Woodland Garden Design

Transform a shady, wooded area into a lush garden with these creative ideas.

Woodland Garden

Woodland Garden

Consider making a path through your woodland garden to a potting shed or other destination. Use natural materials on the path so weeds and grass can't sprout. Hydrangeas will grow nicely in large containers, adding bright color to the shade.

Photo by: Photo by Lynn Coulter

Photo by Lynn Coulter

Consider making a path through your woodland garden to a potting shed or other destination. Use natural materials on the path so weeds and grass can't sprout. Hydrangeas will grow nicely in large containers, adding bright color to the shade.

If you have a wooded area in your yard, you’re in luck: you already have the foundation for a beautiful new garden spot. Choose plants that will thrive in the dappled shade of your trees, and add a path to walk or a rustic bench for sitting, and you’ll have a shady woodland retreat from the heat of summer.

Here’s how to get started:

First, consider where you want a path or bench, and use a trimmer, edger or lawn mower to clear out any grass and low-growing vegetation. (Be careful when using these tools; you may hit roots, stumps, rocks and other debris, so wear appropriate safety glasses and other protective gear.)

Decide whether you’ll keep your path or bench area natural—which will require periodic clearing and clean up—or whether to bring in pebbles, bark chips or some other kind of mulch to keep weeds and grass from growing back. A boardwalk is a good choice if the ground stays marshy or wet. Stepping stones are another option, if you can find some that look natural, not out of place.

Shop for native plants that grow in shade. Don’t dig them from other places and try to transplant them; wildflowers are usually too fragile to survive, and some are endangered and protected by law. Besides, you don’t want to destroy the habitat that birds, insects and small animals may depend on for their survival. Look for nursery-grown natives instead.

(You can collect native plants from some national forests and grasslands, as long as you have a permit from a USDA Forest Service District office and follow their guidelines. You can find more information about that here.)

If you want, add some cultivated plants that tolerate shade to your woodland garden. They’ll make it more colorful and showy. Choose plants or bulbs that flower at different times of the year, and you’ll always have something in bloom.

One of the most beautiful features of a woodland garden is that the vegetation grows in layers. If your existing trees have low-hanging branches, you may want to prune some of them to raise the canopy and let in more light. Then add a layer by planting smaller, understory trees, like dogwoods, crabapples and redbuds. Add yet another layer with large shrubs. Avoid planting in lines or formal designs, and go for a mix of interesting textures, forms and colors.

When you plant shrubs and trees, remove any surrounding weeds or grass so you leave a cleared circle with about a 2-foot diameter around them. Then add a natural mulch to keep the unwanted vegetation, which will compete for water and nutrients, from coming back.

If the soil in your woodland area is already dark and rich in decomposed leaves and other organic materials, you’ll probably be fine. If it’s mostly sand or clay, add plenty of good compost and organic matter. Just be careful not to dig or cut into the roots of other trees and plants. If you can’t work in the amendments, leave them on top of the soil.

Once you’ve established your woodland garden, you’ll find that it doesn’t require a lot of maintenance, especially if you mulch your cleared areas. Your biggest challenges may be keeping fallen leaves from smothering your plants. Just rake them off when needed and leave them to decompose nearby.  

Water may be another problem, since trees consume a lot, so think ahead and go with natives or drought tolerant plants if this might be an issue. And again, mulch to help keep moisture in the soil.

A plant sampler for a shady woodland garden (read plant tags before you buy, to be sure you can provide the growing conditions they need)

Shrubs

Viburnum
Mountain laurel
Rhododendron
Ninebark
Shade-tolerant holly
Sweet pepperbush (summer sweet)
Beautyberry
Winterberry holly
Bottlebrush buckeye
Deciduous azalea
Oakleaf hydrangea
Mahonia
Witch hazel

20 Woodland Garden Plants

See All Photos

Fragrant Viburnum

Fragrant viburnum (Viburnum x carlcephalum), often called fragrant snowball, produces glossy, dark green foliage that turns reddish purple in fall. Fragrant white flowers open from pink buds in late spring on irreguarly-shaped cymes. Red to black fruits appear in the fall but aren't showy.

©2009, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Ferns

Who hasn't at one time or another felt at peace in a quiet woodland fern glade? Ferns come in a variety of shades, sizes and naturalize with ease.

