Many of us like to incorporate calming themes into our gardens. Some of us associate the sea with calmness, for example, and consequently choose to replicate this in a seaside-themed garden. For myself, however, it’s woodlands that take me back to the careless state of oblivion. If like me, you find your own peace of mind surrounded by nature’s wondrous forests, then let me show you how to replicate a woodland garden in your very own backyard.
I love the smell of the humus-rich soil, damp mornings and the way sunlight filters through overhanging trees. Escapism is a wonderful luxury which many of us long to seek out in our crazy day-to-day worlds.
Today I want to show how easy it is to create a serene shaded spot for yourselves. We’ll be looking at some fine foliage plants, learning how and why to make meandering walkways and discovering which plants are most suited for creating that perfect contemplation corner of the garden.
So, pull on your wellies, grab your tools and let’s get started!
The Perfect Site for Planting a Woodland Garden
Shady areas in a garden often get left till last. People seem to have more confidence when planting up sunny sites, but less so in shade. Fortunately, there’s a huge selection of shade-loving plants, making these “forgotten” sites the perfect places to revamp into a woodland garden.
Even in open sites, it is possible to create woodland shade by clever planning and planting. Our aim is to select naturalizing trees that will become the top canopy of a woodland garden. As a result, we’ll have a semi-shaded canvas for the rest of our planting choices. Choose species that have an open, spreading form and those that rustle in the wind. I find the sound itself is quite calming.
Woodlands are naturally on a slope, generally with a river or stream at the bottom. Even without the water element, you can still landscape a woodland garden by creating areas of higher and lower ground with both sub and topsoil.
Use large stones and rocks as another good way to naturalize your woodland plot. You can integrate these into your design beside walkways, or set them into soil on higher ground, resulting in a rockery effect.
Even if you have a relatively small plot to work with, you can enhance the size of your plot by clever pathway planning. Your aim is to create meandering walkways that curve, taking you on a journey around your garden. Try to weave in and out of trees and focal points and always keep your pathways at a lower level than your planting ground.
When planted, the raised banks either side of your pathway will give the illusion of a sheltered, woodland walk. The undulating earth will only allow the visitor to see part of the garden at any given time. This is a classic design principle that draws the eye along the pathway to see what’s there. Intrigue is a wonderful tool to play with when designing gardens.
The Best Soil for a Woodland Garden
Natural woodlands have rich, acidic soil with loads of rotted leaf mold, rotted wood, twigs, leaves, and small microorganisms. All of this natural organic matter results in a highly productive and nutritious soil that’s just perfect for planting in.
To emulate this soil, you need to add a lot of organic matter to your own loam. This can be in the form of well-rotted farmyard manure, well-rotted garden compost, or leaf mold. Just mix it all together well for ideal woodland garden planting soil.
Making a Plan
Garden planning is really important, as it allows you to get a feel of your space and an idea of what will fit into it. Try to make a rough to-scale drawing of your plot and play around with where your main structures—such as trees and focal points—will be placed.
Once you have this, you can move onto where your walkways will go. Remember, these should take you on a journey around your garden. Let them weave and meander around your trees and proposed focal points.
At this stage, I like to transfer my plan onto my plot, using pegs and string or marking paint. Feel free to make changes until you’re satisfied with your woodland garden’s basic structure. For this process you will need to have a good imagination of what you want your garden to eventually look like.
Once satisfied with your marking out, you’re ready to determine where you’d like your raised and lowered earthy areas. Keep it simple with substantial, naturally flowing mounds and dips rather than lots of little humps.
Here you’ll need tools and some muscle power to move soil around until you’re happy with the end result. Remember to pack the soil down well once satisfied with the levels because, you don’t want it washing away.
Choosing your Plants for a Woodland Garden
Suitable Woodland Trees and Large Shrubs
If the plot for your woodland garden already has a few tall, overhanging trees, you can always work these into your garden plan. We’re aiming for a forest floor with both dappled shade and shafts of sunlight. It’s better to use overhanging trees that lose their leaves in the wintertime, rather than evergreen conifers.
Below, I’ve listed a selection of suitable deciduous trees for creating the top canopy of a woodland inspired garden. These are deciduous trees, meaning they lose their leaves over the winter months, just like in a natural woodland. I shall talk about the benefits of this a little later on.
Juneberry Tree (Amelanchier lamarkii)
Here we have a deciduous tree that reaches up to 12 meters in maturity. Its added seasonal interest lies in its bronze-tinged young leaves, which turn lovely shades of orange and red in autumn. In springtime, it produces short racemes of showy white flowers, as its leaves unfurl into life. Small ruddy-purple black berries appear in summer, which feed the birds and surrounding wildlife.
