Introduction to Woodland Habitats in Your Garden

Bluebells, hyacinthoides non scripta, bluebell wood, emmetts garden, kent

Woodland habitats in your garden was one of those wildlife gardening possibilities outlined in an earlier blog – Creating Small Wildlife Habitats in Your Garden.

Here, I intend to look at this range of wildlife habitats in some more detail, but still as an homogenous group.

There are some overlaps between them, particularly so when considering the smaller scale of an ‘average’ domestic garden. That is, as compared to a nature reserve or a smallholding. Much of what I suggest would be also possible to carry out on part of an allotment or community garden.


As it’s the climate and country I know best, the habitats and planting discussed occur in or are suitable for Great Britain and Ireland. However, many of these comments and suggestions are relevant for similar habitats in other temperate zones. What you should be aware of is the flora and fauna may be slightly different when looking for native and naturalised species.

Firstly, a recap on what we mean by ‘wildlife habitats’, ‘your garden’ and ‘woodland habitats’.

Wildlife Habitats

There are four main types of wildlife habitats within the British Isles. As we saw in the Creating Small Wildlife Habitats in Your Garden they each have subdivisions.

  • Woodland Habitats
  • Wetland Habitats
  • Grassland Habitats
  • Rockland Habitats

Your Garden

Private, or domestic, gardens in Britain currently cover a larger area than all the National Nature Reserves put together.

The size of domestic garden under consideration here is kept small on purpose. It makes it easier to imagine creating a woodland habitat in your garden. For larger gardens, you’ll find yourself thinking of a particular area which may be suitable.

An average sized suburban garden varies across the country, but let’s give ourselves a size to visualise. Less than a quarter of an acre, say about 25-foot wide by 90-foot long. Which is the same size, although a different shape, to a doubles tennis court.

Urban, or city gardens, have specific issues, but much of this blog is relevant. Having created a few wildlife friendly city gardens over the years, do get in touch if you’d like me to help you with an urban woodland garden.

Gardens, unlike most allotments, have to cope with lots of demands made on them. Patios, children, pets, washing lines, to name but a few. So the space available for a small wildlife habitat in your garden could well be small. That’s fine.

What I would say to you, is do not discount the possibility of having woodland habitats in your garden even if you only have restricted space available. You could be amazed at a what a garden design or garden consultancy can help you to achieve!

woodland walk, spring, garden, red house, william morris, arts and crafts


Woodland Habitats

There are four sub-sections to woodland habitats in temperate climates.

  • Natural or unmanaged woodland
  • Managed woodland
  • Woodland edge
  • Hedgerows

But why are trees so important? Well, trees, including both individual specimens and small woodland are able to provide to a garden: –

  • an ornamental aesthetic – it looks pretty
  • a productive, edible element, for example, fruit trees
  • cooling shade for humans, pets, flora and fauna
  • an environment for wildlife to thrive in
  • a carbon sink, ie absorbing and retaining carbon from the atmosphere
  • a play opportunity for your children, for example, tree house

Why would we not have trees in our gardens? except when we really, really do not have the space, of course. But a woodland habitat of some description is still possible.

Woodland Habitats in Your Garden

Now we’ll look at each of these woodland habitats in relation to creating one in your own garden. There are further blogs planned, looking at the more popular types of woodland habitat in greater depth. These will have practical applications, planting ideas, tips for maintaining your wildlife habitat.


Woodland Habitats in Your Garden – Natural or Unmanaged Woodland

Natural woodland is also known as unmanaged as these are environments which are left largely untouched. The tree cover will generally be broad-leafed, deciduous in lowland Britain. Native conifers are likely to form a part of the species present in moorland and upland regions.

True natural woodland is a difficult one to reproduce. It’s more likely that you would find this type of woodland when you purchased the land.

The first thing you need to do is check out the local woods. This is to ascertain the native species which are local to your area. Ideally, you would need to do this monthly over the course of a year to gain a full picture

winter woodland walk, snow, frost

For your own natural woodland habitat, you will need to be prepared for adverse comments. Some visitors will see mess, not nature.


You will need mature trees, a small copse or group. A single tree does not look right for this, although it can work for a managed woodland (below). Preferably include an Oak tree, Quercus robur, which supports over 280 insect species, plus birds and other wildlife. Depending on your soil type, other good woodland trees for an unmanaged woodland could be Ash, Fraxinus excelsior; Elder, Sambucus nigra; Holly, Ilex aquifolium.

You will also need to include lower layers of vegetation. Shrubs, for example, Brambles, Rubus fruticosus. Also ground cover and climbers for example Ivy, Hedera helix.

autumn leaves, fall, woodland, abscission, deciduous trees

Leaf mould and dead wood (not neatly stacked!) should be left on the woodland floor. This provides a habitat for various insects, beetles and small mammals.

Ideally, you would avoid walking through your woodland too often as it might disturb some of the wildlife. This possibly makes it more a labour of love than an integral part of your garden.


Woodland Habitats in Your Garden – Managed woodland

Managed woodland has been a part of rural life for hundreds if not thousands of years. It is possible to see traces of previously managed woodland when you’re out walking in the country. See those Beech trees, Fagus sylvatica, with many trunks coming from one base? They were coppiced in the past, Beech naturally has a single trunk, not many.

