The Principles of the Woodland Garden Style


A woodland garden contains natural looking groups of trees, often underplanted with other plants, shrubs and bulbs. Given plenty of space, it is possible to create a new woodland garden; however, patience is essential, as real woodland can take years to establish. A minimum area of about 1,000sq m (1/4 acre) is needed, although on a smaller scale a few groups of maples (Acer), birches (Betula), or other trees with light foliage will provide adequate shade in which to grow a succession of woodland plants, such as snowdrops (Galanthus), wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa) and Trillium.

Fast-growing species such as willows (Salix) and alders (Alnus) will create a tree canopy fairly quickly, but may soon form shade that is too heavy for many woodland plants to flourish. Slower-growing species such as Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) oak (Quercus), silver birch (Betula pendula) and wild cherry (Prunus avium) will provide more satisfactory top cover. These species also create a canopy that casts dappled shade, and allows a wide variety of plants to grow beneath them. These species are usually chosen in preference to conifers and other trees that have a dense canopy.

When establishing a woodland, it is best to keep the area around the trees clear for the first year or two so that they have chance to develop with little or no competition from other plants. If the area is already partially wooded, it may be necessary to clear areas for glades and underplanting by thinning the tree canopy or removing unwanted scrub and saplings.

Growing other plants will allow you to create year-long interest and provide a display at different height levels. Interesting plants include hardy cyclamen and bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scriptus), which can be planted to form drifts of colour, or ornamental members of the nettle family (e.g. Lamium maculatum, which are very useful as ground cover.

If planting near a woodland stream, moisture-loving plants such as primroses (Primula vulgaris) and ferns should be chosen. Conversely, foxgloves (Digitalis) will tolerate the dry, shady conditions found beneath tree canopies. There are a wide range of shrubs such as Japanese maples (Acer) and rhododendrons that grow well in shady woodland areas. These shrubs help to create an attractive, well-balanced planting scheme, as they form a transition between the low bulbs and perennials and the tall trees.

Access to the garden is usually best provided by informal paths, which can be made from loose materials such as pine needles, bark chippings or local gravel. For an informal garden, paths should look natural and meandering, as straight, formal paths look quite unnatural in a woodland garden.