Silver Birch (Betula pendula)
These elegant trees have a familiar, slender, pendulous form, typically reaching between 15 and 25 meters tall. Their bark matures to a lovely silver color, with slender twigs and serrated roughly triangular leaves. In midsummer, this birch is laden with catkins in anticipation for pollination. Its leaves turn a rich yellow ochre shade before they fall in autumn. A lovely tree whose color improves with age.
“Snow Queen” Birch (Betula utilis jacquemontii)
This birch variety has pure white bark, rather than silver. Its ample leaves are serrated and roughly triangular in shape, produced on thin, white twigs. Mustard-colored catkins are borne en masse in mid-summer, contrasting well against the snow-white bark. It’s a smaller tree than the silver variety, with a height of around 7 meters and spread of up to 3.5 meters. A stunning specimen tree with year-round interest.
Copper Beech (Fagus sylvatica “Purpurea”)
Copper beech—also known as the purple beech—is a common beech tree cultivar. It has deep purple, highly attractive foliage and is often grown as an ornamental specimen. In maturity, you can expect a height of up to a vast 40 metres, making this a suitable choice for larger gardens only. Its bark is smooth and grey in hue, with zig-zagging branches and deep purple, oval leaves. Should you have the space, this is a magnificent addition.
Field Maple (Acer campestre)
This field maple tree has cork-like bark and reaches a mature height of somewhere between 15 and 25 meters. It’s a widely grown, deciduous ornamental tree, commonly found in parks and large gardens. The leaves are typically palmate, with five rounded lobes and a smooth leaf margin. There are a great number of cultivars to choose from, and “Carnival” is an especially attractive variety. It has lovely young, pink outer leaf variegation that later matures to cream.
Oak (Quercus robur)
Where would we be without our beautiful Oak trees?
The sturdy oak is a firm favorite and the national tree of many countries. It has a magnificent spreading crown of rugged branches, just perfect for a mature woodland garden. With a lifespan of two generations and valuable wildlife inhabitants, the oak is a sure woodland garden winner.
Commonly called the “sweetgum” tree, the liquidamber is a large, decorative and deciduous tree that easily reaches heights of up to 40 meters. This tree needs lots of space, but brings unbeatable leaf color to the garden. Leaves are palmate in shape and range from green to orange, yellow, and red. A great addition to any garden.
Super Shrubs and Smaller Trees for an Ornamental Woodland Garden
Now let’s talk shrubs.
These will be our second stage of woodland garden planting. Remember that you’ll need to choose species that cope with semi-shade and a naturally acidic soil.
The Rhododendron genus contains a vast selection of both evergreen and deciduous species available in all shapes and sizes. There are many frost-hardy species, some of whose flowers are fragrant, but all will fit comfortably into a themed woodland garden. I’ve listed a few of my favorite species below, but I recommend taking a look for yourself to choose your own.
A large, dome-shaped evergreen shrub that comfortably reaches 5–6 meters in height, with a dense, bushy habit. In springtime, it produces large cone-shaped trusses of deep rose-pink flowers. These blooms transform this hardy evergreen to a free-flowering woodland shrub, reaching up to 6-8 meters wide.
This is a much smaller variety with a compact, dense, spreading form and a mature height of around 1.5 meters. Its heavenly fragrant, scarlet flowers are borne through late spring and early summer, creating a woodland showcase against deep green foliage.
Still under the Rhododendron genus, the “Palestrina” is a semi-evergreen azalea that prefers wonderfully rich and acidic woodland soil. Its main inclusion into my woodland garden rests on its mass of pure white flowers, produced freely through April and May. These blooms cover its height and spread of around 1.5 meters and attract butterflies and bees from all around.
This well-known plant genus contains over 70 species of flowering plants, mostly shrubs from 1–3 meters in height. Many species produce white flowers, however, cultivars of the “H. macrophylla” and “H. serrata” species can bear blue, red, pink or purple blooms. Interestingly, the colors depend on your planting soil’s pH value. My personal woodland favorites are listed below.
A lovely cultivar and deciduous shrub that reaches up to 5 m tall with a spread of 2.5 meters. Its leaves are toothed and broadly oval, and in late summer are topped with large cone-shaped panicles of creamy white flowers, which are light green in infancy. One of the best ornamental Hydrangeas out there.
Commonly known as the “oak-leafed hydrangea” with reference to its heavily lobed, oak-type leaves. It’s native to the southeastern United States and familiar in woodland habitats. It’s a deciduous shrub that grows to a mature height of up to 3.6 meters. It has an open crown and leaves, which turn rich shades of red, bronze and purple in autumn.
Its creamy white flowers are showy and borne in long, erect panicles in springtime. These gradually age to pink, then a dry, papery brown. A highly suitable woodland garden shrub for your ornamental woodland garden.
