How to Grow a Woodland

When you move into a new house with a new garden, it can be a bit overwhelming. Where do you start? My top tip is to start with the structure; the larger elements in the garden. It's a bit like decorating a room - you don't usually buy the knick-knacks for the fireplace before you have a couch! 

The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago.

The second best time is today.

- Chinese proverb

Lawns can be established in a matter of weeks, and even flowerbeds can grow quickly if a good mixture of annuals are used to fill the gaps while you wait for shrubs to grow. But what makes a garden feel mature are the hedges and trees, and those take years. So that's where we focused our attentions in the early days after moving in here. And I'm so glad we did. Although we still need to seed the lawn properly and plant flower beds, our garden is already nestled between mature hedges even has a little woodland. 

The House that Will | How to Grow a Woodland
Woodland eleven years after planting

Establishing your own little woodland doesn't take as long as you may think. This photo was taken just six years after we planted our trees. Even at that early stage, the trees were well above our heads and already had the feeling of a woodland.

The House that Will | How to Grow a Woodland
Woodland six years after planting

Neither does a woodland require as much space as you might think, and there are options (see below) for introducing trees to even the smallest of spaces.


The House that Will | How to Grow a Woodland

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In case you were wondering, this is what our front garden looked like a year after we moved in. It was nothing more than a mucky field (excuse the photo quality - it was taken with an old mobile phone).

The House that Will | How to Grow a Woodland
Before planting the woodland.

And this is how it looked last week ...

The House that Will | How to Grow a Woodland Woodland eleven years after planting 

So where do you start if you want to create your own little woodland? 

What to Plant

"Right Plant, Right Place"

The saying "Right Plant, Right Place" is used among gardeners to describe the idea of finding suitable plants for the site conditions, taking into consideration things like soil acidity*, drainage, climate, exposure (wind), and light levels. In other words, there is no point trying to plant a cactus in a bog! 

*If you live in an area with a lot of limestone, your soil is also most likely limey. Areas with granite, bogs, and mountainous regions tend to have more acidic soil. If in doubt, you can buy a little kit from your local garden centre that will enable you to test the pH of your soil.

The House that Will | How to Grow a Woodland
Elder flowers

So how do you know which plants will suit your site? In general, native plants are a great starting point because we already know that they are suited to our climate and conditions. They are also the most beneficial for our wildlife. A great tip is to survey the hedgerows in your area, as often these will include remnants of ancient forests and give you some idea of what will grow well in your garden. Do note, however, that some trees which grow well in a hedgerow prefer part-shade over the full shade found in a woodland. But fear not! It only takes a quick internet search to confirm the growing requirements for any plant, so it's easy to double-check before you buy. 

Also consider the ultimate height of your trees. Avoid planting tall trees where they will block the light from your house or garden - or that of your neighbours. Tall trees should not be planted under overhead wires or along roadsides, where they are potentially dangerous in high winds. You will also need to consider what's underground, and avoid planting trees where they may damage foundations or pipelines.

On the plus side, trees can actually be beneficial in managing, and even altering, conditions in your garden, for example by adding shelter to exposed sites. If your soil tends to be quite waterlogged, alder (not to be confused with elder!) is a beautiful and fast-growing tree that doesn't mind getting its feet wet and that will even help to dry out the soil. Downy birch is another native tree that does well in wet sites, and which is also tolerant of acidic soil.

The House that Will | How to Grow a Woodland
Wild cherry in springtime

The majority tree in my little woodland is the hazel. Technically a shrub, hazel is a relatively short tree and is very well suited to the stony, limey soil in my area. Other shrubby trees I've planted include holly, spindle, elder, Guelder rose (not actually a rose, but a type of viburnum), and buckthorn1. Interspersed with those are a few taller trees, like wild cherry, crab apple, and goat willow. And to top it off, quite literally, are the largest trees: oak2, ash3, and elm. Although the elm will likely succumb to Dutch Elm disease eventually, this devastating fungal infection only affects mature trees, so my trees will live a good long life before then. Obviously, I have taken great care with the placement of the taller trees, as described above.

1Buckthorn is the only plant eaten by caterpillars of the big yellow Brimstone butterfly, and so is necessary for it to survive. There are two versions of the plant: alder buckthorn is more suited to acidic soils and purging buckthorn is better for limey soils. Beware that the berries of both cause digestive upset. 

