Use shrubs and trees to create a small woodland garden, says Louisa Gilhooly
We all enjoy relaxing outdoors at the end of a busy day, but many suburban gardens in built-up areas are overlooked by neighbouring houses, which also cast shade for most of the day. To combat both problems, this woodland design features tall, leafy shade-loving plants.
A simple group of trees, or a multi-stemmed specimen, underplanted with shade-tolerant shrubs, herbaceous plants and bulbs, can create a woodland effect in any size garden.
Choose naturally airy trees with an open canopy, so plenty of light reaches the planting underneath without having to prune. I’ve used three betula utilis jacquemontii ‘grayswood ghost’, a cultivar with the purest, most luminescent white bark. Robinia pseudoacacia ‘frisia’ is another good choice – its rich golden-yellow leaves create a brilliant splash of colour from spring to autumn. Snake-bark maples, such as the striking acer davidii, have fabulous autumn colour and attractive winter bark too.
As a focal point, acer palmatum ‘sango-kaku’ is a bright and eye-catching specimen, with its coral-red bark, graceful habit and dazzling gold autumn foliage.
For the most overlooked areas, evergreen ilex ‘nellie r stevens’ is a good-looking berry-bearing female holly with glossy, emerald-green foliage. Birds love its reliable, long-lasting crop of orange-red berries.
Foxgloves thrive in dappled shade at the back of the garden, their tall spires looking striking against the dark fence in summer. Elegant japanese anemones follow, flowering from august well into autumn, lighting up shady spots as the days shorten. Shade-loving geraniums provide a delicate display of flowers as they colonise the ground beneath trees. Attractive g. Phaeum has dark markings on the foliage matching the dramatic flowers.
The bold forms of dicksonia antarctica tree ferns add an architectural element to this naturalistic planting scheme, their shape echoed by native evergreen polystichum setiferum, the soft shield fern.
Woodland gardens have a relaxed and natural look and, as a bonus, many of these carefree plants are low maintenance too. Keep the area mulched to retain moisture and reduce weed growth; the only other tending your garden should need is occasional pruning as required.
1. Make fences disappear Painted black, property boundaries seem to disappear into the background, making a small garden seem larger and less boxy. Black is an excellent colour to help fence panels (and sheds) recede.
2. Layer your plants Layered planting allows you to include more plants in your borders without the garden looking cramped. Start with small trees at the back, then plant a layer of shrubs around and in front of them, then add perennials and bulbs around the shrubs.
3. Screen the most exposed spots Plant a tall, dense evergreen such as this holly tree to hide neighbour windows and provide year-round screening.
4. Create year-round interest Choose a mix of evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs with good autumn colour, berries and bark for winter interest. Include topiary specimens for shape and add flowering plants to provide seasonal colour accents.
5. Build an outdoor firepit Enjoy the garden on cooler days with a firepit. Store firewood under a fireproof concrete bench.
6. Incorporate organic matter Soil beneath trees can dry out, so add lots of well-rotted organic matter such as leafmould when planting, and mulch generously in spring.
7. Add a focal point Choose an eye-catching specimen tree such as Acer palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’ for its autumn colour and winter bark. Here it’s planted with Polystichum setiferum ferns.
8. Choose shade lovers Look to nature when selecting plants for a shady corner of the garden. Woodland plants offer both attractive foliage and flowers that can brighten even the darkest corner – especially when you choose a variegated form, or white flowers that glow in the gloom.
9. Provide a foil for plants Bright gold, lush green and silvery white foliage looks even more vibrant when set against black fence panels.
10. Naturalise bulbs Brighten up a woodland garden by naturalising spring and autumn bulbs in the lawn and planting them under deciduous trees and shrubs. When planting, go for a natural drift or make a shapely swirl or circle in the lawn.
11. Orientate the garden at 45deg In very short or narrow sites, a 45-degree orientation takes the emphasis away from the closeness of the boundaries and can make a garden seem longer than it really is. This garden feels screened and protected, but not boxed in.