How I became a woodland gardener

If you have lots of shade, and no money for plants--
here's an easy method.

I used to have a traditional yard--almost entirely grass, with shrubs around the edges.

Along the side, between my house and the next, it was very shady. Grass would hardly grow there, but the weeds did. I’d mow it twice in the summer to lop off the scraggly weeds. The mower would kick up clouds of dust--I’d have to hold my breath. In the fall, I raked leaves--creating more clouds of dust.
My yard (right) used to be as barren as the left side of the fence.

Every springtime, I noticed lots of violets had colonized since mowing last fall. They were pretty--it seemed a shame to mow down all those pretty flowers. Gradually it dawned on me--maybe the violets were better than dust and weeds, mowing and raking.

So I stopped mowing between the houses. It was a big step--I had been trained all my life to mow. It’s what men did in the yard.

But nothing bad happened--lightning didn’t strike me dead. Violets flourished, growing thicker and more luxuriant. I had clumps of several kinds--white, blue, and purple.

Still, things weren’t perfect. After the violets finished blooming, weeds tried to crowd in. Tall, scraggly dandelions, and three other green opportunists. So I pulled the obvious weeds, once or twice in the summer. In the fall, I let the fallen leaves remain.

Next year, the violets were even more luxuriant. The soil was getting richer! It wasn’t blowing away as dust, and the fallen leaves were turning into compost.

A fence divided the narrow strip between the two houses. My neighbors’s side remained a desert. But my side was becoming steadily greener and more interesting.

A friend with a large garden of woodland plants offered me plants she was culling. She had species that would spread, and had to be periodically thinned out.

As I snapped them up, she shared a few principles of design:

  • Put the plants in clumps of three to five (single plants in a row look unnatural).
  • Put the taller plants near the center of a grouping, or to the rear.
  • Don’t put the plants too close together--they will grow.
  • Make little access pathways through the garden, so you avoid compacting the soil.
  • Don’t worry--you can always move plants later if you don’t like where they are.
I’m a spontaneous guy, so when plants were available, I’d just throw them into the ground, without thinking too much about where. I did use her design principles--somewhat--though I didn’t have a plan on paper.

I was amazed--most of the plants took hold and thrived. Gradually, I stopped mowing more shady spots in my back yard. First, they’d go to violets. Then, as hand-me-down plants became available, I’d pull up the violets, and plant natives. But I liked violets too, so I left some clumps.

Volunteer plants add variety

One spring day, before the grass started growing, I noticed a strange, brownish spike growing in my front lawn. A “volunteer.” Not knowing what it was, I transplanted it into my garden. It turned out to be a lovely, mottled trillium. The next year, a jack-in-the-pulpit volunteered. Again, I moved it.

Now that I’m five years into my love affair with native plants, things are really taking off. All those plants are spreading, so I have my own “extras” to colonize new areas, such as my terrace.

Terraces are good for gardens, because if you remove soil to below the sidewalk, the garden will take runoff from the pavement--ensuring luxurient growth. Select spots where the pavement tilts towards your garden.

Getting rid of grass

If you want to create a woodland garden in one year, existing grass is a problem. One way is to lay down newspaper in early spring, and put dirt or leaves on top--to kill the grass.

But with gradual conversion, the grass simply melts away. The natives and accumulating leaves crowd out the grass. I remove any that remains when I weed twice a year.

The garden designs itself

During my first weeding in May, I look to see which plants are vigorous. I have several species which are rather aggressive--so I trim them back, giving their shyer neighbors more room. Then I move a few plants around, maybe adding a few plants to a thin clump, till things look right. I weed out the dandelions and creeping Charlie.

I look for seedlings that became established last fall--such as trillium or jack-in-the-pulpit. For me, these are in short supply, since I never received “extras” of these. Then I transplant them to clumps that need “beefing up,” or into new areas of lawn that I am transforming. As I find these little “volunteers,” I mark them with a little flag, till I have time to transplant them.

During April, you wonder if anything is going to come up. Gradually, little green shoots show their heads. Just as you are despairing whether anything made it through the winter, suddenly... little green heads and spikes are popping up all over. Over the next few weeks, your garden is transformed from barren to blooming. It's magical!