2There are two types of native oak trees in Ireland: sessile oak, which is found in areas with acidic soil, and pendunculate oak that grows in limey soil.

3Ash is our tallest native tree, reaching approx. 40m. Do beware that it self-seeds freely, and you will soon find little saplings popping up everywhere!

The House that Will | How to Grow a WoodlandSpindle berries in autumn

These trees provide year-round interest in the woodland. In spring, it starts with the silvery catkins on the willow - often nicknamed "pussy willow" because the buds resemble the soft fur of a tabby cat. The first blossoms appear on the wild cherry in mid-spring, followed soon after by the crab apples and then the Guelder rose in early summer. Throughout the summer, the fruits start to form: cherries, crab apples, and of course, the hazelnuts. In autumn, the unusal pink berries of the spindle appear and the bright red clusters of berries on the Guelder rose. Throughout the winter, the pale yellow catkins of the hazels dangle from the trees and bob about on the breeze. 

Other trees you could consider are: Scot's pine (a tall tree originally native to Ireland and now reintroduced here), silver birch, downy birch, and rowan (otherwise known as mountain ash, and suitable for all soil types).

The House that Will | How to Grow a WoodlandWild cherry in summer

Small Spaces

If your space is smaller, stick to the small and mid-sized trees I mentioned above. Also consider hedgerow plants, like hawthorn (whitethorn) or rowan. For maximum effect, plant in a cluster rather than a row. Even in the smallest of gardens, a couple of trees planted in a corner with a heavenly-scented woodbine (wild honeysuckle) scrambling up and a bench underneath will create a wonderful woody retreat. You can even grow trees in containers, which is an option for balconies and where the height of the tree needs to be restricted. 

The House that Will | How to Grow a Woodland
Woodbine (wild honeysuckle)


Once you have decided what trees will suit your garden, the next step is to plan the layout of the woodland. If, like me, your house is new, it's possible that you will have some architect's drawings of the site that you can use as a starting point. If not, measure the garden as best you can and transfer the outlines onto graph paper. 

Then you can start sketching. Consider all the aspects you want to include: my back garden has a seating area, somewhere to grow vegetables, a lawn, and an area I want to develop into a wildflower meadow with a pond, so the woodland is primarily at the front of the house (shown here).

The House that Will | How to Grow a Woodland

Remember when making your drawings to allow for pathways through your trees, and open clearings to add variety. There's no point having a woodland if you can't get in there to enjoy it! 

Next I blocked out the area to be planted and overlaid it with a grid. Amongst other things, the grid helped to determine safe distances for the placement of the tallest trees. The grid is placed at angle from the house to avoid the unnatural appearance of straight rows of trees.

The House that Will | How to Grow a Woodland

Each side of the red boxes on the grid is equivalent to a 3m distance in real life. I planted a tree on the intersection of each of these lines - approximately. I didn't want my garden looking like a commercial forestry, so I was actively avoiding straight lines. Inside each of the red boxes, I placed a smaller shrubby tree. This kind of close planting is appropriate for a woodland intended as a wildlife habitat. 

Making a plan on paper allowed me to determine the number of trees I would need to buy. It also enabled me to see flaws in my plan - I ended up simplifying the area on the right of this picture as the appropriate spacings between the trees didn't leave enough space for that many pathways. 

Buying Trees

When it comes to buying your plants, I recommend going directly to a tree nursery. You will have a better selection and at a cheaper price. Some nurseries I can recommend are Doonwood Nurseries in Mountbellew, Fruit and Nut in Westport, CELT in Loughrea, and Woodkerne in West Cork. 

The best time to buy and to plant your woodland is in winter. That's when trees are dormant, and so can be sold and planted bare root. Although potted trees can be planted at any time of year, bare root trees cost just a fraction of potted plants. As a guideline, our woodland covers about a quarter acre, for which I ordered approximately 500 trees. So that starts to add up very quickly!

The House that Will | How to Grow a Woodland
Hazelnuts ripening on the trees

Potted trees will need to be staked to prevent windrock, which can damage the roots, whereas this is not necessary with bare-rooted plants.

