Landscaping a wooded lot

Mature trees are an asset for any home, adding value to the property and reducing energy costs. We like big trees. We love that feeling of a home that’s tucked into capital-N Nature. Every silver lining has a cloud, and mature trees bring the challenge of landscaping a wooded lot.

Why is landscaping a wooded lot difficult?

Big trees have big root systems. They have massive canopies that prevent a lot of the rainwater from hitting the ground. Their roots are greedily sucking up water and nutrients, and many trees suppress the growth of smaller plants by dropping leaves or needles, and sometime even by releasing chemicals into the soil. When trying to landscape a wooded lot, we can’t just pick plants that say “shade”, because that doesn’t encompass everything that’s going on.

Wooded lots also tend to either not have grass at all, or to have thin, weak lawn areas that don’t amount to a heck of a lot. From a design standpoint, lawns are useful. Functionally, they unify the planting beds around a yard, and they provide a durable means of getting from point A to points B, C, D, and so on. Aesthetically, they tone down the feeling of chaos that can come from a yard full of nothing but shrubs and perennials. This gets more difficult to accomplish if there’s no lawn.

To illustrate what I mean, here’s one of my favorite projects. The client wanted a collection of curated garden beds, heavy on the native plants. I wanted to make sure there were durable paths – the lawn areas – and an overall cohesive look.

Tips for landscaping a wooded lot

A wooded landscape won’t feel finished unless there’s somewhere for the eye to land. You may not consciously be able to say that’s what’s wrong, but unconsciously? You’ll be bouncing around, trying to figure out where to look. For this I look to create a focal point, something that is clearly What You Should Look At. Every one of my wooded landscapes has a focal point. Here, it’s a patio with a firepit.

When landscaping a wooded lot it’s also important to figure out how you’ll get around the property. Paths become very important. We’ve done grass paths, gravel paths, and wood chip paths. It’s even possible to create paths just by strategically placing your plants to make it clear where one should step.

Wooded areas can quickly begin to feel cluttered and chaotic if not planted properly. A few tips:

Pick a primary plant: just like when designing a landscape for plant collectors, I try to find one or two plants with strong structure or color (or both) to create some unity. Diverse plant groups can be placed around these and they work, because the primary plants pull the space together.

Create movement: place some key plants (I like boxwood that’s left shaggy, not sheared) in groupings to help direct you where you need to go. Lead the eye to the focal point destination, deflect away from anything undesirable. You’re reinforcing the paths and/or bed edges.

shaggy boxwood

Simplify the color palette: this may seem out of character for me, as my approach to color is “plantings can look like about three hours after a dog ate a box of 64 Crayola crayons and still be perfect.” Landscaping a wooded lot means you’re probably dealing with some heavy shade, and an explosion of colors won’t read as strongly as simple colors. White and purple flowers, or purple and pink flowers, or white, yellow, and purple flowers, all make for simple, striking combinations. And don’t forget foliage!

Play with texture: Again, heavy shade can make everything seem a little more homogenous and muddy. Textural contrasts can make a shade garden exquisite. As an example, in my yard the fine texture of Fargesia (clumping bamboo) works beautifully alongside the broad, smooth leaves of oakleaf hydrangea.

Use garden ornaments: Wooded landscapes are the perfect place to incorporate garden ornaments that will “surprise” visitors as they move through the garden. Small fountains, like a shishi-odoshi, are perfect.

So are small statues, like this one of my favorite saint (guess who grew up Catholic?)

Bottom line, a wooded landscape takes some thought and planning ahead of time but the results are totally worth it. If you’re still not sure where to start, contact me today!

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