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10 Woodland Shade Garden Ideas to Transform Your Tree-Filled Yard

It sometimes seems like all of the most beautiful plants require full sun, especially if all you have is shade. Before you despair over your tree-filled yard, though, take a moment to admire that leafy canopy, the textured trunks supporting it, and most importantly, the blank canvas of soil beneath it all. Envision a lovely woodland shade garden: flowering shrubs, lush ferns and groundcover, cheerful wildflowers, and twisting vines. Below are a few woodland shade garden ideas to help you make this vision a reality.

Pink rhododendron flowers are next to a pond and surrounded by large trees.

Woodland Shade Garden Ideas

1. Say no to grass

quiet place in the garden

Instead of fighting to maintain a lush lawn in low-light conditions, listen to what the space is trying to tell you. Perhaps you’d like to keep a patch of grass for tossing a ball around or the simple joy of feeling it under your bare feet. In that case, mark off the healthiest section of the lawn – or the area that you want to keep – and view the rest as a blank canvas.

If the space feels overwhelming, some low-growing, shade-loving groundcovers or small evergreen plants can replace some of the lawn, especially on steep slopes that pose a landscaping challenge.

2. Choose native plants

Coastal California Wildflower Mix - Annuals and Perennials Approx. 6500+ Seeds

Native plants offer many benefits, including lower maintenance requirements. Plants native to US woodlands, and especially your region, will be better adapted to the growing conditions in your shady backyard and thus require less care once established.

Plus, native plants provide important habitats for local wildlife, such as butterflies, bees, hummingbirds, songbirds, toads, salamanders, and chipmunks.

Simply by choosing the right plants, you can increase the beautiful biodiversity of your backyard and reduce your workload.

3. Start with a path

woodland garden path

Before putting in plants, consider where you want your walkway. Think about where you currently walk: do you make a beeline from the backdoor to the shed? Meander toward the firepit?

Mark out these well-used paths and lay down natural materials to establish them as permanent walkways. Include additional paths through the garden, if you like, for easier access to the plants or quiet, meditative walks.

Choose path materials that match the natural feel of a woodland garden, such as loose stone or gravel, wood chips, pavers, bricks, or even old railroad ties.

4. Vary textures

different textured plants

As with any garden, mixing a variety of textures in your woodland garden will add another dimension of interest. Look for plants with complementary foliage, such as large and small leaves, woody and herbaceous stems, serrated and smooth edges.

The pairing of feathery ferns and glossy hostas is a classic example present in many shade gardens.

5. Add a pop of color

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The woods may not be known for flowers, but there are many ways to add color to a woodland garden.

First, you can choose plants with different shades of foliage, ranging from pale yellow-green to deep blue-green and even purple. Then, of course, there are the flowers, more numerous than you might first expect.

Consider flowering trees and shrubs as well as vines, groundcovers, and herbaceous perennials, and annuals. Choose a color scheme or simply scatter bright splashes of color throughout for the feel of a cottage garden or wildflower meadow.

6. Include a touch of whimsy

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In addition to the plants themselves, art and architectural elements also add beauty and fun to a garden. Stick to more practical elements such as decorative flower pots or creative stair materials, like old millstones.

Or add art for the sake of art: colorful orbs, whimsical ceramic creatures, lovely stone statues, magical fairy doors.

7. Install a water feature

PULACO 400GPH Submersible Water Pump with 5 ft Tubing, 25W durable fountain water pump for Pond Fountain, Aquariums Fish Tank, Statuary, Hydroponics

To mimic the calming presence of a woodland stream, consider installing a water feature in your shade garden. This could be a simple as purchasing a statuary fountain or as involved as digging a pond with a small waterfall and recirculating pump.

This also broadens your plant choices to moisture-loving plants and even those that grow directly in water. Plant some of these around the edge of your water feature, interspersed with stones of varying sizes and shapes.

8. Plant for all seasons

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Consider every season when choosing plants and designing your woodland garden. For the joy of discovering that first bloom in early spring, look for early-blooming wildflowers like marsh marigold and hepatica.

You’ll also want flowers that bloom throughout spring, like columbine and bluebells, as well as the bright summer color of plants like cardinal flower and foxglove.

And don’t forget about stunning fall foliage or the winter beauty of evergreens.

9. Create layers of vegetation

Cercis Canadensis Forest Pansy Red Leaved Eastern Redbud Tree jocad (5 Seeds)

When designing your shade garden, think about creating different layers of vegetation, both for visual interest as well as broader wildlife habitat.

Plant smaller trees like dogwood and redbud under the large shade trees, and fill in around them with shrubs and herbaceous perennials and annuals.

Groundcovers provide the lowest layer, and vines add additional vertical interest, whether they climb a trellis, wall, or tree trunk.

10. Incorporate rustic furniture

VINGLI Rustic Wooden Wheel Bench, 41" 2-Person Weagon Slatted Seat, Outdoor Patio Furniture, 550lbs High Capacity, Weather Resistance

In addition to where you walk, consider where you might like to sit in the garden, as well as why. Perhaps you like to entertain guests and will need a few tables and chairs, or maybe you just like enjoying a mug of tea while listening to the birds, and a simple bench or hammock will do.

Look for materials that match your woodland themes, such as rustic wood or stone. Alternatively, decorative cast iron pieces can add a touch of elegance.

Plants For A Woodland Shade Garden

Now that you have some woodland shade garden design ideas tumbling around, it’s time for the fun part: plant shopping!

Here are some examples of plants, divided into convenient categories, that work especially well in woodland gardens.

Shrubs and trees

blooming mountain laurel tree
  • dogwood
  • redbud
  • viburnum
  • mountain laurel
  • rhododendron
  • ninebark
  • beautyberry
  • winterberry
  • azalea
  • Oakleaf hydrangea
  • witch hazel


jack in the pulpit flowers
  • Jack-in-the-pulpit
  • foam flower
  • Solomon’s seal
  • columbine
  • bleeding heart
  • trillium
  • phlox
  • hosta
  • bloodroot
  • wood aster
  • anemone
  • iris
  • cardinal flower
  • marsh marigold
  • hepatica
  • foxglove
  • bluebell


royal fern
  • maidenhair fern
  • Christmas fern
  • royal fern
  • New York Fern
  • lady fern


wild strawberries
  • Allegheny pachysandra
  • creeping phlox
  • wild ginger
  • green-and-gold
  • wild strawberry
  • golden ragwort/groundsel
  • Virginia creeper
  • wild stonecrop
  • violet

With so many plants and design ideas to choose from, you can turn your shaded backyard into a woodland oasis filled with wildflowers, rustic furniture, a winding path, and even the soothing sound of trickling water.

10 woodland shade garden ideas.
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Serena Manickam is a freelance editor and writer and sustainable market gardener in rural Virginia. She holds a BA in environmental science and runs Fairydiddle Farm, a small market garden in which she grows no-spray produce and herbs to sell at a local farmer’s market.

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