Designing and Planting a Woodland Garden by Keith Wiley: A Review

keith wiley 2When I first visited Keith Wiley’s garden, “Wildside” in Devon, I though the man must be a complete nutcase. At the time, the planting of the garden was almost complete with some area still under development. To me, it didn’t seem much like “development” when I walked it as there was still a large area which resembled a working quarry.

The site had been reasonably flat with a slight fall away from the house. However, Keith had gone onto this site with a large digger, removed the topsoil and had then “reshaped the contours” of the property into a series of meandering high ditches with gullies between where one walked.  The topsoil was spread again on these new land forms at various depths in line with his planting plans and the plants earmarked for each location. The results at this early stage, with the plants still quite young, left one with the impression of being in a lunar landscape  much like the first impression one gets when you first step out onto The Burren in Co. Clare; there was something alien about it, something which clashed with all previous concepts of gardens and gardening. It was certainly a new and bold approach and, with kindness and patience, we could only wait and see how it would develop. Keith had twenty five years experience as head gardener at The Garden House, only up the road from Wildside, behind him and the beauty he had created and managed there was testimony to his skills so our patience was well earned and we expected great things.

The higher areas created by his “land forming” were used to plant trees which were to provide the dappled shade encountered in a woodland garden and, because of the extra height they gained by their planting position, they cast longer shadow that one would usually have from such young specimens. The slopes of the gullies (my word, not his) were then used for woodland planting and, because they were on slopes to either side of you as you walked the plants were brought  much more into your view and more easily appreciated and enjoyed as a result. The passing of the years and the growth and filling in of the plants has clothed this reshaped land into a tapestry of colour that is simply breath-taking in its beauty and vividly displays that Keith’s original concept was true genius. My initial assessment shows only my lack of vision while the completion of the project displays his gardening genius.

Woodland Garden

Keith has now written a book “Designing and Planting a Woodland Garden”  where the greater part of the content focuses on the choices of plants to suit a woodland garden, the best manner in which to grow them,  which plants they will best partner in the garden and suggestions of plants for particular situations. These sections make up more than half of the book and present us with delectable selections of “Woodland Trees and Shrubs”,” Woodland Perennials”, “Bulbs, Corms and Tubers” and “Ferns, Grasses and Grass-like Plants”. As we would expect from such a passionate plant grower the selection is wonderful with new and interesting cultivars listed and described.

The earlier sections of the book deal with the development of a woodland garden, the function of plants within the garden and the practicalities of making such a garden. He begins with a general description of woodlands, “Into the Woods”, followed by an outline of how plants function within such an environment, “The Woodlanders”, and continues with guidelines on how to develop such a garden on your own property, “Creating a Woodland Garden”. A section on “Special Situations” gives comments on moist woodlands, sandy soil, growing on peat, and small woodland gardens suggesting approaches and plants suitable for each. It continues to outline how to care for the woodland garden and traces the seasons in one suggested planting plan.

The larger section of the book, that dealing with the various categories of plants for the woodland, was very informative, well presented, well illustrated and inspirational. There are so many wonderful plants I would love to try in my own garden and I will be better informed on how to use them and how to combine them after reading this book.

keith wiley 2

The earlier sections on the development of a woodland garden left me disappointed on two accounts.  One aspect was probably not of the author’s choosing but a decision made by the publishers to attempt to make this book appeal to as wide a readership as possible so there were regular references to growing in North American gardens, to the selection of plants suitable for North American gardens etc. Keith Wiley is well travelled and is familiar with North American gardens but it is his experience in his own garden which is so special and, while it may transfer to some degree to other countries and continents, sometimes trying to be all things to all people is just trying to do too much.

The tone of the earlier sections of the book might be viewed as instructional – how to make to woodland garden etc – and while Keith Wiley may be well qualified to give such instruction I feel, and had hoped, that the book might have dealt more intimately and in greater detail with the creation and planting of the garden at Wildside. It strikes me that this would have drawn more on his strengths and experience and it is a topic on which only he could write with authority. I would rather he had not told me how to make a woodland garden but how he had made his woodland garden.  His garden is a treasure and a delight; his selection of plants is marvellous and the manner in which he has combined them is pure artistry – this is what I would have loved to have read more about. These disappointments aside, this is a book which will be of great benefit to anybody planning or renovating a woodland garden and a visit to the garden would put it all in context.

Designing & Planting a Woodland Garden: Plants and Combinations that thrive in the Shade

by Keith Wiley, Frances Lincoln, January 2015, Hardback, 280 pages, £25. ISBN 9781604693850

Paddy Tobin

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