This sizeable genus of mainly evergreen shrubs is becoming increasingly popular as garden and landscaping specimens. They’re loved for their attractive flowers, fruits and fragrance and added autumnal leaf color. I’ve selected only two species, so browse through the genus for your own favorites as there are nearly 180 species.
This is a 1.5 m tall, broad evergreen shrub with large, glossy, oval deeply-veined leaves. In late spring, round clusters of tiny white flowers are borne above the foliage, followed in late summer by blue, oval fruits. The “davidii” can take a while to become established, but is still a favorite woodland friendly shrub.
Also known as the “Japanese Snowball” plant and native to China, and the Far East. Another popular shade-loving shrub with a mature height of up to 3 meters tall. It has a deciduous growth form that loses its leaves in winter.
Many cultivars are produced for their large “snowball” flower heads, such types include “Rotundifolium “and “Grandiflorum”. With their plentiful flowers and bright serrated leaves, this “plicatum” cultivar is another great addition to your woodland garden planting plan.
Japanese Maple (Acer)
Acers, or Japanese maple trees, have a wonderful layered form. This makes them ideal plants for the lower canopy of a woodland garden. Layered plants and trees bring dappled shade to a garden, allowing shafts of sunlight to filter through their branches.
Below I’ve listed a few of the most suitable shade-tolerant cultivars, which provide interesting leaf structure and good autumnal color.
An upright and bushy tree, also known as the “Lion’s Mane Maple” thanks to its wonderful burnished golden autumn foliage. The leaves are close-set and light green in the springtime, but transform into this beautiful golden mane as the year progresses. In maturity, this Acer tree will reach a height of up to 2.5 meters.
Acer palmatum “Linearilobum”
A truly elegant example, with slender green foliage, an upright spreading crown and bright green, bamboo-like foliage. In growth form, the “Linearilobum” is a medium and quite compact tree. It’ll reach a height of around 4 meters, with pretty, tiny red flowers produced in spring. Throughout the summer, these flowers turn into decorative red samaras, whereupon autumn brings contrast with bright yellow leaf color.
Acer palmatum “Kagiri-nishiki”
This is a variegated Japanese maple with deeply lobed, mid-green leaves that have pink and white leaf margins. It’s a fantastic tree for semi-shade, and will reach a mature height of 4 meters. In the autumn, leaves turn a rich crimson-gold color before they fall to the ground.
I love the way these Cotoneaster plants are so versatile, providing great coverage for banks and hillsides with a low and wide-spreading form. These are hardy evergreen plants that bear tiny flowers in summertime, followed by bright colored berries later in the year. A great wildlife attraction for your woodland garden, with interest throughout the seasons.
Cornus kousa “Chinensis”
This Cornus is a Chinese Dogwood tree and native to Eastern Asia. I’ve included it for its large, shrubby form and fantastic cream flower heads, which appear throughout the summer months. Each flower head consists of four ovate creamy white bracts, reaching up to 6 cm in length.
The blooms literally cover this deciduous shrub until autumn, when the leaves turn shades of orange and red. These are happy in partial shade and will bring an Eastern theme to your woodland garden.
The plants listed above are only a few of the larger shrubs and trees suitable for planting in a woodland garden. To make your own list, keep in mind the soil will be on the acidic side, and they need to be part-shade tolerant. Below I have named some smaller shrubs for you to have a look at too.
Spiraea: look at cultivars such as “Vanhouttei”, “Golden Carpet”, and the fabulous “Snowmound”
Philadelphus: great fragrant cultivars include “Innocence”, “Belle Etoile”, and “Virginal”
Physocarpus opufolius: otherwise known as Nine Bark—seek out “Diabalo” and “Darts Gold” for alternative foliage colors
Saracocca: A lovely scented evergreen bush also known as “Christmas Box”. Look at the shade-loving cultivars “confusa”, “hookeriana” and “humilis”.
Herbaceous plants for a Woodland Garden
Now that we have the top canopy and mid-range planting levels taken care of, let’s move onto the herbaceous and ground cover plants. There is a brilliant range of shade-tolerant, naturalizing plants we can use. Woodland plants and flowers have an understated elegance, bringing lush foliage, diverse leaf structures and delicate form to our garden.
Below, I’ve listed a small collection of my favorite woodland plants, with a more comprehensive range for you to browse through underneath.
10 of the Best Herbaceous Woodland Plants
Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum multiflorum)
Most recognised as Solomon’s Seal, this herbaceous beauty grows from a rhizomatous root system, with a gracious, arching form. It will reach around 90 cm tall with arching stems of alternate leaves and small, pendant, tubular white flowers that dangle from the undersides of the stems. A must-have woodland garden plant.
