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How to Create a Woodland Garden (Design + Planting Tips)

In This Post: Learn what a woodland garden is, how you can create one, and why it is perfect for homeowners with a large yard and a tight budget!

As a new homeowner, deciding how to landscape your yard can be tricky. While the beauty and curb appeal of a traditional flower garden or manicured lawn may be enticing, they both require a whole lot of upkeep.

Woodland gardens, on the other hand, provide a great opportunity to embrace nature, get creative with your outdoor space, and cut back on maintenance.

Woodland gardens are laid-back and full of charm, taking design cues from nature itself. So, if your home happens to be situated on a wooded lot, good news: no drastic tree-cutting measures are needed to create a beautiful yard (#savethetrees!) Shaded yards with mature trees are the best candidates for this type of garden.

Liking the idea of a low-maintenance, environmentally friendly garden? This might be your landscaping solution. Read on to discover how to make a woodland garden your backyard reality.

What is a Woodland Garden?

What is a Woodland Garden

A woodland garden is not your average flower patch. Usually, it’s a piece of land (a backyard area or a wooded area just beyond a yard) with mature trees and plant species of all shapes and sizes. It mimics what you’d find in a natural forest with its organic and unrestricted feel. This relaxed approach means that woodland gardens tend to be a lot less work than most traditional gardens (when completed). All in all, these gardens provide a shady, magical retreat and offer plenty of privacy.

Like real forests, woodland gardens are structured in layers. The top layer consists of the tallest trees, a middle layer boasts small trees and shrubs, and a bottom layer shows off-ground cover and plants. It’s important to include each of these layers to create an authentic woodland feel. Each layer grows together to create canopies— a key element of any woodland garden.

Woodland gardens are great landscaping solutions for many reasons.

Some pros of a woodland garden:

They’re low maintenance.

Since woodland gardens focus on plants that are native to the area, you won’t have to do as much to keep them alive (watering, putting down fertilizer and pesticides, etc.). There usually isn’t much grass to take care of, either.

They save you money.

Lower maintenance = less money spent on lawn products and services. On average, an American household spends $100-200/month on lawn care and upkeep. Yikes.

● They provide a great habitat for wildlife and are more environmentally friendly.

Native trees and bushes provide food and shelter to birds and small animals. They’re better for pollinators, too. Many invasive species don’t have the right amount of pollen or nectar that bees need to live.

Create a woodland garden feel in any yard

Woodland gardens come in many sizes and are very possible in smaller yards– my grandparents had the most beautiful woodland garden on a modest-size suburban lot. Despite the size, the layered canopies, winding paths, and colorful blooms made it feel like you’d stumbled into a faraway enchanted forest.

In other words: you don’t have to have acres and acres of wooded land to create a backyard woodland garden. Suburban homes with even a few trees can embrace the free spirit of a true woodland garden with meandering paths, native plants, and trees.

How to Create a Woodland Garden

Although a woodland garden might feel “wild,” there is still a great deal of thought and curation to ensure the plants and trees will thrive and grow well together.

1. Find inspiration

The first step is to spend some time casting the vision for space. To do this, start by gathering inspiration from any nearby forested area and taking notes. Notice the narrow, winding paths worn by animals over time, and look at how the different canopies come together.

You won’t find many straight paths in the woods, so remember to include only meandering and curved walkways in your garden. Finally, take some time to identify any native trees or ground cover that might look nice in your yard.

2. Prep your yard

Before you begin any planting or design layout work, you’ll want to take note of some important details. These include the amount of light (are any spots sunnier than others?), the type of soil, and the moisture level/drainage.

After making these observations, take some time to do any necessary clearing/cleaning of the area. Depending on the state of your yard, your job might involve clearing out existing shrubs and invasive plants that you don’t want in your garden. Any high-maintenance flowers and overgrown shrub trees might take away from the look you’re hoping to achieve. If your yard was previously unkept, be on the lookout for poison ivy and thorny bushes.

Also– if you’d like to let more light in through the top of the canopy, now is the time to do some pruning. In terms of soil, if your yard is already a wooded area, chances are it’s already rich from mulched leaves. If not, consider adding to some compost.

Next, decide how you’d like to arrange your paths. Because woodland gardens are filled with plants and shrubs of all sizes, there typically isn’t much wide open space. This means that you’ll have to create paths to get around all the vegetation. Stepping stones, pebbles, and mulch are all good options for creating these trails. Laying these out ahead of time will help you imagine what your garden will look like. Finally, as you lay your path, try to weave around the areas you’ll be adding new plants.

