Dan Pearson: The years-long task of colonising our woodland with natural blooms, and persuading the woods to cross the water to our home

Plantsman and designer Dan Pearson explains how he is encouraging the woodland to grow across the stream at his Somerset home, with photographs by Huw Morgan.

From our perch on the hillside, we look out in every direction with views uninterrupted.

It is a remarkable prospect, but with the openness comes a set of very clearly defined conditions. We have wind and unfettered sunlight, which influences everything we do on the high ground. We seek shelter in a storm or in the heat of summer, then the shadows that finger up the emerald slopes beckon us down towards their source.

There, in the woods, we find another world. One that is damp and cool and still, even on a blustery day when the wind is caught in the branches and you look back up the hill to see the garden being buffeted.

Dan Pearson's garden

©Huw Morgan

Where the trees run in the shadowy hollows and in tandem with the stream that passes through the valley, their influence is profound. Lush hart’s tongue ferns push up from the ground, ivy and Blechnum spicant grow in the damp crevices of oaks and poplars that have leaned over from the slopes of our neighbour’s land form living bridges across the water.

Life starts early in the woods and it needs to, in order to steal a march on the canopy that closes over and plunges the woodland floor into darkness for the summer.

In a mild January such as the one we’ve just had, the garlic will be pushing the leafmould, the tiny green spears quickly unfurling to bask, shiny in the nearly-spring sunlight. Later in April, when the garlic is white like a snow carpet, we follow the deer trails that cut desire lines into the new greenery in search of wood anemone and wood sorrel.

Pale yellow spring flowers of the hybrid wood anemone,

©Alamy

These shady grounds are garlic territory, but where it runs thin under the root plates of hornbeam, there are smatterings of Arum italicum and bluebell that survive away from the competition of the garlic’s early growth.

The farmer before us cut the wood unceremoniously where it leaned over onto his pasture and shaded the ‘grub’. Food for the cattle was his most important consideration, but, in the 10 years we’ve been here, we’ve begun a process of inviting the wood across the water. To make this possible, a linear section of the steepest slopes was fenced off from the meadows on the higher ground and land has been allowed to re-wild.

I have nurtured this process by planting what will one day be a coppice for wood and building materials. There is enough ground for it to be kept on an eight- to 10-year rotation for the hazel and a 15-year rotation for the hornbeam.

The hornbeam, which loves the heavy damp ground on the lower slopes, is the hottest burning wood and is known as bluntsaw for its density and wear on the woodsman’s tools. It was used in the smelting industry once and for making clock parts, but we will be using it for the woodburners when its stems are the thickness of my wrist.

Stream in Dan Pearson's garden

©Huw Morgan

I have planted sweet chestnut for fencing posts, as it is a fast-growing and reliable hardwood, and a number of small-leaved limes and English oaks to form a high canopy.

The layering in the new woodland and the fact that, every few years, it will be opened again to let light to fall to the floor will allow for greater diversity.

In the years after coppicing, we will see a proliferation of pioneer wildflowers, such as campion and Cardamine pratensis, and the violets and primroses that coast in deep shade, but which will be given a window of light to extend their domain.

As I have got to know the conditions, I have slowly been colonising our young woodland. A trail of snowdrops, which I’ve supplemented with 3,000 or 4,000 a year, has been planted in-the-green in March, when they move best. Running in a disjointed ribbon that stops and starts, they will form a luminous trail in the winter.

In autumn, I’ve added to the bulb layer with similar numbers of autumn-planted bluebells and wild Narcissus pseudonarcissus. A few thousand bulbs don’t go far, so it feels like slow progress, but we are beginning to find the seedlings of my introduced bulbs. It has taken five years for them to take a hold and show themselves.

This is how they find their niche and so determines where they will grow most successfully. Ultimately, it will be what makes the place feel natural. Finding that niche is extremely important — it is why I take my time studying the natural environments and learning from them.

Dan Pearson's garden

©Huw Morgan

I have a couple of pans of our native Paris quadrifolia up in my nursery area, which were purchased as delicate roots with my annual order to Shipton Bulbs. They are local to the area and I am growing them on until they are strong enough to plant out. It will be critical that I find them the right place, with just enough light, but not too much for the other woodlanders to overwhelm them.

The Helleborus viridis, which are now happy in the shadow of wych elm, went through the same process. I harvested seed from a friend’s colony growing in the dense shadow of an ancient hazel coppice in the neighbouring valley. It was sown fresh in June and germinated the next spring, but it took three years to grow the plants to a size that was safe enough to cope with being released where the competition is light among the ground ivy and wild bedstraw, Galium odoratum.

Waldmeister, Wald-Meister, Wohlriechendes Labkraut, Galium odoratum, Sweet Woodruff, sweetscented bedstraw, woodruff, wild baby's breath, le Asperule

©Alamy

On the high ground where we are without shade, I have made my moves carefully for fear of planting out the view. High up behind the house, I’ve planted a blossom wood to encourage the birdlife that — with no cover — felt tentative when we moved here.

Almost a decade on and the native whips are now small trees, with Viburnum opulus and Rosa eglanteria feathering the edge and fruiting natives rising quickly up to form their own microclimate. Prunus cerasifera, in flower in February, is followed in April by Prunus avium and Sorbus torminalis, the chequer tree, providing both flower and fruit.

The shelter is now alive with the chatter of birds, which we see moving to and fro between here and the wood.

Detail, Dan Pearson's garden

©Huw Morgan

I have trays of bluebell seedlings germinating and growing on for introducing into the blossom wood when the canopy is dense enough to open up bare ground. We are nearly there and plan to make this a rolling cycle, harvesting seed from the local bluebells every June and waiting four years until they are ready to go out.

Slowly, slowly, we will make an impression, but I am realistic that I will probably not see them in the sheets that mark an ancient woodland.

Making shade in the garden has been carefully considered, too, because I want to savour our open position, not battle it. In the end, my shade will occupy no more than the skirt of shadow under the trees and shrubs that provide the woody layer to the perennial garden.

These trees and shrubs have all been chosen for their non-competitive root system and consequent good neighbourliness. Under the medlar, for instance, I have a burgeoning collection of Ashwood hellebores.

Among them are clumps of Epimedium which, in turn, provide their own microclimate and sanctuary for Erythronium. The North American dog’s tooth violets need cool and the soil not to bake or dry fully in summer.

The shadowy skirts also provide me with pleasant links to the woods and I’ve been collecting varieties of our native wood anemone, A. nemorosa. Cool blue, A. Robinsoniana and semi-double Vestale are planted among the later-to-rise Polygonatum x hybridum.

Light blue flowers of garden plant Anemone nemorosa Robinsoniana

©Alamy

Where the ground dries under our old holly and life is tough in the summer, primrose-yellow Anemone x lipsiensis, Cyclamen coum and the marbled foliage of Arum italicum Marmoratum are happy to mingle with the Waldsteinia ternata, as the woodlanders do among ground ivy. Come summer, they will be below ground and resting when the holly claims the moisture.

The Pulmonaria Leopard thrives in the shade of the mulberry. Disporum cantoniense Night Heron is happy here in this little microclimate, as is Iris Lazica, a shade-loving relative of the Algerian, a winter-blooming iris. I could not be without this iris and had it in mind when I planted the Heptacodium micanoides. Its strappy leaves are always shiny and, in late winter, it spears blue, impossibly delicate flowers when the rest of the garden is still sleeping and we are pining for life.

Visit www.danpearsonstudio.com to find out more about Dan’s garden and other work.