Lily of the Valley (Convalaria majalis)
Also commonly known as “Lily of the Valley”, this is another woodland garden favorite. Just note that it’s highly poisonous if ingested. It also has a spreading, rhizomatous root system, which grows new stems with leafy shoots in springtime, each reaching up to 30 cm tall.
Slender flowering stems have the prettiest bell-shaped, sweetly scented flowers throughout late spring. These are followed by small, orange-red berries later in the year.
Shade-loving Hostas provide a unique form and lush, colorful foliage to a woodland garden. In fact, they make a perfect companion to all the plants listed here. They’re pretty, hardy plants, offering a large range of sizes, leaf colors, patterns, and shapes.
Take a further look at the best woodland cultivars such as:
“Hosta undulata “Thomas Hogg”
A vigorous grower with heart-shaped, mid-green leaves edged with an irregular bright ivory margin. Height and spread: 36 inches x 18 inches
Hosta “Francis Williams”
A large cultivar with beautiful big, heart-shaped, blue-green leaves edged with gold. Height and spread: 26 inches x 63 inches wide
Another desirable cultivar with lush blue-green foliage and oval-shaped leaves. Smaller than our other favorites, but size isn’t everything. Height and Spread: 20 inches x 8 inches
Hosta “Sum and Substance”
This cultivar has slightly cupped, bright golden-green oval leaves, is utterly lush, and sure to attract admiring glances. Its spreading form and bold color makes this a valuable perennial for your woodland garden.
Height and spread: 30 inches x 47 inches.
White Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spectabilis “Alba”)
Also known as the” Bleeding Heart” plant, this is a white version with the same arching form, attractive divided leaves and arching sprays of heavily pendent heart-shaped flowers. A stunning woodland plant that loves its rich, nutritious soil and reaches up to 1 meter in height and spread.
Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)
These flowers are regularly found growing in damp, moist soils and feature tall flower spikes of tubular-shaped, pendant blooms throughout the early summer months. The flowers are typically purple in color, but can be pink, rose, yellow or white, with heavily spotted inside surfaces. Digitalis often reach a towering 1.5 – 2 meters tall and look best planted in groups.
This species is a typical semi-evergreen perennial plant, native to woodlands of north east Turkey and the Caucasus. An ideal selection for weed-free ground cover with glossy dark green leaves and heads of four-petaled white flowers through late springtime. A pretty, undiscovered gem with a height and spread of 40 cm x 45 cm.
This plant family is grown for their fluffy plume-like panicles of delicate flower heads. They tolerate semi-shade conditions and prefer slightly damp, humus-rich soils. Most cultivars range between 15 cm to 130 cm, depending on the species and variety.
I personally prefer the white cultivars, especially in slightly darkened, shaded sites. Take a look at Astilbe chinensis “Vision in White” and Astilbe “Brautschleier” (x arendsii). Both flower around May and look fabulous when planted in a drift.
No woodland garden would be complete without the intricate foliage and gentle unfurling of a fern’s fronds. I’m a huge fan of their growth structure and understated beauty, aptly fitting for woodland planting. There are loads of cultivars to choose from, however I’ve settled on the largest and most impressive varieties.
For example, Matteuccia struthopteris is commonly called the “Shuttlecock Fern” for its unique shape. Osmunda regalis is a splendid giant fern, often referred to as the “Royal Fern”, easily growing to 2 meters in height.
My final choice is the vast and impressive Dicksonia antartica, also called the Australian Tree Fern. These are the most dramatic, gnarled trunk ferns and totally breathtaking, with crowns of up to 8 feet across.
Bugbane (Actaea matsumurae “White Pearl”)
For a cool and shady place, this white Bugbane plant is a real star. It has a clump-forming habit with elegant, branching stems. Its green buds open in autumn to showcase long snowy-white, flower racemes. These flower heads can each reach up to 13 cm long, transforming into a lovely lime-green seed head later in the season. Its leaves are long and elegant, easily reaching 1 meter tall. Plant these in damp soil in a partially shaded site.
Dog’s Tooth Violets (Erythroniums)
Erythroniums are also known as “Dog’s tooth violets”, which grow easily and slowly multiply. Being typical woodland plants, these thrive in a semi-shaded position and perform best in moist, humus-rich soil. They can take up to five years to come to flowering size, however, it really is worth the wait.
Their delightful star-shaped flowers bloom from February to April, with curled back petals and conical shape. Have a look at the white flowering Erythronium denis-canis “Snowflake”, the lemon-yellow Erythronium “Pagoda” and the renowned cultivar “White Beauty”. These look amazing among your other woodland plants.
In time, your woodland plantings will create a mat of foliage on the forest floor, while your walkways weave around corners and explore all that nature has to offer. Clever planning and planting enable us to achieve the garden in our imagination. A woodland garden is a peaceful retreat to take time out for ourselves, away from crowds, expectations and to just enjoy the moment.