How To Design A Whimsical Forest Garden In Your Own Backyard

Are you longing to turn your backyard into a soothing and magical forest garden? 

Even if you have a small lot in the suburbs, you can design a whimsical woodland oasis in your backyard. 

As a Northwest native, I grew up around lush backyards that were the epitome of forest gardening.  

Bleeding heart are a common forest flower native to the Northwest.

And I’ve learned that trick to creating a relaxing woodland garden is to first establish some sources of shade. Beneath these trees or large shrubs, you’ll plant understory plants and flowers that thrive in dappled light. 

You can add character and visual interest to the forest garden with small ponds, fountains, and shade-loving flower gardens.  

Let’s dive into the step-by-step details!

Designing And Planning

A forest garden can be a complex mosaic of layered trees, shrubs, and flowers. Or, it can be as simple as a few trees in your backyard with beautiful shade-loving plants thriving beneath them. 

No matter how complex or simple you plan for your oasis, start by jotting your ideas down. Research your favorite trees, plants, flowers, and shrubs, and  check out their capability in your zone. 

Next, sketch your ideas on graph paper. 

Create Shade With Ornamental Trees Or Shrubs

Essential to a forest garden are towering trees and shrubs that provide a respite of shade for other plants to grow beneath. 

You may be lucky enough to have some large trees in your backyard. If so, these plants will be the cornerstones of your forest garden!

If you start from scratch, you’ll want to plant at least one tree or shrub that will develop in height over time. This tree will create the ambiance and shade needed for a forest garden.

Remember that this process can take some time; however, you can still build your forest garden around your trees as they grow. 

My neighbor created this mini forest garden by planting lots of bulbs under an evergreen tree that has a lot of open light around it.

Deciduous trees will lose their leaves in the fall, while coniferous trees will keep them all year. Deciduous trees can give you options for growing flowers like tulips before the trees bud in the spring.

Coniferous trees will stay evergreen all year, providing consistency for shade-loving plants. 

Some fast-growing trees: silver maple and red maple, tulip trees, Eastern white pines. 

You are in luck if you already have established trees in your yard! Use these trees as the cornerstone of your woodland garden. 

Decide On Permanent Features

In addition to your trees, you’ll want to consider what permanent fixtures you long for in a woodland garden. 

If you plan on a whimsical rock path, a cheerful babbling brook, or a small pond, you’ll want to take things slow to design correctly, then plant around these elements. 

Establishing the foundational elements before planting flowers, small shrubs, or plants is a good idea. A little planning will prevent you from transplanting flowers later, which can sometimes damage or even kill the plants. 

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If you are designing a pond or rock water feature, consider hiring a professional to assist you!

Embrace Native Plants + Flowers

Native plants and flowers will not only look romantic and charming, but they will grow quickly in your forest garden with very little help from you!  

These native plants suit your growing environment and will thrive happily in a forest garden. 

bleeding haert growing in a forest garden

Make sure to research plants that grow naturally in your specific area. In SW Washington, bleeding heart, lupine, columbine, and blue primrose grow naturally. 

Incorporating native plants into a forest garden helps the natural environment, saves water, and attracts pollinators. Not only that, but they naturally fit into a forest setting. 

Add Understory Shrubs, Flowers + Plants

Understory shrubs and flowers can thrive in the shade of taller trees and shrubs. 

Camellia, for example, is a popular flowering shrub that thrives in the canopy of taller trees. Rhododendron is another popular flowering shrub that can thrive in part shade conditions.  

Hellebore, primroses, and bleeding hearts are flowers that can grow in the dappled light provided by taller trees. (Get all of our ideas for forest flowers here!)

Ferns, hostas, and heuchera are popular perennials that feature lush foliage and thrive in the shade of taller trees. 

Take note of areas with full sun, partial and complete shade, and plan accordingly. Give each plant ample square footage in which to grow. 

Plant Seasonal Flowers

You can use any open sunlight in the spring before deciduous trees leaf out by planting spring-blooming flower bulbs. 

These flowers crave sunlight but bloom early in the season before the leaves on the trees unfurl. 

Daffodils, tulips, and crocus are colorful flowers that will bring a burst of beautiful color to a forest garden in early spring.

Decorate With Whimsical Forest Elements

The final step in creating an inviting forest garden backyard is to decorate it with whimsical woodland touches. 

The choices are endless, and you can choose from classic to kitschy, depending on your tastes!  Take advantage of existing structures and yard features by planting shade loving plants around them.

Add mossy stumps for natural, cozy seating. Bird feeders and fountains will bring feathered friends to the yard.

Consider adding fairy houses, gnome statues, or even a whimsical tree swing for a touch of romance. Gnomes are a traditional woodsy choice and can hide amongst ferns and hostas for a charming touch. 

Add animals carved from wood, rustic stump flower planters, terra cotta pots, and old wheelbarrows overflowing with shade-loving flowers. 

You can go crazy or be simple in your decorations!

Tie the woodland theme together with natural tones, wood textures, and water elements.  Be prepared to see lots of vibrant wildlife in your backyard.

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