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Woodland garden - beginner questions

Kathryn Majid
Posts: 1
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Hello, everyone. I’m planning a small woodland garden. I’ve been reading Gaia’s Garden and am trying to incorporate permaculture techniques, but I’m getting myself all mixed up, lol!

I’m in zone 6, northern NJ. This is a narrow side yard 6’ x 45’ facing SE and sheltered by the house from winds. I want to make sunnier the back 2/3rd part into a butterfly/bee/hummingbird garden. The front 15’ is under the shade of a neighbor’s Japanese maple that is pretty dense when it leafs out, so I thought spring ephemerals and other woodland plants would be best suited there. The future woodland is the area I’m focused on right now.

My goals for this woodland:
1. Beauty. This area is visible from the street. I’d like blooms for as long as possible. While I don’t expect a manicured look, I don’t like a tangled, unkempt look, either. Besides beautiful I’d like it to be interesting.
2. Low maintenance, healthy & self-sustaining. This is very important. I’m hoping that 2-4 times/yr. of mow/prune/chop & drop plus dumping leaves from the rest of the yard there would be sufficient input from me.
3. Regionally-native plants. Not trying to be a fanatic about this and I AM grandfathering in an old lilac, but for a start I want to add just natives.

When we moved in this side yard was an impenetrable tangle of bushes, vines, an ancient lilac, other unknown vegetation and at least 15+ Norway maple saplings. We cleared everything except the lilac, removed soda cans and other debris, and got 1-2” of topsoil applied. By the time all this was done, it was fall and the nurseries no longer had the plants I wanted, so – afraid of weeds and not knowing what else to do – I dumped around 6” of straw on the butterfly area and when that ran out piled leaves on the woodland section. All is now under 2-3 feet of snow.

The lilac, more tree than bush, is just outside the shadow created by the Japanese maple. My land is 3.5 feet above my neighbor’s, held by a retaining wall, so the maple’s roots are in soil well below my woodland. My wishlist of plants is:

-Pink swamp azalea
Ephemeral carpet of spring flowers:
-White flowers: Phlox, Foamflower, Trillium
-Blue flowers: Virginia Bluebells, Dwarf Crested Iris
After the ephemerals:
-Lady Ferns
-Showy Lady’s Slipper Orchids
Vines I hope will climb the lilac tree:
-Wild yam
-Rosa Setigera

Notice my “woodland” has no trees! I hope to “plant” a few bare pine trunks to create vertical lines and give the carpenter bees infesting the trim on my house a better place to go. The pines will be topped by either conical caps or birdhouses to keep the rain out of the bee’s holes. (I have no idea if birds would be willing to nest that close to bees, but I have an itch to include architectural follies like in those large British estates, only smaller, lol!)

Now my questions:

The book talks about succession and how land is always striving toward forest, and using nitrogen fixers and nutrient accumulators to accelerate the move to a forest biome, and then those plants can be replaced by others. My land was ALREADY a forest with all those Norway maple saplings, so do I still need to include nitrogen fixers and nutrient accumulators or aren’t I past that stage?

We didn’t dig up the roots of the saplings, bushes or vines, just left them. Does this mean we have hugelkulture?

I can’t tell if the soil is compacted or not. Other than leveling the ground we didn’t till. Beneath the topsoil we added, it’s black and seems pretty firm to me, not “fluffy”. But this soil had a lot of vegetation on it, so do I really need to do something to make the soil looser or can I not worry about it?

Worms. This has me very confused. I hadn’t seen any worms in this spot and went to research what kind I could import, only to discover that North American forests are destroyed by worms! Yet GG talks glowingly about worms, all the while urging a forest ecology. Since the plants I want to add are mostly native forest species which evolved without worms shouldn’t I NOT want worms?

Should I scatter twigs or ramial chipped wood as part of my maintenance? GG doesn’t discuss but elsewhere I read that the RCW is key to maintenance of forest soil

This is a small area – 6’ by 15’, and will have even less planting space when I add stepping stones. My plan has 10 species plus the lilac. Is this enough biodiversity?

Do I have a guild that can be self-sustaining? None of my wishlist plants are on the lists of guild members or – as far as I know – perform the guild functions described. Should I be concerned about this?
Zach Muller
Posts: 775
Location: NE Oklahoma zone 7a
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Hey Kathryn, it sounds like you do have a lot going on in your head. Just remember to take it easy and enjoy yourself as things progress.

One thing that is important to note is the forest types in your area, I quickly looked at whats in New Jersey with succession it's important to think big. While your stand of maples may have been foresty, it doesn't always mean that you have moved past one stage to another, especially if you are clearing out growth and encouraging other growth. Every modification has the potential to change the timing and outcome of succession.

Now that you cleared all the growth it would be back to square one successionally speaking, with sun accessing areas that were shaded out there will be pioneers attempting to cover the ground. Before they do that is a good time to slip your own plant in so that they will do the task of ground covering work and prevent some unwanted pioneer plant from taking over. This is how your plants will fill in a guild or niche, by performing the tasks that the naturally occurring succession plants would be doing.

Accelerating succession would be a good thing to do if your goal was to establish a tree system. Otherwise I think the task would be keeping succession where you want it while still meeting your maintainable requirements.
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