by Liz Potter |

Take inspiration from a woodland clearing to create the perfect garden habitat for wildlife. Adrian Thomas explains what’s required

As lockdown eased this year, many of us found solace by taking a walk in the countryside and especially through woodland. The restorative power of being close to and among big trees has been proven time and time again. The Japanese even have a term for it: shinrin-yoku or forest bathing.

For me, the parts of a wood I love the most are where it opens into a clearing. There’s something enchanting about a quiet, reflective place where you can see the sky but still feel safe and enclosed. Clearings tend to contain many more wildflowers than in the woodland itself, and in turn more butterflies, and indeed the number of birds you see – and hear – tends to be much higher. It’s a bright little oasis in the middle of the forest.

Several things contribute to the superabundance of life in a glade. In part it’s the power of the sunlight pouring in, allowing flowers and shrubs to thrive. Most glades are encircled by lush green foliage, in stark contrast to the bare trunks and dark bare soil under a full tree canopy.

Such verdancy is bound to pull in lots of life. An added bonus is the shelter afforded by the surrounding trees; imagine how tricky it is for pollinators to land on flowers that are whipping about in the wind, or for butterflies to fly with a gale battering their wings. The relatively still conditions in a glade also provide better feeding opportunities for birds and bats.

There’s something else going on here too: it’s called the ‘edge effect’. The middle of a glade is, in effect, a meadow containing meadow wildlife; the dense woodland beyond the glade is where true forest creatures live. But the brilliant thing is that both types of wildlife use the interface between the two, which is called an ‘ecotone’. Not only that, but there are extra species that only live in the ecotone.

This is so useful to know in a garden context because the more your garden has the look and feel of a woodland glade, the richer it tends to be for wildlife. In fact, many of us create the look automatically – planting an envelope of trees and bushes around a sheltered grassy centre seems to be hardwired into our gardening psyche.

Is it a subconscious recognition of what a wonderful place a glade is, a harking back to our dim past when we would have lived in openings in the forest? Or is it just that a glade provides us with the shelter, sunshine and privacy that we all enjoy?


Glade wildlife includes a mix of woodland and meadow species

Whatever the reason, it’s this tendency toward planting a ‘woodland glade’ that has helped our gardens be – in general – pretty good for wildlife.

So, if your garden is already a glade of sorts, could it be improved in any way? And if it doesn’t have much of a glade feel at all, are you ready to make certain adjustments?

It’s easy to see how to create the effect in a large garden. Large trees can be planted around the perimeter with a ring of smaller trees and shrubs inside that. Flower beds can form colourful rings within the leafy outer circle, with ultimately an island of grass somewhere in the middle.


The critical thing is not to think in terms of concentric circles – that would be very boring indeed and would actually limit the value of the glade because it would form something of a colourful pit into which strong winds could whirl. Glades that are irregular in outline are best, giving you the extra microclimates and visual interest of hidden nooks.

In smaller gardens, the glade effect is just as achievable – just shrink your ideas to scale. Instead of large trees around the outside, which would quickly come to overshadow the whole garden, start with an outer ring of smaller trees or large shrubs. In the smallest gardens, shrubs become your forest, or even climbers growing up walls and fences.

Remember, too, the fact that sunlight is a key ingredient within a glade, so especially limit the height of the trees or shrubs you plant on the southern side to let the beneficial rays of light flood in. Of course, consider your neighbours, too – you don’t want to plunge them into darkness!

So, think ‘glade’ as you develop your garden and you’re likely to be doing wonders for yourself, and for wildlife.

READ MORE Subscribe to our digital issue

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us