Another advantage of bare root trees is that they establish themselves much quicker than potted trees. When trees are in pots, the tree itself may be 2-3m tall, but the roots are still contained in a small pot. Once planted into the ground, trees that had been potted spend the first few years expanding their root system to support the amount of growth above ground. Bare root plants, although they start off at maybe only 50cm tall, take off straight away and will soon outgrow the potted tree. I had heard this fact when planting my woodland, but would hardly have believed it had I not seen it for myself. I had planted a couple of oak trees, one bare root and another potted tree that was a gift. After 4 years, both trees were the same size and the bare root tree has since outgrown the potted tree.

The House that Will | How to Grow a Woodland
Hazel catkins in winter


The most important thing to do when establishing your woodland is to keep weeds, and particularly grass, at bay. I don't like using chemical sprays, so my solution was to get a load of wood chips from a local sawmill and spread it around the base of the trees. As you can see in some of the photos, it took me a while to get around to this. But once I did, I could immediately see the difference in the amount of growth the trees put on each year after that. 

If you have rabbits or deer in your area, you will need to prevent them from chewing the bark of your trees, particularly in the early stages. As a precaution, I placed tree shelters around our trees. These protected the trees, not only from predators, but also from the strimmer! They also acted as a mini-greenhouse that encouraged the trees to grow quicker.

The House that Will | How to Grow a Woodland

The shelters need to be attached to a stake to prevent them from blowing off. The sides of the shelters have a perforation so that they can either be removed easily, or the trees will break free of them as they grow. After just 3 years, the trees had already outgrown the shelters and I was able to remove them, which vastly improved the appearance of the woodland! 

The trees can be pruned each winter. You will need to look out for the 3D's: Dead, Damaged, or Diseased wood. Cut out any branch that is rubbing off another, as this will lead to damage over time. You can also "lift the crown" of your trees; that is, trim the lower branches gradually each year so that you will eventually be able to walk underneath them comfortably. 

The House that Will | How to Grow a Woodland
Fungi on the woodland floor


A healthy woodland will have four layers of plantlife:

  • Canopy: These are the tallest trees in the wood, such as ash, elm, oak.
  • Sub-canopy: These are the middle layer of trees e.g. cherry, crab apple.
  • Shrub layer: A shrub is a woody plant with multiple stems, such as hazel and Guelder rose. 
  • Forest floor: This is where you will find the wildflowers and mosses.

No woodland, then, is complete without the plants that grow underneath the trees. In my woodland, the ivy, mosses, and fungi have found their own way into the garden, along with wildflowers such as herb robert, wood anemone, wood dog violet, and even bluebells.

The House that Will | How to Grow a Woodland

I am currently working on splitting my clumps of bluebells* to propogate them throughout my woodland. I also plan to sow Ramsons, or wild garlic. You can populate your woodland floor with almost any shade-loving plant you like!

*Note: I have since discovered that the bluebells that found their way into my garden have been hybridised with Spanish bluebells. So, starting in autum, I will be removing those and replacing them with our native bluebell species.


While a properly-managed woodland will require some maintenance, such as annual pruning, it is much less demanding than a lawn. My hubby has hayfever, and so reducing the grassed area around our house made a lot of sense. Besides, who wants to spend every summer weekend mowing acres of lawn?

Woodlands also offer shelter and privacy. Even in winter, when there are no leaves on most of our trees, they still act as an effective shelterbelt.

The House that Will | How to Grow a Woodland
You can tell who's been eating your hazelnuts by the way they break through the shell. Left: a hole chewn by a woodmouse - you can even see the tooth marks on the shell! Right: shell broken in half by a squirrel.

The benefits to wildlife are obviously huge. All day, every day, our garden is filled with the sound of birdsong. Just six years after planting the woodland, we started to find nests in the trees. Sparrow hawks visit the garden on occasion, and bats arrive at dusk. I have found a woodmouse in the undergrowth. There are hedgehogs and pheasants, and we have been visited by foxes and badgers. And although I have never seen one here yet, I have found evidence that squirrels have been feeding on our hazelnuts.

The House that Will | How to Grow a Woodland

Most of all, the benefit of having a woodland for me is the opportunity it gives me to get out into nature and unwind ... and it's all on my own doorstep.


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