Coppicing is where trees are coppiced, ie pruned, near the base of their main trunk. This encourages new growth of multiple trunks and light to the woodland floor, enabling a wider selection of species to thrive. The coppiced wood is used for fencing, furniture, fuel.

It is a system which would work well as part of a small managed woodland in your garden.

Choose trees which can be coppiced such as Hazel, Corylus avellana; Alder, Alnus glutinosa; Pussy Willow, Salix caprea. Also shrubs such as Dogwood, Cornus siberica, to give you brightly coloured stems in winter.

hazel , coppiced wood, corylus avellana

Of course, you don’t have to coppice your managed woodland. Properly maintained, there are many trees which would be suitable.

You could even have just one tree. Seriously. If that’s all there’s room for, because you have a small garden or would like to include other wildlife habitats, have a single tree.

Plant lower levels of flowers and vegetation to create a small woodland. Try spring flowering bulbs and small perennial flowering woodland plants. For example –

  • Bluebells, Hyacinthoides non scripta
  • Wood anemones, Anemone nemerosa
  • Primrose, Primula vulgaris
  • Violets, Viola oderata (scented sweet violet), Viola riviniana (dog violet)

These flowers are nearly all spring flowering, when the branches of the deciduous trees are bare of leaf. This allows the maximum light to reach the small plants. However, you may like more interest throughout the year, so I’ll explore this in a later blog.

Managed Woodland – Forest Gardening

Forest Gardening is a sustainable perennial system to grow food crops in a manner that mimics a deciduous forest. It is a subject I will return to in its own blog.

If you wanted to grow your own fruit as well as having pretty flowers and providing a woodland habitat, it could be an option. An option that does require careful planning, so you might like to look at some of my thoughts on ornamental edible garden designs.

Woodland Habitats in Your Garden – Woodland Edge

This style or type of woodland habitat is possible to accomplish even in tiny gardens. Consider the vertical spaces in your garden. Then think of –

  • Honeysuckle, Lonicera periclymenum, scented flowers May – July, red berries in the autumn
  • Dog Rose, Rosa canina, scented pink flowers in June – July
  • Clematis, Clematis vitalba, also known as travellers’ joy, fluffy seeds heads
  • Ivy, Hedera helix, evergreen and bears shiny black berries over winter
  • Bramble, Rubus fruticosa, edible berries from mid-August

No trees in this list, but imagine the delights for humans and wildlife with the selection above!

Rosa canina, dog rose, native species, scented pink flowers

However, woodland edge is an excellent choice of woodland habitat if you already have native deciduous trees in your garden. Planting an understorey of shrubs and small perennials will soon transform the space.

If you do not have existing trees, with careful planning you could add some in and make a garden feature with a difference. Have climbers on a wall or fence, a narrow bark path to walk along next to this with small trees on the other side of the path. How delightful would that be? Children would love the secret aspect; romantics could wander along reciting poetry; cats could pretend to be tigers in the jungle.

There’s lots of scope for small and large gardens and spaces within gardens. Almost best of all, visitors not ‘in the know’ about wildlife habitats will compliment you on your lovely garden!


Woodland Habitats in Your Garden – Hedgerows

The last of our Woodland habitats in your garden. Again, it is a suitable style for nearly all sizes of garden.

Do you have an existing hedge as a boundary to or within your garden? You may be surprised to discover you have the makings of a native hedgerow if Privet, Ligustrum vulgare or Yew, Taxus baccata, is the main species!

Turning your current hedge into a habitat may be as simple as adding in a few more plants that are wildlife friendly. For example, Guelder rose, Viburnum opulus and Dog rose, Rosa canina.

Hedges can be boundaries or partitions within your garden. They are not always the appropriate woodland habitat if space is very tight and there are other needs for the garden. Have a read of Should I plant a Garden Hedge? to help you decide.

However, if a new hedge is right for you, then making it a wildlife friendly one is easy. Depending on the eventual height, density of growth and whether you need it as a security barrier will affect your choice of plants.

sweet briar rose, sweetbrier, eglantine, rose hips, Rosa rubiginosa, Rosa eglanteria, aromatic foliage, hawthorn hedge, crataegus, berries

You will need to maintain your hedge in a wildlife friendly manner. So remember: –

  • the nesting season
  • flowers for pollen
  • edible berries
  • seed heads
  • hibernating insects and mammals


Woodland Habitats in Your Garden – some thoughts

The woodland environment is a natural one for Great Britain and Ireland. Left uncultivated, the majority of the land would quickly revert to natural, unmanaged woodland.

Many people, myself among them, find it relaxing to walk among woodland trees. Establishing your very own little bit of woodland whilst still having a garden is possible for many of us. Please get in touch if you would like Plews to help you achieve your woodland. We offer both Garden Consultancy and Garden Design.

And finally, a thoughtful quote from ­­Henry David Thoreau

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. ­“


Related blogs you may enjoy

Wild about Gardens – Design Ideas for Humans and Wildlife
Creating Small Wildlife Habitats in Your Garden
Ornamental Deciduous Trees for Small Gardens
Is RHS Chelsea Flower Show more eco-friendly than your Garden?

woodland walk, armadale castle gardens

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