The Best Plants For Woodland Gardening

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A woodland garden theme is an excellent solution for a yard already thickly planted with trees, or if you desire a low-maintenance, natural setting that will provide a shady, cool retreat from daily cares. Imagine enjoying your own little peaceful sanctuary filled with birds, delicate flowers and greenery, and trees that will provide not only natural beauty, but shade to your home in the summer, while allowing the light through in the winter.

What Is A Woodland Garden?

The defining characteristic of a woodland garden is an abundance of trees. The type of tree will depend on the area you live in, and the look you are striving to create. Thickly planted trees produce a lot of shade, so your woodland garden will contain shade-tolerant plants that can tolerate competition with thirsty tree roots. Many trees mean lots of fallen leaves in the autumn, but don’t bother to get out your rake. The natural style of a woodland garden means letting nature take its course, for the most part.

If your garden is small or urban, you may want to rake up at least some of the leaves. You can use a leaf shredder to reduce them to mulch, then return the leafy amendment to the garden, using it to provide ground cover that will prevent weeds from sprouting, and give a more natural feeling to your garden.

Woodland Layers

The natural form of woodlands is multi-layered, with plants occupying three vertical zones.

  • Canopy – The canopy is considered the tops of the tallest trees, and is the ceiling of your garden. A canopy of deciduous trees allows light through during the autumn and winter, while evergreens or very thickly planted deciduous trees will create shade year round.
  • Understory – The understory is the middle layer in the woods, consisting of shrubs and smaller trees. Understory plantings contribute form and structure, as well as flowers, berries or colorful fall foliage to your garden.
  • Ground – The ground layer is the perennials, ferns, groundcovers and bulbs of the woodland floor. These create the colorful punctuation in your garden, providing seasonal color and interest.

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Trees will form the bulk of your woodland garden, so pick those that thrive in your area. Aim for a mix of larger and smaller trees, both evergreen and deciduous.

  • Northern gardeners will do well with a mixture of evergreen spruce and fir, along with white birch.
  • Midwestern gardens can look to maple and beech trees to provide the canopy, as well as conifers.
  • Southwest gardens filled with maples, oaks and tall junipers will be shady and cool on hot summer days.

If you have a small yard, you may only be able to plant one tall tree. Larger yards can hold more, but in either case, you will want to mix in some smaller, flowering trees for beauty and contrast.

Some small, flowering trees to consider:

  • Crabapple
  • Redbud
  • Crape Myrtle
  • Dogwood
  • Magnolia
  • Hawthorn


Shrubs will form the understory of your woodland garden. Look for varieties that offer flowers, berries, colorful fall foliage, or some other feature of interest to bring year-round interest to your yard.

  • Viburnums are an excellent choice for a woodland theme, with varieties available for any part of the U.S.
  • Rhodendrons are bright, beautiful spring bloomers if you live in the southern half of the country.
  • Goat’s Beard is easy to grow, and the white flowers light up shady areas.
  • Camellia is a gorgeous plant in a protected, shady spot, with magnificent flowers covering the bush through the early spring.
  • Hydrangeas, with their big clusters of bright flowers, will thrive in your woodland garden.

A few other good shrubs are:

  • Huckleberry
  • Blueberry
  • Beauty Berry
  • Sweet Pepperbush
  • Mountain Laurel


The floor of your woodland garden should be filled with flowering perennials, along with ferns or moss if you live in an area cool enough to grow them. Look for perennials that are native to your area, or highly recommended by your local nursery.

  • Astilbe is a must for a woodland garden with moist soil. The ferny foliage and feathery plumes of flowers look delicate, but astilbe is easy to grow.
  • Bleeding Heart is old fashioned, and a staple of woodland gardens.
  • Coral Bells comes in an amazing array of foliage colors, with leaves ranging from bright orange to nearly black to lime green.
  • Foxglove, with its nodding, trumpet-shaped flowers, attracts hummingbirds and does well in a partially sunny spot.

Other woodland beauties include:

  • Hosta
  • Lily of the Valley
  • Trillium
  • Ferns
  • Columbine
  • Helleborus

Other Design Elements

  • Pathways in your woodland garden should be gently winding or curved, without angles or straight lines. You can create paths with leaves, sawdust or pine needles, or lay a brick path or stepping-stones if you want something more permanent.
  • Be sure to include benches in your garden so you can sit and enjoy the surroundings. Primitive garden furniture, such as distressed wood, wicker or log frames will suit the woodland mood.
  • A small fountain or water feature will add to the tranquil feel with the trickling sound of water. Look for a fountain that resembles a natural pile of stones or a tree stump.

On a hot summer’s day, your shady woodland garden will be your favorite place to sit and enjoy the beauty of nature. Knowing that this rustic, natural style greatly reduces your yard maintenance will increase your enjoyment even further.

Last Updated: December 27, 2011
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About Michelle Ullman Michelle Ullman has lived and gardened in Southern California since childhood. A freelance writer, she covers topics ranging from gardening to home improvement to health issues. She also has experience as a catalog copywriter and poet. Michelle has trained and worked as a respiratory therapist and surgical technologist, but prefers to spend her time gardening, and walking with her dog. Michelle holds a Bachelor's Degree from Redlands University in Business Management. 

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