LessLawn.com... design a nature-friendly, soul-satisfying landscape

Invest in a long-term landscape.
Design a Woodland
August 14, 2001 by Evelyn J. Hadden

	path in woods
A winding path entices explorers into the woods.

A woodland generates a subtle hush and a reminder that nature is indeed awesome. It has atmosphere, personality, and four-season interest, and it will last for generations. It can add to your property value and your quality of life.

Discover the Benefits

Planting trees, even small ones, can have an immediate impact. Trees add height and all-season focal points, offer a desirable alternative for areas of unwanted lawn, create the opportunity for a new planting bed at their feet, and attract birds and butterflies.

From three to ten years after they're planted, trees start to have a larger effect on their surroundings:
  • Larger trees can insulate your home from extreme heat and cold. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, "landscaping may be your best long-term investment for reducing heating and cooling costs", and properly sited trees can cut your fuel consumption by 25% to 40%, cooling the air under them by nine to twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and insulating house walls from heat-stealing winter winds. Learn about energy-efficient landscape design.

  • Trees filter the air and make it healthier for humans to breathe. Not only do they make oxygen, but they also store nutrients that would otherwise be converted to greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. They anchor soil and prevent erosion, which delivers excess nutrients to water ecosystems. Read the Ecological Society of America's 13-page paper titled "Ecosystem Services: Benefits Supplied to Human Societies by Natural Ecosystems".

  • Mature trees can add thousands of dollars to the value of your property and increase its sales appeal, according to several studies cited by the American Nursery and Landscape Association. Read more about the dollar value of landscaping.

Choose a Style

Though trees dominate a woodland, it hosts many other plant species as well, and the mix and placement of all the plants will determine how a particular area looks and feels.

The character of a woodland can vary from forbidding to inviting, serenely minimal to wildly crowded, dark shade to dappled. Choose the character you like, but make sure before you invest your money, effort, and time that your land will support the style of woodland you choose.

Here are just a few of the possible woodland ecosystems:
  • In northern locales, you might try a boreal forest, dominated by spruce and fir, with white birch and poplar lending ghostly trunks in winter and fresh young green in summer, patches of evergreen punctuated by light, cheery clearings.

  • The northeastern half of the U.S. and central U.S. were home once to hardwood forests of maple and beech--tall, deeply shaded oases for the sweltering summers and brown, bare trunks to let in the light during gray winters.

  • If you're sitting on sandy or rocky land, consider a pine barren, with open-canopied pitch pines or jack pines above dry, sparse vegetation, home to many birds and butterflies.

  • For a more parklike feel that will thrive in sunny, somewhat dry areas, grow an oak or pine savanna with widely spaced trees rising from a swath of grassland.
To help you with this crucial choice of style, find a field guide for your location. The National Audubon Society and the Sierra Club both have put together excellent sets of field guides covering most of the natural ecosystems of North America.

The appropriate field guide will give you a set of woodland models to choose from, if woodlands are indigenous to your region. It can also give you a rough idea of the "look" of a particular type of woodland.

Think in Layers

Layers are crucial in woodland design. A woodland is a set of niches that can be filled by plants with different forms and habits, but each spatial gap must be addressed.

There's the canopy, the tallest trees that tower over the other plants and create the ceiling.
Understory trees and shrubs are suited to grow beneath the canopy trees and survive in the dappled shade they cast. Understory plants can be five feet high or twenty feet high, depending on how close they are to each other, how much light the top trees let through, and how high the canopy is.
Covering the ground beneath it all are the herbaceous plants of the woodland floor. Early-flowering ephemerals have adapted to take advantage of the greater light under deciduous trees in spring. A few deep shade lovers thrive under the skirts of evergreens. More varied and light-dependent plants spring up in clearings. Sedges, ferns, mosses, and broad-leaf perennials scatter through the woods, each seeking its assigned place, the place to which it has adapted over millennia.

