What is a Woodland Garden?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 06 November 2019
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A woodland garden is a garden which features trees and shade-loving plants to create a woodland environment. Woodland gardens can be arranged in a variety of ways, with all sorts of plants, and they can greatly increase the aesthetic appeal of a garden, whether an entire garden is designed as a woodland, or a small area is used to create a niche of woodland and forest plants. This type of garden is especially suitable for a garden or lot with established trees. Storybook gardens often feature a woodland element, since many people associate woodlands with fairy tales and enchantment.

Many people make a woodland garden because they grow frustrated by established trees in their gardens. These trees can cast a great deal of shade, making it difficult for plants to grow, and they generate leaf litter and fallen limbs. Rather than viewing these things as problems which must be corrected, a woodland garden welcomes them, working with the trees to create a woodland environment which can vary in size from a huge garden to a small corner of a lot.


The plants used in a woodland garden are species which enjoy the shade, and can cope with the water competition from the trees. Native plants are often a good choice for a woodland garden, because they are adapted for the conditions. Plants like hostas, rhododendrons, lungwort, trilliums, and hellebore can also be good choices. In all cases, the plants are shade-loving, but this doesn't mean that they will thrive in shade without some care.

The understory plants in a woodland garden usually have growth periods in the late winter and early spring, before the trees have fully leafed out. During the growth period, the plants will increase in size, and start flowering. Once the trees leaf out, the plants will be healthy and established, and better able to weather the shady conditions. Trimming the lower limbs of the trees can also increase the health of the understory in a woodland garden, by allowing more light and air to circulate.

Gardeners usually like to create paths in a woodland garden so that people can traverse the area and enjoy the plants. An irrigation system is also advised to suit the needs of the plants and trees. Irrigation can be concealed or facilitated with the use of a small fountain or stream which feeds the garden while also pleasing the eye. As the trees and understory plants shed material and die off, much of this material can be left on the ground as mulch to keep the soil moist, cool, and nutrient-rich.

As with any garden, establishing a woodland garden requires some thought and planning. Gardeners should think about existing trees and features before they start digging, ideally mapping them out on paper and thinking about which kinds of plants and shrubs they want in the understory. With a woodland garden, less is more, and gardeners may want to consider adding features like rocks, decaying stumps, and other materials to make the space more visually interesting.


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