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Seven Steps to Making a Woodland Garden

When we moved here in 1985, there was a wild area in a little valley on the other side of the drive. It was grown over with tangles of vines as thick as my wrist and weeds that could swallow a man whole. Bad boys in the neighborhood sometimes would go down there to read girly magazines and smoke cigarettes. They once caught the woods on fire, and Helena's fire department had to come put out the blaze. 

Each year Lou and I would attempt to tame the rampant overgrowth, and I came to understand how my state acquired its name. Alabama comes from an old Choctaw Indian word meaning "I clear the thicket." 


One year I decided to turn the area into a garden. It contained some beautiful dogwood, oak, and pine trees, but part of it was sunny and I didn't deliberately decide to create a woodland garden. For years I called it my weed garden, because at first most of the plants could be classified as that. But a lot of them bloomed, so I welcomed them into my scheme. Over time the space took on its own character and told me what to do with it.

It was an enormous project, but each step was an improvement. Here is what I did, gradually as energy and budget allowed:

1. I cut meandering paths through the weeds and around the trees with a string trimmer. I kept the paths cut to the ground on a regular schedule, and I added rocks along the edge of parts of the paths to better define them.

2. Where necessary, I limbed up trees overhanging the paths so I could walk easily under them.

3. I smothered large areas of obnoxious weeds. I used brown grocery sacks, newspaper, and cut-up cardboard boxes. I put these on top of the weeds, then covered them with a thick mulch of pine straw. This immediately made the space look better and eventually improved the soil. I also continued to hand pull weeds and spray stuff like poison oak with round-up.

4. I cut holes through the pine straw mulch and began planting. On the hillside I planted ground covers, including mondo grass, spreading cotoneaster, junipers, and a number of shrubs and trees. I incorporated preexisting plants such as native yaupon holly, mahonia and nandina. I continued to add new plants each spring and fall, among which are:

hosta, ferns, and heuchera

Japanese maple





and many more!

5. I discovered that moss grew naturally in the paths I had cut, so I began encouraging its growth by sprigging pieces of it throughout the paths and by keeping fallen leaves raked away. Eventually the moss grew thick enough that I no longer had cut the paths with a string trimer. Hooray! Now I just hand pull weeds from time to time. As more moss fills in, I am having to do even this less often.

6. I added some manmade focal points with a rabbit at the entrance and a little bench for sitting to enjoy it all. I hung some wind chimes and a birdhouse.

7. One day I blinked and discovered that it had become a shady, even romantic retreat, and I began to officially call it my woodland garden.

Here are some recent images taken in the woodland garden:

And a few featured plants:Clockwise from top left: heuchera 'tiramisu'; fothergilla gardenii; autumn fern; korean spice viburnum

May you all take time to walk in a woodland, to listen to birds and to feel a breeze; may you fill your heart in the embrace of nature.  Deborah


You can see more images taken recently of the woodland garden in my last post, A Crime Scene on a Beautiful Day.

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Reader Comments (29)

Lovely area. I always believe in working with Mother Nature rather than against her. This is a perfect example of that.

Always Growing

April 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJan

Love this area ... your hard work paid off beautifully.

April 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBernie

Fabulous result! There is something so timelessly romantic about a woodland garden, especially in spring :)

April 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCyndy

All your work has definitely paid off...it is beautiful! What a great place to relax or take a walk.

April 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

How rewarding to see your efforts change this space into something so beautiful. I love how the space began to tell you what to do with it after you cleared it. I'm trying to learn how to listen to my spaces better. Your woodland garden is a delight.

April 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLaurrie

How lovely! I can smell spring!

April 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTatyana

Dear Deborah, This is absolutely delightful. I know that if I were you I should be so thrilled to have achieved this garden from nothing to speak of. It does indeed show that perseverance conquers. In many ways the experience of claiming the garden from the wild must be akin to waking Sleeping Beauty from her palace.

The process, as you have described it, makes a very useful lesson for anyone attempting to do something similar. The best part of it all is, of course, the achievement which, in my opinion, is truly remarkable and very, very beautiful. The canopy of trees, the mossy paths, the well chosen shrubs, the focal points and, by no means least, the seat - so necessary to sit and enjoy the fruits of your labour and the joy of creation. A triumph!

April 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEdith Hope

I didn't know if I was about to see seven stone steps leading to a secret garden, or the description that you gave. It's a lovely area. Good job, it's all beautiful. Perseverance and hard work pay off.

The moss path is lovely. Enchanting journey through your garden.

April 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNell Jean

Beautiful pictures, Deb. I feel your pain. We have been doing the same thing to the property we purchased that adjoins ours for ten years now. Ours probably would have looked as beautiful as yours, but Hurricane Ivan took out most of the trees. That left the vines to run even more freely, and left us to focus on building a new home. We are just getting on top of the vine situation this year and starting with the beautification process. Just like you, we want to keep it natural. Thanks for the inspiration.

