Woodland Planting


A woodland garden creates a sense of privacy and mystery, whether it exists on acres of forest land or the narrow border of trees between two suburban houses. Learning about the light, soil conditions and native botanical species is the first step in determining how to plant your own woodland garden.

Determining Woodland Type

Woods composed predominantly of evergreen trees differ greatly from those containing primarily deciduous trees. Evergreen tree forests of pines, firs, spruces and hemlocks tend to be much shadier than woodlands made up of oaks, birch and other deciduous trees. In addition, evergreen trees shed their needles on the forest floor, making the woodland soil acidic. A soil test to determine the pH level of the soil, along with a careful survey of the light conditions at different times of day and year, will help determine the best plants to add to the woodland garden.

Planting Principles

Unlike regular garden beds, leaf-enriched forest floors rarely require tilling or fertilizing. Decades or centuries of leaf and needle fall result in fertile, good-textured soil. To establish nursery plants, simply dig a hole to the depth at which the plant was growing in its pot. Garden writer Barbara Damrosch suggests adding a handful of bone meal to the hole to encourage root growth. Set the plant in the hole, backfill it with woodland soil and water it thoroughly. For mulch, simply brush back the leaf mulch or pine needles that were lying nearby. Keep in mind that spruce and walnut trees produce toxins that prohibit the growth of most other plants, so avoid planting shrubs or flowers near their root systems.

Basic Landscape Concepts

For a completely natural look, simply establish perennials, trees and shrubs haphazardly though the woodland garden. If you plan to establish a series of grouped plantings, remove saplings and underbrush where you plant to establish woodland garden beds. Mark out a path with twine or rope and lay down a few layers of newspapers to choke out weeds. Cover the newspaper with several inches of wood chips or pine needles. The path, although not crucial to woodland planting, does guide visitors to special parts of the garden.

Using Nature's Bounty

Use natural features to best advantage. Set tall, arching ferns or grasses to spill over rocks or fallen trees or set a striking dwarf shrub in front of a slightly taller boulder. If ferns, wildflower groups and shrubs already exist in your woodland, clear away competing underbrush to draw the eye to these special features. Encourage moss on the rocks and trees and along pathways to tie the woodland setting together.


Among the flowers suitable to woodland planting are violets, trout lily, wood lily, Oconee bells, cardinal flower and snakeroot. Wild ginger, moss and Solomon's seal make handsome ground covers. Good shrub choices for dappled or full shade include rhododendrons, laurels and euonymus.


Add food-bearing trees, shrubs and perennials to your woodland garden. Grow chestnut, walnut. almond and hazelnut trees at the edge of the existing forest, if space permits. For unusual fruit that tolerates light shade, establish Juneberries, gooseberries, currants and black raspberries at the woodland entrance or in small clearings. Grow hardy kiwi up the trunks of tall trees; plant them on the south-facing portion of the tree. Thimbleberry shrubs and partridgeberry vines tolerate deep shade. Linden tree leaves grow in deep shade and provide salad-worthy leaves. Linden trees grow too tall to harvest the leaves unless you cut them down every few years and encourage shrub-like growth, a practice known as "coppicing." Little-known perennial vegetables tolerant of shade include the "fiddleheads" of the ostrich fern, stinging nettle leaves and tops, sorrel and wild leeks. Several woodland flowers are edible, including violets and tiger lily bulbs. Forest-dwelling herbs include mint, sweet Cicely, woodruff and watercress.

Keywords: woodland planting, forest gardens, shade tolerant plants

About this Author

Melissa Jordan-Reilly has been a writer for 20 years, both as a newspaper reporter and as an editor of nonprofit newsletters. Among the publications in which she has published are, "The Winsted Journal," "Taconic" and "Compass Magazine." A graduate of the University of Connecticut, Jordan-Reilly also pursues sustainable agriculture techniques and tends a market garden at her Northwestern Connecticut home.