Peter Gallagher, Ph.D., is Professor of Plant & Environmental Science at Louisiana Tech University.

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Creating the Woodland Garden
by Peter Gallagher       #Shade   #Trees

When making decisions about any specific landscape situation, we must consider issues like design, style, plant preferences, sun or shade tolerance, topography, soil type and moisture conditions. In some cases, the situation may suggest a number of possible alternatives. But occasionally, the site lends itself to an ideal solution. Such is the case with a tree-covered area that either sits on the property line or surrounds the home. By implementing a natural design that accentuates the existing landscape, this forest-like setting can be transformed into a woodland garden.

Depending upon the situation, many or most of the plants already growing under the canopy of the trees may be utilized in the woodland garden. Even though this may not be a “native” stand of trees, the site can generally be treated as a natural setting. As such, certain design criteria and plant selection guidelines are appropriate:

1. Beware of nuisance plants that tend to become overgrown and invasive. In particular, try to eliminate such species as poison ivy, Chinese privet, Japanese honeysuckle and Chinese tallow.

2. Give preference to Southern native plants that will complement the natural feel of the site and tolerate the environmental conditions (microclimate, soils, moisture, drainage, etc.).

3. Utilize abundant organic mulch (e.g. pine straw, hardwood leaves, ground bark or wood chips) to improve the soil, conserve moisture and reduce weed competition.

4. Employ broad free-curve (curvilinear) line patterns in layout of walkways, shrub borders and bed design to reflect a naturalistic flow of spaces. Imagine the species of plants flowing through the site like a stream.

5. Mass plants to some degree, but avoid both straight lines and even numbers of plants within each group. Plant in groups of odd numbers: one, three or five plants of the same species.

6. Take advantage of any natural elements already present or add to what is there with collected rocks, moss-covered logs, stepping stones or even small water features (e.g. creek or stream, waterfall or still pond). Use fallen logs to define path edges.

7. In an effort to tie a woodland site into the existing landscape, avoid a sharp line of division between the two spaces. Let some of the beds flow from one space to the other. Plant some of the same species in both areas. Consider planting more trees in the landscape and utilize some of the shrubs and ground covers from the landscape in the woodland development.


Selecting Plants for a Woodland Landscape

A naturally wooded site consists of several layers of plant material: shade trees, understory trees, shrub layer, ground layer and vines. Each fits into a specific niche in its environment.

You should try to use plants that are either native to the region or that will tend to “naturalize” easily without becoming a pest. You can decide for yourself whether to include non-natives, but try to emphasize native plants for the backbone planting! The following lists, which are by no means complete, provide some suggestions for native plants that might be appropriate for a woodland garden site.


Shade Trees 

This canopy layer is made up of tall shade trees with a height and spread of 30 to 50 feet.


Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica)  For more on this tree see our eNewsletter arctile: Black Tupelo

Native Canopy Trees

Acer rubrum Red Maple

Betula nigra River Birch

Carya illinoensis Pecan

Celtis laevigata Sugar Hackberry

Fagus grandifolia American Beech

Fraxinus pennsylvanica Green Ash

Juniperus virginiana Eastern Red Cedar

Liriodendron tulipifera Tulip Tree or Tulip Poplar

Liquidambar styraciflua American Sweetgum

Magnolia grandiflora Southern Magnolia

Magnolia macrophylla Bigleaf Magnolia

Nyssa sylvatica Black Gum

Pinus taeda Loblolly Pine

Platanus occidentalis Sycamore

Prunus serotina Black Cherry

Quercus alba White Oak

Quercus falcata Southern Red Oak

Quercus shumardii Shumard Oak

Quercus virginiana Southern Live Oak

Taxodium distichum Bald Cypress

Tilia americana Basswood

Ulmus alata Winged Elm



Deciduous holly (photo by Peter Gallagher)


Understory Trees
Directly beneath the shade trees is the layer of understory trees. This layer features smaller trees that reach a height and spread of 15 to 20 feet.