Photo By: Photo by Felder Rushing

Rhododendron

Nothing says spring like a rhododendron in full bloom. You can find varieties with blossoms in nearly any shade, although pastels and reds are most common. This flowering beauty grows best in part to full shade. Avoid clay soil to prevent root rot. Hardy in Zones 4 to 8.

Photo By: Image courtesy of ProvenWinners.com

Grape Hyacinth

Grape hyacinth features spikes of tightly-clustered, tiny blue flowers in spring. It's perfect for containers and rock or woodland gardens.

©2008, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Daffodils

Cheerful daffodils grow easily in woodland conditions. One of the best features of the daffodil is that given the right conditions, the bulbs will naturalize, or multiply, over time.

Photo By: Image courtesy of Atlanta Botanical Garden

Ninebark

Ninebark is a classic, long-lived garden choice that’s been around for many years, but many gardeners are still unfamiliar with it. Offering four-season interest, this hardy plant sets white flowers in spring which turn into berries.

Photo By: Image courtesy of Monrovia.

Hosta

Hosta are one of the most-loved shade plants, growing happily even in full shade.

Anemone 'Wild Swan'

Look for delightful anemones to bloom in fall or spring, depending on the variety. The flowers come in various hues, from white to pink to blue. Plant the corms in fall (if it's a spring-bloomer) or spring (for late summer and fall bloomers). 

Photo By: Image courtesy of Felicia Feaster

Heuchera

Heucheras, also known as coral bells, are versatile plants that come in a wild variety of shades. They thrive in the shade and can tolerate both cool weather and drought. Try planting low-growing varieties in mass as a vibrant groundcover.

Photo By: Image courtesy of Proven Winners

Oakleaf Hydrangea

Oakleaf hydrangeas take their name from the shape of their leaves. These shade-tolerant shrubs have a mounding growth habit and top out at 6 to 10 feet high. Use them at the edge of woodlands or in naturalized areas.

Photo By: Image courtesy of Julie Taylor Fitzgerald, American Hydrangea Society

Columbine

This intricate bloom adds a grace note to shade gardens all over the country. Although the columbine comes in many hybrid forms and a wide palette of colors, we recommend the native columbine, Aquilegia canadensis (shown), because it’s trouble-free, a reliable reseeder and impossibly beautiful.

Photo By: Photo courtesy of North Creek Nurseries

Crocus

Though crocuses are typically known as the first blooms of spring, often popping up through snow in frigid areas, there is also an autumn crocus that welcomes fall in late summer. Tuck both in your woodland garden for a treat.

©2008, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Native Woodland Phlox

Woodland phlox is a spreading, native wildflower that often appears along streams and in forests and woody areas.

Photo By: Image provided by Felder Rushing

Beautyberry

Beautyberry, as the name suggests, is known for its bright berries that appear in the fall. 'Profusion' (pictured) has an upright, slender branches providing interest from bronze-green leaves spring. Summer brings pink flowers followed by long-lasting violet berries in the fall.

©2011, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Astilbe

Astilbe is found in shade and woodland gardens. They are clump-forming perennials that feature graceful, fernlike mounds with erect to arching, plumelike flower panicles rising above foliage on slender, upright stems.

©2008, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Toad Lily

Tuck toad lily into part to full shade, but reserve it for places you can view the blooms up close. Flowers are small enough that the plants can be lost in a large border. It's hardy in zones 4 - 8.

Photo By: Image courtesy of Walters Gardens, Inc.

Bleeding Heart

Bleeding heart is native to woodlands and a shade-loving perennial. The name bleeding heart describes the unique flowers, which resemble tiny pink or white hearts with drops of blood at the bottom.

©2008, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Violets

Violets love rich soil and provide vibrant color. Long-spurred violet (Viola rostrata), pictured a native violet, is easily identified by the elongated spurs behind its nodding flower heads.

Photo By: Image courtesy of East Tennessee Wildflowers

Lungwort

Lungwort is a semi-evergreen perennial with ovate leaves that is typically hardy in zones 4 - 8. It produces tiny flowers in mid-spring.

©2011, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Winter Aconite

Winter aconite produces bright yellow flowers in late winter and early spring.

©2008, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Foliage and Flowers

Hostas
Ferns 
Heuchera
Astilbe
Anemone
Columbine
Bleeding Heart 
Lungwort
Toad Lily
Violet
Woodland phlox
Lenten rose

Bulbs

Daffodils (Narcissus)
Grape hyacinth
Anemone
Snowdrops
Crocus
Siberian squill
Spanish bluebell
Winter aconite

Keep Reading