How to Make a Native Woodland Garden

It's a rich and complex ecosystem that can help natural biodiversity to return.

light entering a forest and illuminating trees

Samantha Nicol Art Photography / Getty Images

Planting trees is a great strategy for a garden. As a designer, I often talk about the benefits of a forest gardening approach to food production in a garden, also known as a food forest. In a food forest, which typically resembles an open-canopied woodland in temperature climes, we mimic the natural ecosystem, but choose plants in terms of their use for us, as well as their function within the system as a whole. 

Today, however, I am not talking about creating a food forest, but rather about rewilding and turning some or all of your garden into a native woodland. Making a native woodland garden is not about focusing on yields, but rather on rebuilding natural ecosystems, as well as preserving or enhancing native ecology. Of course, a native woodland can provide a range of yields, but this is not the primary goal. Instead, the goal is to return natural biodiversity in bioregions where native woodlands predominate (or would historically have done so). 

Choosing Trees for a Woodland Garden

One of the most important elements in woodland garden design involves the careful choice of native tree species. It can be helpful, when trying to create a native woodland, to look not only at lists of native species, but also at which species are commonly found together in the vicinity and the broader bioregion. 

Remember, it is the symbiosis between the different species it contains, and not the individual trees alone, that make a woodland or forest ecosystem. Looking at old growth or ancient woodland close to home can help us understand the woodland type we may look to recreate in our gardens. A woodland may be dominated by one or two key tree species, but other trees will also often be present. 

A Woodland Is More Than Just Trees

When you think about woodland, you may picture a stand of trees; however, many of the so-called woodlands that we see today are severely degraded ecosystems—many of their understory saplings, shrubs, and ground cover plants depleted by excessive grazing of browsing mammals like deer, as well as human activity. 

A true woodland or forest is not just trees, but also consists of a whole community of plant life. And it is that truly abundant and biodiverse ecosystem that we should look to replicate when trying to create a native woodland garden. 

We need to build a healthy soil, too, since a humus-rich soil and the life it contains are a crucial part of a woodland or forest ecosystem. 

Deciduous woodlands should be made up of canopy trees, sub-canopy trees, saplings awaiting their opportunity to burst forth into the light, shrubs, ground layer plants, and a rich root zone or rhizosphere. To truly create a native woodland in a garden, we need to think holistically and consider all parts of the whole. 

Establishing a Native Woodland Garden

When establishing a native woodland garden, you might start from scratch or seek to restore existing tree stands to full ecological health. 

If starting from scratch, you will usually begin by preparing the site. Where the ground has been laid to lawn or is seriously degraded, the first step will be to rebuild the soil. Often, you will use pioneer species such as nitrogen-fixing trees like alder, for example, to aid you in this endeavor.

It is important to develop an understanding of how ecosystems evolve into mature woodlands over time. In some areas, it can be enough simply to let nature take its course, allowing a woodland ecosystem to evolve naturally through natural seed dispersal and natural processes over time. In other cases, intervention may be required. Determining the right strategy always involves close observation of the site and broader natural patterns. 

If you already have some native trees on your property, turning the area into a native woodland can involve restoration of the sub-canopy layers of the system, which may have been lost over time. 

Again, regeneration can take place naturally. But it may involve creating protection from grazing mammals with hedgerows or natural fencing. It might also involve the recognition and removal of damaging nonnative species. And finally, it requires the planting of native understory species and the careful management of the system until it becomes established. 

Remember, creating a native woodland is not just about planting trees. It is about developing a self-sustaining natural system, teeming with life, which works as a thriving biodiverse ecosystem over time.