Choose the Plants

There are so many varieties of each of these categories of plants. It's best to choose natives for durability, though homeoclimactic plants also possess the character to help them last long and wear well.

Consult the field guides for lists of plants that grow in your target ecosystem. You can make an initial list of key species using a field guide or two, then supplement your list with suitable plants that you particularly enjoy. A state government agency in charge of natural resources or an ecology department at a local university might also be able to provide lists of appropriate plants.

Making the list of plants is, however, not the hard part. It is much harder to find sources of the plants you want, so you may want to take your field guide's description of the target ecosystem into a local native plant nursery and ask for help finding the listed species or appropriate substitutes.

If these sources fail, turn to local garden clubs, native plant catalogs (consult Barbara J. Barton's compendium of catalogs, Gardening By Mail ), staff at a regional arboretum or botanical garden, your gardening friends, and local or national native plant societies for information and plant or seed sources.

Orchestrate the Transition

  • If you start from bare lawn, your woodland will develop in stages over time, moving from a young and crowded group of plants to a sparser, shadier area with definite layers. You need to know the design of the mature woodland before you plant anything, but you may also wish to separately design the young woodland, since it will be with you for ten to fifteen years and perhaps longer, depending on the growth rate of the canopy trees you've chosen.

    Plant the canopy trees first. They'll likely need to reach a certain height before you can add the shade-tolerant understory. In the meantime, you have several options for plantings between your young trees.

    • You can mimic the way plant communities change over time by interspersing sun-loving plants between the small trees. Choose annuals or short-lived perennials or shrubs, since as the young trees mature, they'll create more shade.

    • You can also try interspersing young trees with plants that can tolerate a wide range of light conditions and will continue to thrive as they move from sun to dappled shade.

    • In How to Make a Forest Garden, permaculture expert Patrick Whitefield suggests planting a low-maintenance "green manure" crop such as clover or alfalfa between the trees, mowing it twice a year, and leaving the clippings on the ground to mulch the young forest floor.

  • If you start from large trees above lawn, adding mainly understory and groundcover plants, your woodland can achieve a mature look far more quickly without passing through the "young forest" stage. This will save you the time and money of designing two separate gardens, and you can just focus on transforming your plot into that ideal woodland in your mind.

Having a child isn't the only way to leave a legacy. Properly designed and kept healthy, your woodland can last for generations. It's a gift to your descendents and to those who will live on or near your property in the future.

Maintain It

The main work of a woodland is in planting it and helping it to establish in good health. Maintenance after the first few years will decrease to nearly nothing. You may have to deal with damages from storms and other natural disasters, and perhaps patrol occasionally for invasive plants that are brought in by animals or wind, but healthy established woodlands demand no regular maintenance.

However, if you start with young trees, they will use more of the soil nutrients and moisture and cast more shade as they mature, so understory conditions will change over time, and you will likely need to adjust your plant mix. This will be a relatively slow process, and it will vary depending on how many years your trees need to reach their mature sizes.

Bonus Tip

You'll get more benefit from your woodland if you spend time in it. Here are some ideas for making it people-friendly:
  • Be sure to include paths and seating in your design. Your woodland could easily become a stroll garden. Sticking to paths preserves soil structure in your trees' root zones.

  • Build a clearing into your woodland so family and friends can eat, play, and relax together outdoors.

  • Ensure your comfort among bugs, under birds, and during rain; install a summerhouse in your woodland. A bottomless tent with screen sides and an opaque roof makes an economical summerhouse. It won't be elegant, but you can move it from place to place and take it down in the winter to let the sun into your seating area. If you plan to build a permanent summerhouse, you may still want to use the tent for a season or two so you can test various locations.

Want to grow an edible woodland?

Other LessLawn articles about woodlands:
Other LessLawn articles on lawnless landscapes:
Thanks for visiting http://www.LessLawn.com!
All site contents © 2001-2013 Evelyn J. Hadden, except where noted. All rights reserved.