May is the best tine of year in my woodland garden. Many species are coming into flower, one after another. It’s fascinating to wander down the paths and take stock--see who’s doing what. How the children grow! Each year, the jack-in-the-pulpit sends up new shoots near the parent plant.

Odd corners in your yard are perfect for woodland gardens.

Most essential--enriching your soil

My house was built in the 1950s on clay. Topsoil under the grass is thin. When you rake the lawn every fall, you are removing most of the organic material that normally would enrich the soil. So it’s essential that you don’t rake your woodland garden!!

Even though I started with poor soil, my woodland garden is a success.

For best results, you need to do more than not raking to enrich the soil. My neighbor Bob Kowal, a retired botany professor, actually brought in bales of oak leaves he got from the cemetery. Since I have about 50% lawn now, I use my grass clippings as mulch, and I compost weeds and the leaves I rake.

Some woodland gardeners use free wood chips provided by the City. These make nice pathways. Or, you can use them as mulch around groups of plants. After about 5 years, the chips break down to enrich the soil.

Rich soil and mulch help to retain moisture.

Essentials--enough water

A natural forest is like a giant sponge--soaking up and holding onto all the rain that falls. The urban forest doesn’t retain as much water, so you’ll have to supply extra during dry periods. Some years I have to water frequently--other years, hardly at all.

The two best ways to water are to use soaker hoses, and direct your downspouts to your woodland gardens. You can hook up rain barrels to your soaker hoses.

Pour a gallon of water to observe which way your driveway and sidewalk tilts--then build gardens where they will receive extra runoff from the pavement. Don’t let any water escape from your property without using it!


You will need to weed 2-3 times a year. Mulching helps keep the weeds in check. You have to keep on top of the creeping Charlie--weed Charlie in May, when you can see the purple flowers.

For the most part, native plants can compete with weeds. But your conditions may not be perfect, and some of the weeds, like garlic mustard, are very invasive. And your neighbors are busy exporting weed seeds, like dandelions.

Woodland garden VS lawn The woodland garden is...

  • Far more interesting than a lawn, and more beautiful.
  • It attracts wildlife, replenishes groundwater, and promotes health of the lakes.
  • You don’t have to rake or spend money on gas, fertilizer, weedkiller, or lawnmower repairs.
Is it more work?

If you count the planting--yes, it is more work.

But once the garden is established, it’s somewhat less work than a lawn. All you have to do is weed, mulch, and perhaps water.
What about mosquitoes? I don’t notice any difference. Mosquitoes aren’t produced in the woods. For breeding they require standing water--such as roof gutters or an old tire someone tossed into the bushes.

A source for plants--your biggest challenge

If you have shade, your next step is to find a supply of woodland plants. There are sales about town.

But more and more people are starting woodland gardens. So chances are, there’s someone in your neighborhood who has extra plants to share. A vigorous garden produces lots of seedlings. Ask your neighbor if you can have some of these tiny plants.

Since I started my garden, I haven’t paid a dime for plants. All it cost was about $50 for soaker hoses.
Now that I’ve got all those native plants with quirky personalities--I’m starting to find out about them. Wild ginger is really amazing--but that’s another story.

# # #

Equipment needed
2 small bins for holding/transporting soil, weeds, or mulch.
Two plastic garbage cans with lids for holding soil, weeds. (Use lids to shovel soil onto when transplanting plants.)
Four (or more) 50’soaker hoses
Hose to get water from spigot to soaker hose.
Four way junction to split water to four soaker hoses.
Wire staples, to hold down soaker hoses
Plastic water can
Downspout extenders (or PVC flexible drain pipe)

At least two composters. Several inexpensive plastic ones are made.
If your yard is fenced, you can use a short segment of chicken wire fencing to close off a corner of your fence, turning it into a triangular container about 6-8 feet on a side.

Shade-tolerant plants in my garden

Trillium (two species)
Wild ginger
Wild geranium
Jacob's ladder
Sweet woodruff
Celandine poppy
False forget-me-not
Solomon seal
May apple
Ostritch fern
Snake root
Merry bells
Virginia bluebell
Bleeding heart (not native)
Windflower (not native)
Lamium (not native)

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