Native Understory Trees

Amelanchier arborea Serviceberry

Cercis canadensis Redbud

Chionanthus virginicus White Fringe Tree

Cornus florida Flowering Dogwood

Crataegus marshallii Parsley Hawthorn

Halesia diptera Silver Bell

Ilex opaca American Holly

Ilex vomitoria Yaupon Holly

Magnolia virginiana Sweetbay Magnolia

Prunus caroliniana Cherry Laurel

Robinia pseudoacacia Black Locust

Sassafras albidum Sassafras

Stewartia malacodendron Stewartia or Silky Camellia

Styrax americanus Styrax or American Snowbell


Shrub Layer
The shrub layer includes both deciduous and evergreen shrubs in a range of 2 to 10 feet in height and spread.



Native Shrubs

Aesculus parviflora Bottlebrush Buckeye

Aesculus pavia Red Buckeye

Callicarpa americana American Beautyberry

Calycanthus floridus Sweetshrub or Carolina Allspice

Hamamelis virginiana Witch Hazel

Hydrangea quercifolia Oakleaf Hydrangea

Ilex decidua Deciduous Holly or Possumhaw

Ilex vomitoria Yaupon Holly

Itea virginica Virginia Willow

Kalmia latifolia Mountain Laurel

Lindera benzoin Spice Bush

Myrica cerifera Southern Wax Myrtle

Rhamnus caroliniana Carolina Buckthorn

Rhododendron austrinum Florida Flame Azalea

Rhododendron canescens Native Azalea

Rhus copallina Shining Sumac

Rhus glabra Smooth Sumac

Vaccinium arboreum Farkleberry

Viburnum dentatum Arrowwood


Ground Layer
The ground layer includes both herbaceous and woody plants that remain under 2 feet in height, but spread out horizontally to form a low mat at the ground level.


Woodland Phlox. Photo by
Anita Stamper

Native Ground Covers

Achillea spp. Yarrow

Asclepias tuberosa Butterfly Weed

Aquilegia canadensis Wild Columbine

Coreopsis spp. Coreopsis

Echinacea purpurea Purple Coneflower

Geranium maculatum Wild Geranium or Cranesbill

Helianthus spp. Sunflower

Iris spp. Iris

Lobelia cardinalis Cardinal Flower

Lycoris radiata Red Spider Lily

Michelia repens Partridgeberry

Parthenocissus quinquefolia Virginia Creeper

Phlox divaricata Woodland Phlox

Podophyllum peltatum Mayapple

Polygonatum biflorum Solomon’s Seal

Solidago spp. Goldenrod

Tradescantia virginiana Spiderwort

Trillium spp. Trillium


  Lady fern  (photo by
Peter Gallagher)

Native Ferns

Adiantum capillus-veneris Southern Maidenhair Fern

Athyrium filix-femina Southern Lady Fern

Osmunda cinnamomea Cinnamon Fern

Polystichum acrostichoides Christmas Fern

Polypodium polypodioides Resurrection Fern

Pteridium aquilinum Bracken Fern



Non-Native Plants that Naturalize Well with Native Species

Abelia grandiflora Glossy Abelia

Buddleia davidii Butterfly Bush

Camellia sasanqua Sasanqua

Canna x generalis Canna

Chrysanthemum spp. Chrysanthemum

Hemerocallis spp. Daylily

Hosta spp. Hosta

Hydrangea macrophylla Common Hydrangea

Lantana camara Lantana

Loropetalum chinense Fringe Flower

Narcissus spp. Daffodils and Narcissus and Jonquils

Rhododendron spp. Azalea

Spiraea thunbergii Baby’s Breath Spiraea

Vitex agnus-castus Lilac Chaste Tree


Native Vines
Vines will climb vertically into the shrub, understory and canopy tree layers.


Coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)
Photo courtesy of Alan Pulley

Native Vines

Bignonia capreolata Crossvine

Campsis radicans Trumpet Creeper

Clematis virginiana Native Clematis

Gelsemium sempervirens Carolina Jessamine

Lonicera sempervirens Coral Honeysuckle

Passiflora incarnata Passion Flower or Maypop





Suggestions for Further Reading:

Gardening with Native Plants of the South by Sally Wasowski

Taylor’s Guide to Natural Gardening edited by Roger Holmes


(From State-by-State Gardening February 2003.)


Posted: 10/05/10   RSS | Print


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