(PS: There was even a tarp full of girly magazines hidden in the woods when we first bought the property)

April 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah

So beautiful. You've done an incredible job of creating a serene retreat. My favorite part is how the moss took over the paths for you. :)

April 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMeredith

Wonderful, very romantic... Oh if only I had the space for such an area myself....


April 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLiz

Deb, This is beautiful. Because my property is about half wooded, I have sometimes thought about cutting a path and creating a little destination woodland garden. Thanks for providing me with a template for how I might approach this.

April 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJean

I was riveted reading this post! Moss covered paths!

April 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJess

It must have been hard work to get the woodland garden into a shape it is today. I love it, and you are right - it is a romantic place to be. Excellent work and it did pay off!

April 6, 2010 | Unregistered Commentervrtlaricaana

A lovely posting - I hope our woodland will look as pretty as this one day... we spent part of the weekend creating some steps from the main garden into the woodland - the structure is there - it all needs filling in now! Look forward to see your Pulmonaria in place soon... Take care Miranda x

April 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMiranda Bell

Those paths have to be my favorite. I've tried to establish moss here but have only had luck in very few areas. I 'll keep trying though as they look wonderful covered with moss. You did a great job. Funny the meaning of Alabama.

April 6, 2010 | Unregistered Commentertina

I was going to say, enchanting! But, someone already said that! Thanks for taking us through your woodland garden - it looks like a quiet and peaceful place to walk and sit.

April 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph

The moss in the path really stands out wonderfully. Your woodland garden is beautiful!

I did not know about the origin of Alabama's name. As soon as I read that I thought that the coastal plain of NC could be called the same. :)

April 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSweet Bay

What an astonishing triumph! I once cleared a small area of woodland, but have let it slowly go wild again. Good for you for not giving up.

April 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCheryl

I love how this are gradually evolved into your current beautiful woodland garden. It helps when you work with nature in creating a garden instead of fighting it, doesn't it?

April 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNoelle (azplantlady)

Thank you for sharing. Your photos are the kind that make me wish i could jump into my computer screen and be there. It's like a fairy tale world. Just gorgeous!

April 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGrace

I love it, but I think that you already know that. Busy planning how I can get a moss path.

How lovely - you seem to have enhanced nature and brought out the best! Beautiful job!

April 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGillian

Deb - I am so inspired! The pictures of your 'Woodland Garden' have always been impressive. Now, knowing what you started out with and the garden's evolution over time - gives hope to 'the beginning' of new gardens. :)

April 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterShyrlene

That's brilliant, and such a good spot to read girlie mags and smoke too!

April 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterThe Idiot Gardener

The photographs of your woodland are wonderful. It is such a special balance to enhance nature without overly controlling it. In Kent where I live one of my main weeds is tree seedlings! It wouldn't take long without us for it to return to impenetrable forest. (This is one of the reasons why we are quiet though - as communications down here were terrible historically, and the cross country roads are still pretty shocking - hurrah for the tree!)

April 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMarian

All your work has really paid off Deborah! My woodland trails are in the very beginning of their making. Thanks for all the great tips and I'll be moving moss in ASAP!!

December 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEve

Some wonderful pictures! The trick with a woodland garden is to never take canopy trees for granted. Canopy trees aren't like roofs on building. Canopy trees are living things that will eventually die, one by one. There's no way to avoid this. If there's nothing in the works to replace them when they die, they will leave shadeless voids for many decades, while (current or future) human inhabitants struggle to slowly (and often unsuccessfully) grow replacement trees. If not handled well, a woodland garden will eventually become just a regular garden. The secret to maintaining a healthy forest is to allow a thick carpet of fallen leaves to stay on the ground year-round, to give trees sufficient root space, and to eliminate competitors that will take away too many resources from the trees. Forests are excellent at regenerating themselves naturally. Humans are extremely poor at planting and growing forests from scratch. It's extremely expensive and time-consuming to try to grow a forest from scratch. The wisest and most responsible approach is to protect and nurture existing forest ecosystems. Ferns and boxwoods can be beautiful. But make sure some oak and elm saplings are allowed to thrive as well.

May 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMatt

I loved reading all about your garden. You also have some beautiful plants on ebay. I have an area in my yard that used to be mostly sunny but is now mostly shady due to the growth of the trees over the years. So our plan is to begin planning our mostly shaden garden. There is a bench and a rock walkway already in place. We did have a pond there that we built with rock and had it stoctked with Koy fish but the neighbors cats kept killing them so finally after re-purchasing and re-purchasing more fish we finally gave up on that and filled it in with dirt and will be planting it in flowers instead. I plan on adding some hydranges in that part shade area and more. shade loving ground covers and flowers. I had not thought of spreading around plugs of the moss that grows there but am glad that I came across this posting and will definitely be doing that too!! Happy gardening!!

June 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBarbara

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