When the snow has barely melted from the shady corners of Barbara Wetzel's woodland acres, the spring green heads of bloodroot and trillium start popping up, seeking the sun. Then come the dogwoods, serviceberries and viburnum.
At last, May's warm days arrive, and hundreds of pink azaleas burst into bloom, recalling the North Carolina and West Virginia landscapes where Barbara grew up. "It's like having a southeastern garden near Chicago," she says. "I'm growing all the things I love best."
Click ahead to read about Barbara's garden tips. Slides 6 to 13 highlight a sampler of woodland spring flowers. See Barbara's garden in person during Garden Conservancy's Open Days program May 20, 2012; information at gardenconservancy.org/opendays.
The key to Barbara's success is not only what she grows—it's what she removed. When Barbara and her husband, Bob, bought their Barrington Hills, Illinois, property in 1991, buckthorn and garlic mustard choked the woods. For two years, Barbara slashed back the invasive buckthorn in the winter and pulled the garlic mustard in early spring. To counter deer, the Wetzels fenced the entire property.
As a result, Barbara's plantings have thrived, and many wildflowers have spread on their own, including Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) and blue-flowering woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata and P. stolonifera). "The deer used to eat them, and I never saw blooms," Barbara says. No blooms meant no seeds, so the natives couldn't multiply.
By pruning trees and removing cottonwoods and wild cherries (which showered branches during storms), the Wetzels created an airier canopy. "Our woods are quite bright in early spring," Barbara says.
Pictured: An arbor supporting summer-blooming clematis and honeysuckle leads to a prairie garden.
The conditions favor ephemeral flowers that burst into life then fade as other plants unfurl. Barbara's favorites are the charming trout lilies (Erythronium albidum and E. americanum), so named for their speckled leaves.
"They're a delight. I didn't plant them, but each year they've presented themselves in ever-increasing swaths." For groundcover, she favors wild ginger. "It keeps down weeds, and it's less formal-looking than hostas." Ostrich ferns also spread quickly, she says.
Not all of the plants were self-starters, of course. Barbara grew many from seed. "I started a lot of my hellebores this way," she says. "They're not native, but I love them. And woodland phlox can be propagated by division."
Barbara bought her first azaleas at a convention eight years ago. Those 54 plants led to a wide-ranging collection now nearing 1,000. For hardiness, she suggests Northern Light hybrids in an array of colors. Their fragrance is akin to the best of the spicy viburnums, she says.
Her top tip for azaleas: "For success with azaleas, provide good drainage in humus-rich soil made acidic with pine bark." She grows considerably fewer large-leaf rhododendrons. They need more careful siting because they tend to suffer in cold, harsh winds. But she adores "the Yaks" (R. yakushimanum). "Their flowers look like cotton candy," she says, "and their foliage is like velvet."
Pictured: Painterly waves of trillium, native geraniums, bleeding heart, phlox, merrybells and bluebells surround azalea varieties.
Barbara's garden thrives in part due to knowledge gained volunteering with ecologist Jim Steffen on a major woodland restoration project at the Chicago Botanic Gardens. She learned not to fuss with woodland soil; cultivating and fertilizing actually encourage weeds and weaken the natives. Spreading finely shredded leaves is OK, she says, but gardeners should pick up heavy leaf litter to eliminate cover for root-munching rodents.
The learning process continues as Barbara develops more of the acreage, including areas that aren't wooded: two rock gardens, several ponds and an acre of tallgrass prairie.
The landscape is beautiful any season, but when the woods reawaken in spring, the Wetzels leisurely wander the paths daily with their pets to see what wonders have emerged. "Bob really hates to garden," Barbara says with a laugh, "but we all love to walk in the woods."
Pictured: Barbara's collection of unique sculptures dots the floral landscapes.
This deciduous perennial (Primula japonica) sends up a stalk that blooms in red rosettes.
Heart-shape flowers dangle on the fernlike greenery of Bleeding Heart (Dicentra).
Silverbell (Halesia Carolina), a spreading tree or shrub, has delicate, bell-shape white flowers.
This variety of azalea (Rhododendron vaseyi) blooms with trusses of four to eight funnel-shape, rose pink-to-white flowers.
Vibrant purple flowers draw attention to the hardy Herbert Azalea (Rhododendron Gable hybrid).
With tiny flowers on tall stalks, Foam Flower (Tiarella) makes a good woodland groundcover.
Elegant foliage distinguishes the deciduous evergreen Himalayan Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum venustum).
The Japanese Snowball Bush shrub (Viburnum plicatum) shows off its blossoms with tiny central buds surrounded by larger white blooms.