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Maintaining Your Woodland Garden
July 11, 2005 by Evelyn J. Hadden
Maintenance depends on your woodland's health and maturity. Healthy established woodlands demand no regular maintenance. However, site conditions in a young woodland will change over time, prompting a gradual change in the understory plant community.

Different maintenance tasks are discussed below:


In the first stage of its life, a woodland may benefit from pruning. Pruning the canopy trees will help them grow tall quicker and will keep the area under them free for the understory plants, which you can then plant sooner.

However, there are costs to pruning. "Pruning too early or excessive pruning... leads to sunscald and overall depressed growth," says the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service. Also pruning does create wounds, so it has the potential to make trees more vulnerable to disease organisms.

After the canopy is high enough, it isn't necessary to prune canopy trees unless wind or lightning damages a large limb, branches obstruct passage along the paths, or the canopy grows too thick to allow understory growth. This latter situation can be prevented by choosing canopy trees that only produce dappled shade (such as oak, ash, or birch) rather than those that cut out most of the light (such as maple or spruce) if you want to grow a thick understory layer.

Understory shrubs and trees may be pruned periodically in the first few years for good air circulation and to create pleasing shapes, and fruiting or flowering species usually benefit from pruning every several years throughout their lives to let light into the interior and increase production.

Finally, you can prune off damaged limbs, though these are also important habitat for certain species, so you may decide to leave them if they don't threaten buildings or other plants.

Trees grown in a woodland setting won't require regular pruning. Cris Saunders explains exactly when to prune forest trees in his article "Let It Alone." Saunders writes, "No tree in nature requires pruning for its health."


There is no raking in a woodland. Let the litter lie, and it will decompose and form humus that builds healthy soil rich in nutrients. There are only a few instances in which you'd want to remove fallen leaves:
  • Diseased plants whose leaves turn black or develop spots or rust may spread the disease to other plants. Cut off all diseased foliage and dispose of it in the trash. Do not compost it, as composting may not heat the foliage enough to sterilize it, and you risk spreading the disease to other plants even after months or years spent in the compost heap.

  • Some trees or shrubs might generate thick leaf litter that could smother the plants you've planted below them. Ideally, you'd only underplant a heavily littering tree with plants that can survive the annual blanket, or you wouldn't plant anything but leave a peaceful stretch of woodland floor. If you must plant under a heavily littering tree, remove some of the leaf litter from the plants below it every fall.
If you do remove some excess leaves from your woodland, remember that they make a great mulch for other garden areas.


Naturalistic groundcovers require minimal maintenance. Colonies of plants are natural-looking. They soothe the eye and mind and make a woodland feel spacious. They also require less maintenance than a mix of many species; you won't need to wade among them ensuring that the more vigorous species don't swamp the less vigorous ones.

Try large single-species colonies (or "drifts") planted to gradually run into each other, with slight mingling at the edges, which will give you variety but keep maintenance low. Or plant a spreading groundcover interspersed with shrubs that are too tall to be swamped.

Another design choice is to use a mix of several tree species that are similarly aggressive. More species diversity will increase the stability and health of your woodland.


Research indicates that woody plants can benefit greatly if they receive enough water as they are getting established. Ideally, for the first couple of years you should be ready to water them every week that rainfall doesn't supply enough water. After that, is is likely better to let them alone. Supplementing the water they naturally receive will make them less healthy by encouraging shallow, thirsty roots and growth beyond the plants' capacity to support themselves.

If there's a drought in your area that breaks records, you could relent and soak the woodland thoroughly once every few weeks, just enough that the less drought-tolerant species don't weaken and invite disease. Better yet, plant drought-tolerant species in the first place and avoid having to wonder whether you should water them or not.

This is an excellent reason to rely on native plants, which have adapted to the local climate extremes over thousands of years.

Note on climate change : Recent decades have seen major changes in usual patterns of regional weather. Even locally adapted species can have a tough time handling unprecedented droughts, deluges, and other weather extremes, so selective minimal intervention from you may now be a key factor in your plants' survival.

Other LessLawn articles about woodlands:
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