3. Choose a variety of woodland plants

When choosing plants to incorporate in your woodland garden, keep in mind the goal for a lower-maintenance yard. Expert gardeners recommend native plants/trees or drought-tolerant shade plants. Native plants are any plant species that grow naturally in a given area. Because they’ve grown and adapted to the region over time, they can survive without help from people.

Another important part of creating your wooden garden is organically planting greenery, ideally including a mix of layers. These layers should be made up of trees, bushes, plants, and groundcover.

If you don’t have many trees, consider planting a few native deciduous species that can form the top of the canopy and provide the foundation of your garden. Even one or two in a small yard will make a big impact. Any oak is generally a good call for this top layer. You can often purchase native trees from your state’s forestry agency as seedlings started from native seeds.

To add extra color, plant a few smaller flowering trees, and bushes. Rhododendrons, for example, come in many colors and are hardy in zones four-eight. You can also create visual diversity by planting various bushes and plants with varying leaf shapes and colors.

Plants for Woodland Garden

Trees + Shrubs:

  • Sugar Maple
  • Birch
  • Dogwood
  • Shadbush
  • Mountain Laurel
  • Rhododendron
  • Redbud
  • Viburnum
  • Azalea

Plants + Groundcover

  • Hosta
  • Bloodroot
  • Bluebells
  • Astilbe
  • Trillium
  • Wild Geranium
  • Bleeding-Hearts
  • Ferns
  • Virginia Creeper

As far as shopping goes, local nurseries are your best bet for plants. It may be tempting to dig up native shade plants from nearby woods, but they don’t have a high rate of survival when moved.

4. Determine layout + start planting

As with any garden, plant placement matters, particularly; determining the right layout ahead of time will help make sure each plant gets the right amount of sunlight and has enough room to grow.

Planting guidelines + tips:

It’s best to start the planting process in early spring or fall.

First, begin planting your trees. Clear a circle around them 2-feet in diameter before placing them in the ground. Wildlifetrust.org advises you to keep the surrounding area free of competing plants until they start to grow bigger.

Furthermore, when planting a group of trees, plant them about 20-feet apart for larger species like oaks and 10-feet apart for smaller trees. This will give them room to fill out. It’s important to remember that tree roots spread out, so be careful not to plant any new seedlings too close to any buildings.

After planting trees, add your shrubs, then plants and groundcover. Pay close attention to tags, so each plant is placed in an area with adequate light. To this end, plant shrubs and other plants in the area just outside the reach of any trees. This will help them get some dappled light throughout the day.

Additionally, it’s a good idea to surround your plants with mulch to help keep moisture in and weeds out.

5. Get creative with design

woodland garden example

Once the planting is done, you can focus on the finishing touches. Woodland gardens are meant to be enjoyed by both people and wildlife! To create a welcoming space for these guests, consider adding the kinds of elements they will enjoy.

By adding seating options around the garden, you can entertain friends and family in your natural retreat. Benches, hanging swings, hammocks, or Adirondack chairs are all great options.

Next, attract wildlife by hanging bird feeders and placing a birdbath or two. Birdbaths will serve not only birds but squirrels and butterflies, too.

Finally, to keep in line with the natural feel, it’s a good idea to avoid anything overly flashy and keep the color palette as earth-toned as possible. Branch arbors and stone statues are a couple of other ways to add subtle charm.

6. Maintenance

The first year will require more work as you help establish your new plants. For example, you’ll need to give them extra attention by watering them occasionally and keeping the area around them weeded. After that, removing leaves from plants will be the biggest priority. Don’t worry about leaf removal around the plant, as shredded leaves help keep the soil rich.

7. Relax and enjoy your woodland garden

Lastly, step back to appreciate your hard work and get ready to enjoy the years of beauty to come. When you’re ready to bring the greenery indoors, check out the fastest-growing indoor plants and learn how to keep them alive.

Do you have a woodland garden that you absolutely love? If so, share some pictures with us and we may feature you and your creativity! Also, if this post helped you learn more about woodland gardens and how to create them, then please give us a like, comment below, or share this post with your friends. We love helping our readers turn their starter homes into dream homes. Thanks for reading!

Post By: Alyssa

Alyssa Stacks is a freelance writer and ESL teacher. You can find her fixing up and decorating her 1930s home or teaching her cats how to fetch. She has a soft spot for all things wildlife and enjoys spending time outside with her husband, biking, and birdwatching.

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