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Gardening 101: How to Start a Woodland Garden

Do you have a covered yard but are not sure how to spruce it up? Improving your yard space is an easy home makeover that can also increase the worth of your property by enhancing its appeal.

Take a stroll through a woodland garden and you will feel as if you have stepped into a fairy tale. The enchanting outdoor oasis is easy on the eyes while also being a relatively low-maintenance landscaping option for any shaded space.

There are pros and cons to starting a woodland garden, and you will need certain tools and materials to help it grow. Before you start to spruce up your shaded backyard paradise, take a gander through this guide to learn how to start and maintain your own woodland garden.

What is a woodland garden?

Woodland gardens, also known as shade gardens, are a special type of botanical garden that is grown outdoors in a shaded spot of the yard or other public or private area. Woodland gardens are most commonly found in the forest and other densely wooded areas. Woodland gardens can be naturalized areas or outdoor space with an abundance of mature trees that provide a dark and cool spot for woodland foliage.

Woodland gardens are packed with a variety of textures, colors and heights. The best type of plants for woodland gardens are those that can thrive in dark and covered environments. These plants include foliage and flowers, bulbs and shrubs. While woodland gardens do best in cool, damp, shaded climates, they can be found across the warmer southeastern parts of the country (although not necessarily in the desert regions).

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Woodland gardens are often associated with fairytales and give off a mystical and enchanting vibe. Garden gnomes and fairies are popular types of decor featured in woodland gardens. These types of gardens also provide a peaceful and serene place to read a book, clear your head or take a quiet stroll.

Woodland gardens are not to be confused with forest gardens. While both types of gardens are low-maintenance and are heavily populated with plants, a forest garden features fruit and nut trees as well as herbs and vegetables. Typically, these types of plants are not found in woodland gardens.

Environment Needed for a Woodland Garden

Woodland gardens need a cool and shady environment in order to grow to their full potential. Each plant in your woodland garden will need some level of shade, though the exact amount needed will differ between plants. In general, woodland gardens do best in a cool and wet climate like the Pacific Northwest but can be planted just about anywhere with shady conditions.

For example, Hosta plants need full shade in order for their big green leaves to flourish. A native plant like the Toad Lily, which has spotted pink leaves, can be grown in partial shade (four to five hours of sun) in the middle and northern parts of the country. Heuchera perennials are colorful plants that do well in cold weather and dry climates. These plants are also known as coral bells and come in a pretty mix of purple, red, orange and green.

Rhododendron flowers are another great addition to a woodland garden, but their pretty pink blooms will not last for long if grown in clay soil. These plants are best grown everywhere in the U.S. except the southeast and along the California coast, where it is too hot and sunny. Ferns and daffodils are also a great option for a woodland garden.

Native woodland garden plants do not need special soil to thrive. These plants grow best in the soil that already exists in the spot where you plan to grow your garden. However, they do prefer soil that is slightly acidic.

Do not add fertilizer or organic materials to the soil, either. Too many nutrients can prevent woodland garden plants from growing big and strong. The only time you should add compost or other organic materials to the soil is if you have clay or sand, as this type of dirt needs a helping hand.

Tools and Materials Needed to Start a Woodland Garden

Woodland gardens are fairly easy to start. The most important aspect of a woodland garden is the amount of shade the area receives. Do you have mature trees and a significant amount of coverage in your yard? A medium to thick layer of canopy is a must. This can also be in the form of constant shade from a shed or the side of your house.

Unlike other vegetable gardens or herb gardens, there is no need to till, rake, turn or add fertilizer and compost to the soil. Most shaded spots are already made up of dirt, so you do not need to prep the soil before planting. In fact, native woodland plants do best in garden soil that has remained largely untouched.

That said, if you are working with clay or sand for soil, then you will need to help it along. Adding organic matter to clay and sand soil improves the overall quality. About six inches of compost should do the trick. This will help boost the amount of water the soil can hold. This will lay a good foundation for your plants to feed off.

Depending on the part of the country in which you live, the type of native plants you can use will vary. It is also to best to fill your woodland garden with starter plants rather than growing shrubs, flowers and other greenery from seeds.

Also, will you have a gravel rock or mulch pathway to walk on? You may need a shovel, rake and wheelbarrow or garden cart to clear a path and smooth out rock or gravel for the pathway. How about a fence to keep predators out? If so, then you will need to buy fencing materials or purchase extra plants to create a barricade.

How about a seating area? Consider the types of outdoor furniture you may want to use to fill the space, such as a bench or a table and chairs. You may be able to repurpose items to help save on additional costs. Take these ideas into consideration when planning your woodland garden.

Pros and Cons of Starting a Woodland Garden

If you are looking for a garden that does not interfere with your lifestyle, then a woodland garden could be the one for you. These shaded gardens do not require much daily upkeep, so they are an ideal option if you are frequently on the go or have work and family obligations that take up the bulk of your time.

However, that is not the only thing to know before starting a woodland garden. Here are the advantages and disadvantages you should know about before creating your woodland garden.


  • Woodland gardens offer a shaded spot to meditate, clear your mind and de-stress. This may boost your overall mental health.
  • It is an ideal gardening option for those who live in the northwest, northeastern or southeastern United States.
  • Woodland gardens provide an attractive way to landscape your yard.
  • Because of their ample shade and coolness, woodland gardens help avid gardeners avoid dehydration and sunburns.
  • Woodland gardens require less upfront work than traditional gardens. No tilling or mulching is necessary.
  • Woodland gardens are low-maintenance and do not require frequent watering.
  • By filling your landscape with a woodland garden, you can reduce your yard maintenance and lawncare needs.


  • Woodland gardens cannot be grown in full sun.
  • It is not a good landscaping choice for those who live in the desert, cities or areas with clay and sand.

As you can see, woodland gardens offer many more advantages than disadvantages. Planting a woodland garden is a great way to stay active in the garden without feeling overheated by the sun. You will still feel a sense of accomplishment that is both beneficial to your overall well-being and to the environment.

How to Start and Maintain Your Woodland Garden

Do you have a shaded spot in your yard that you would like to landscape? A woodland garden is a perfect choice for your outdoor green space. When designing your own woodland garden, the first item to think about is the amount of shade.

The area in which you start your woodland garden should have multiple large trees with big, leafy green branches that provide coverage from the sun. If you don’t have mature trees in your yard, then you can use another shaded area, such as the side of your house, to grow your woodland garden. A few pops of light here and there will not harm your shade-tolerant plants.

Once you have identified an area of your yard that’s out of the sun, you can begin to map out the types of plants you want to grow and the space in which they will be planted. One of the most identifiable attributes of a woodland garden is its layers. As you plan your garden, use a mix of plants that offer different heights and textures.

It is best to put all the plants in the ground at the same time so that they can grow together and thrive off of one another. For this reason, native plants that grow in the shade should be placed close together. Visit your local nursery for a selection of native plants.

When you plant shrubs like witch hazel, ninebark, shade-tolerant holly, oakleaf hydrangeas and trees, clear the ground for any weeds or other unwanted plants so that there is a two-foot radius around the plant. Trees tend to consume much of the water in the garden. Once all your plants are in the ground, add mulch to help the soil maintain its moisture.

As mentioned, woodland gardens are easy to maintain. Prune your plants on an as-needed basis and rake away dead leaves before they start to pile up. Too many dead leaves can suffocate your woodland garden.

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