The Woodland Garden

by Roy Forster and Alex Downie

Published by Raincoast Books

180 pages, 2004

Buy it online




Gardens Without Artifice

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


Say the word "garden" to most people and they'll conjure up an image of mostly non-indigenous plants tortured into neat rows between hedges clipped into unnatural shapes. That's not meant to sound disparaging. Truly, some of the most beautiful gardens in the world fit that description exactly. And what better test of the gardener's art than creating precision where it was perhaps never meant to be? Of making plants not just survive but thrive in climates not ideal for them? Of bringing order to the cacophony that is nature? It can be beautiful but it's not natural. And, as it turns out, it's a lot more work.

Like most people, I grew up with that vision of "garden." Neat paths, well trimmed bushes, tidy row-upon-row of seasonal color. And then one day, quite by accident, while wandering through a neighborhood unfamiliar to me, I came upon a chaotic urban oasis that took my breath away. At first glance it looked to me as though someone had plucked large armloads of nature from field and forest and simply flung them artfully into their yard. I had managed to come across this garden at the height of its most verdant season. Poppies waved merrily from the midst of a lavender patch. Moss dripped from trees as though in the midst of a deep forest. Silberturm grew in thick, royal patches punctuated by spots of bright color from flowers I'd never seen at a garden center.

It all struck me as a happy accident. Someone lucky enough -- and sufficiently green thumb endowed -- to take what nature had given them and coax it into glorious submission. Though, of course, any successful gardener will tell you there are few happy accidents. If it's beautiful and it grows in varied and sufficient forms to be labeled "garden" there's hard work to thank. And planning. But where do you even start when your personal training has led you to think of gardens as something more orderly? More artificial?

It may seem that a woodland garden just grows beautifully by itself, but the success of a cultivated woodland garden depends on careful planning.

In The Woodland Garden: Planting in Harmony With Nature, authors Roy Forster and Alex Downie address these issues exactly, then bring in a few more elements you won't have thought of on your own.

"The woodland garden is inspired by a poetic vision of infinite balance and perfect harmony among all the forest components," Forster and Downie write in the introduction to The Woodland Garden. Then later:

The emotions stimulated by the woodland garden may be unwelcome to those whose perception of a garden is limited to structural orderliness. The wildness may intimidate those who feel that the outdoors is something to be tamed and ordered. But for those who appreciate and respond to the special ambiance of the woodland garden, we hope that our knowledge of and experience in creating woodland gardens will inspire and guide you.

In other words, this sort of gardening is clearly not for everyone. Further, it's important to note that, though those with an interest in a wilder type of gardening will find elements of The Woodland Garden helpful no matter where they live, the book focuses on "plant materials hardy from Zone 5 through Zone 9, according to the hardiness zone system devised by the United States Department of Agriculture."

Forster and Downie are professionals in this field. Forster is a botanist, Downie the curator of the Bloedel Conservatory in Queen Elizabeth Park in Vancouver. However, both manage to step back from professional-speak enough to create a book that fires the imagination as well as preparing the natural gardening neophyte to attack their own garden space.

They take us through all the steps, from analyzing the site through designing the garden, transforming a conventional garden or adapting a natural woodland; and a great deal, of course, about plant selection.

The Woodland Garden was originally published in a much more modest form a half decade ago. This new edition is deeply revised and greatly enhanced by color photographs and a lovely new design. It's not quite a coffee table book but I suspect it will find its way to the coffee tables of new woodland gardening enthusiasts nonetheless. | May 2004


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, is published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.