As the ice sheets shrank away northwards around 12,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age, tundra vegetation was followed by the first pioneer trees – Birch, Pine, Aspen and Hazel – and then in succession by Elm, Oak, Small-leaved Lime and Beech. Eventually, the primeval ‘wildwood’ covered Britain and Ireland apart from places that were too wet, too cold or too windy for trees to survive. In fact, most of the Northern Hemisphere was one vast forest.
To showcase some of the plants of the great northern woodlands, we selected a particularly shady corner of Natural Surroundings that once housed goats (a long time ago), and was then, rather misguidedly, planted with a variety of native trees. These were mostly either badly chewed by deer, or had a very spindly growth due to the shade of the large, mature Beech, Lime and Horse Chestnut trees along the drive – most young trees do not thrive in deep shade! From this rather uninspiring area was born our ‘Woodland Garden’.
We want to display a sample of the riches of our woodland flora, and began work on this new woodland garden in winter 2015–2016. We have to cope with three problems: too much shade (paradoxically, most ‘woodland’ plants are adapted to edge habitats such as glades and rides and don’t like deep shade); dry soils; and predation by deer, pheasants and pigeons. We have therefore felled a few of the trees in this area and thinned the canopy on others. Some of the logs produced have been used to bank-up the ground on the gentle slope to create pockets of deeper soils that we have improved with compost and leaf-litter. We have also introduced more fencing to deter deer, as well as protection for individual plants against pheasants and pigeons.
The woodland garden is divided into four sections. At the top of the slope, nearest the café, is the North American Garden. Further downslope the European Garden, followed by the British Garden along the trackway at the bottom. Around the ponds we have an Oriental Section, with plants from China and Japan. The broad geographical spread reflects the fact that the temperate forests from Europe, Asia and North America have a lot in common; they share many plants and groups of plants and are all part of the ‘Boreal Floral Region’.