deadnettle (Lamium album and Lamium purpureum), Red Campion (Silene dioica), Violets, particularly Sweet Violet (Viola odorata), Common Dog Violet (Viola riviniana) and the less common, Yellow Wood Violet (Viola biflora), Wild Strawberries (Fragaria vesca), Woodruff (Galium odoratum), Soloman’s Seal (Polygonatum multiflorum), Greater Celandine (Chelidonium majus), Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis), Wood Cranesbill (Geranium sylvaticum) and the lovely but potentially invasive Wild Garlic or Ramsons (Allium ursinum).
Many people see shade as a problem in a garden, but in fact, the dappled or partial shade created by a woodland edge habitat provides a rich environment for a wide range of wild and cultivated plants. I haven’t even begun to mention cultivated shade lovers such as Hostas, Ferns, Pulmonaria, Daffodils, Hellebores, Epimediums, Brunnera, Bergenia and Japanese Anemones. Whilst wild flowers provide food for many native animals, there is no need to stick solely to wild flowers – indeed the season can be extended and enhanced not just for us, but for wildlife also by the use of cultivated flowers, as long as we use simple flowers that are accessible and provide pollen and nectar for wildlife. When planting a woodland edge, it will take time for trees and shrubs to mature and create shade, so for a period of time, more sun loving species can be grown, and the habitat will gently change as the woodlanders take over.
One word of caution, however, although the variety of plants that can be grown may be vast, from a design perspective, repetition of a few varieties often creates a more unified, pleasing and restful atmosphere than trying to cram in as many different plants as possible. I design gardens in Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire and Warwickshire and am happy to discuss with you, how to make the best of your garden.