Tips for Designing a Natural Woodland Garden

Path through woodland garden.
credit: Image © Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens
Natural woodland gardens take their cues from nature.

If you live on the edge of a wood or, better yet, have a wooded lot of your own, you have the makings of a natural woodland garden. Woodland gardens can encompass an entire wood or surround a modest cluster of trees, depending on the space you have to work with, but all possess certain attributes that seek to emulate the designs of nature.

Because woodland gardens are generally based around trees, they are typically shady and rely primarily on shade-loving plants, but not every shade garden is a woodland garden. Because a woodland garden is modeled on natural woods, many of the plants grown there will be native varieties, but not every native garden is a woodland garden. Natural woodland gardens are distinguished by their canopies—successive layers of verticality from trees to small trees to bushes to ground-level foliage. When planning your natural woodland garden, it's important to keep the canopies in mind.

Woodland garden detail.
credit: Image © Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia
Woodland gardens are distinguished by a layering of canopies.

Woodland Gardens Take Time

More than almost any other kind of garden, natural woodland gardens require patience. Some of the woody plants you add will take several seasons to fully mature, so it's worthwhile to place them thoughtfully and carefully. Before you begin arranging plants in your garden plan, take note of any consistently sunny or dappled areas so you can match the plants to their favored conditions. If you need to prune any branches on the mature trees to open up the top canopy and let in a little light, this is the time to do it.

Prepare your garden area by clearing out any invasive and noxious plants such as buckthorn, poison ivy and poison oak, as well as saplings and underbrush you don't want in your garden. Plan a natural way to move through and experience the garden by laying out a pathway. In nature, pathways reflect the habitual passage of animals through the woods. They are meandering and irregular. Yours can appear to be the same yet serve to guide the visitor, alternatively masking and revealing areas of interest and ending, perhaps, at a choice destination such as a bench or a dining table. Your path can be defined with gravel or mulch, paved with stone or brick, or simply left bare and edged with rocks—whatever works best with the materials at hand.

Green garden with rich growth and a bird bath.
credit: TeamDAF/iStock/GettyImages
While not "natural," a birdbath is an attractive addition to a woodland garden.

Make Your Natural Woodland Garden Your Own

The garden you ultimately create will naturally be different if you are beginning with a woodlot than if you have just a few trees and some sparse lawn. What constitutes a woodland garden can range from a manicured wood to a woodsy garden. Your own aesthetic will decide the liberties you wish to take with nature. Do you want a birdbath in your garden? A water feature? In your choice of materials, you will seek to harmonize with the natural world while imposing your own sense of pleasing design.

Tips

A material you may find useful is hypertufa. Hypertufa is a mix of cement, sand, and water, with added peat moss and perlite or vermiculite. It can be tinted, molded, shaped and carved to resemble natural stone, giving you the opportunity to add stone-like planters or other features that will age and blend naturally into your design.

Preparing Your Woodland Garden for Planting

Having cleared away any growth you don't want in your garden and having defined defined planting areas, should you amend the soil before you plant? That may depend on whether you are modifying an established woods, with years of accumulated leaf mulch and organic matter, or are instead building up your simulated woods around a few trees. If your intended garden area doesn't have a natural woodland soil, consider adding a few inches of good loam to the areas you intend to plant.

In an established wood, it's better to disturb the soil as little as possible. Native plants under a forest canopy lead a precarious existence and, though they may be successful in their present situation, it takes little to tip the balance against them. When you add new shrubs or small trees, select a spot where you can clear an area about two feet in diameter, removing competing vegetation before you plant. That gives the new plant a buffer of exclusively available nutrients and water until it can become established. Mulch that buffer zone with natural materials.

spring flowers
credit: Image © Carolyn's Shade Garden
Spring comes to the woodland garden.

Choosing the Plants for Your Woodland Garden

The plant varieties you select for your natural woodland garden will depend on where you live and the natural plant associations for your region. A plant association takes the trees native to a region and identifies the understory plants commonly associated with it. You can develop your own regional plant associations by visiting a local wood or arboretum and taking note of the plants you see.

Tips

The Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society offer regional field guides that can help you identify the plants you see in the wild. A quick search online may lead you to nurseries that sell wild plants native to your region.

Woodland plants are characterized generally as dry shade plants because, in addition to the limited light they receive under the tree canopy, they also have to compete for water with the tree's extensive root system. While many of the native woodland varieties are dry shade plants, not all dry shade plants are native woodland plants. Some of those non-natives, like hosta and brunnera, are widely available and attractive and worth considering for your garden.

You may be tempted, given that you are establishing a native garden, to simply gather your planting stock in the wild. While some wild plants, such as ferns, are fairly robust and can transplant successfully, others are so naturalized in their specific environment that they fail to thrive elsewhere. Be aware also that both national and state law protects some wild plants and flowers.

Close-Up Of Fern Leaves
credit: Pimjai Talubsri / EyeEm/EyeEm/GettyImages
Ferns are a staple of the woodland garden.

Some Recommended Woodland Garden Plants

Suitability of these plants will vary by region, but here is a list of native (and some non-native) plants commonly recommended for use in a natural woodland garden.

Woody Shrubs and Trees

  • Flowering dogwood
  • American hazelnut
  • Serviceberry
  • Witch hazel
  • Wild plum
  • Viburnum
  • Rhododendron
  • Mountain laurel
  • Holly
  • Hydrangea

Foliage and Flowers

  • Anemone
  • Bleeding heart
  • Columbine
  • Phlox
  • Black-eyed Susan
  • Bloodroot
  • Lungwort
  • Dutchman's breeches
  • Butterfly weed
  • Starry campion
  • Hosta
  • Trillium
  • Sedge
  • Violet
  • Ferns
  • Wild geranium
  • Heuchera
  • Goldenrod
  • Mayapple
  • Snowdrops
  • Jack-in-the-pulpit
  • Jacob's ladder
  • Meadow Rue
  • Astilbe

Bill Nelson

Bill Nelson

A former agency art director then freelance designer, illustrator and copywriter, Bill has written for the medical, technical, industrial, food and agricultural industries. With over 35 years experience in the area of home improvement. He has produced books on multiple subjects for Home Depot, The Handyman Club of America, Hometime, Black & Decker and Popular Mechanics.