Five of the best woodland gardens in the United States

Garden destination vacation is perfect for landscape design ideas

Now that we have hopefully seen the end of the worst Covid can send our way, more and more people are planning family vacations.

Many may hesitate to board a plane or cruise ship for a traditional vacation, but may be open to the idea of a driving or mini weekend vacation, especially one that involves being safely outdoors in nature.

Now is the perfect time to consider planning a garden destination vacation by visiting one or more of the many public gardens that offer a safe, outdoor experience where you can explore some of the best garden designs and take home a wealth of knowledge and ideas to use in your own gardens. Garden destination vacations can be as simple as a self-guided walk in the woods or as entertaining and informative as signing up to have a professional guide lead you through the garden experience.

I’ve put together a list of five of the best woodland gardens in the United States to get readers thinking about visiting a local or nearby garden, either as a weekend adventure or as a side excursion during a traditional week-long vacation. There are gardens stretching from New England to Texas and a few in between.

If you are looking to travel to Canada for vacation, be sure to check out Three of the Best Woodland gardens in Canada.

Native Plant Trust (New England Wildflower Society) owns and operates Garden in the Woods, an outstanding natural woodland garden that offers visitors both spiritual and educational experiences just 20 miles from Boston.

How close is Garden in the Woods to Boston?

Garden in the Woods is a 45-acre, magical woodland that showcases the natural beauty of both the New England landscape and, most importantly, its native wildflowers, plants and trees. It’s open to the public through October, if you want to explore the colours of fall while visiting Boston.

Located about 20 miles west of Boston, (in Zone 7A) the massive, naturalistic woodland sculpted by retreating glaciers into eskers, steep-sided valleys, and a kettle pond, is the result of an incredibly dedicated group of individuals who make up the New England Wildflower Society now called Native Plant Trust.


Why should families make Garden in the Woods a travel destination while in the Boston area?

That’s a question I asked Uli Lorimer, Director of Horticulture, at Garden in the Woods.

“Garden in the Woods offers visitors of all ages the opportunity to immerse themselves in the habitats and plants of New England. Exposure to nature, to insects, birds, and the diversity of plant life is crucially important for young children if we hope for them to become the next generation of environmental stewards,” he explains. “The displays include common plants as well as rare, threatened or unusual plants giving the visitor an in depth experience with the diversity of life found in New England.”

What makes Garden In The Woods and its facilities so special to visitors?

“A visitor will immediately sense that this garden is different from other botanical gardens. The way in which the plants are displayed and the experience of walking the trails, the seamless way in which visitors transition from one “garden room” to another is what adds to the unique character of Garden in the Woods,” explains Lorimer. “We offer a wealth of education classes alongside engaging interpretation, affording visitors a chance to learn and grow as they stroll the garden. At our gift shop and plant sale yard, visitors can take home a plant or two to introduce into their own gardens or a tasteful gift, book or memento of the day.”

How can woodland gardeners get the most out of a visit to Garden in the Woods?

“Woodland gardeners are our favorite!, Lorimer explains.

“In order to get the most out of visiting a garden in the Woods, a visitor would need to plan a trip in spring, summer and fall, as the displays and seasonal highlights change. Spending at least 3-4 hours will allow the visitor enough time to leisurely stroll the trails, take notes of the plants and planting combinations they see, to engage with one of the friendly horticulture staff and to feel relaxed and inspired. We strive to offer for sale most of the plants that can be seen in the gardens which helps visiting gardeners act on their new ideas,” he explains.

Uli Lorimer

Special Event: Garden in the Woods is home to a nationally accredited Trillium collection which we celebrate every spring with Trillium Week. This year Trillium Week will be from Monday May 9th through until Sunday May 15th. There will be special garden tours, drop in workshops as well as an evening event planned around the joy of growing Trilliums. Please check out our website

Harvard Magazine describes the gardens perfectly: “This “living museum” offers refreshing excursions through New England’s diverse flora and landscapes: visitors may roam woodland paths; explore a lily pond alive with painted turtles, frogs, and dragonflies; or take the outer Hop Brook Trail.”

Garden in the Woods serves as New England Wild Flower Society headquarters

The sanctuary serves as the headquarters of the New England Wild Flower Society who also own the property along with six other botanical reserves in Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire. The Society is probably best know for the fact it produces more than 50,000 native plants annually, grown mostly from seeds found in the wild.

This incredible woodland is, as Harvary Magazine points out in an article: “proof of the Society’s mission to conserve and promote regional native plants to foster healthy, biologically diverse environments.”

In the garden visitors often describe as magical, you’ll find a naturalistic plant collection that showcases New England native plants with complementary specimens from across the country.

Finding inspiration in Garden in the Woods

If you garden in the Northeast part of the United States, this is the place to find inspiration for your own garden and a new appreciation for the varied plant life of the region.

Offering an extensive list of educational classes and field studies to go along with the information provided on its website on ecological gardening, the Woodland garden and website is a must for serious Woodland gardeners and native plant enthusiasts.

“Plants are the foundation of all life. No matter what you want to conserve, whether the interest is in birds, bats, or bugs—they all depend on plants,” executive director Debbi Edelstein told Harvard Magazine. “But people tend to overlook them. People see something green and think it’s good, but they don’t really see the roles that very special individual species play in making everything else healthy.”

Visitors can opt for guided tours through themed plantings including a rock garden, coastal, and meadow gardens as well as the extensive woodland garden.

Early spring (May 5-11) is definitely Trillium time at Garden in the Woods, where they can show off the 26 different trillium species to visitors.

The woodland garden’s peak bloom is in spring and early summer, with the meadow putting on its best show in mid-to-late summer with its abundance of bee balm, Culver’s root, lobelia, and black-eyed Susan, to name just a few of the native species, In the fall, native grasses take the spotlight in the meadow garden along with asters and goldenrods.

One need only look at the extensive trail system on the website to appreciate the vastness of this incredible jewel. If you are thinking about going, you can download a map showing Garden in the Woods’ extensive trail system to plan out your visit before you even leave your home.

If the seafood, Red Sox or tourist attractions in the Boston area are not enough to get you to make Bostonyour summer destination, surely Garden in the Woods will be the attraction to get garden tourists outside to experience nature and scoop some ideas for their own gardens.

For more on this spectacular garden destination, check out the article in Harvard Magazine on Garden in the Woods.

Garvan Woodland Gardens is a destination the entire family will enjoy from children who will be attracted to the Adventure garden, to adults enjoying the outstanding gardens and unique features.

Garvan Woodland Gardens: A must visit for the whole family

Garvan Woodland Gardens, the botanical garden of the University of Arkansas, ( zone 6B, 7A) has a mission to preserve and enhance a unique part of the picturesque Ouachita Mountains of Southwest Arkansas.

Its success stems from the perfect combination of beautiful gardens, elegant structures and landscaping details that celebrates the natural beauty of the Woodland Gardens: featuring a canopy of tall pines that provide protection for delicate flora and fauna, gentle lapping waves that unfold along the 4.5 miles of wooded shoreline, and rocky inclines.

Woodland gardeners will be particularly attracted to the Hixson Family Nature Preserve encompassing 45 acres of natural Ouachita woodland, nestled under a towering canopy of oak and cypress trees, while kids will want to spend time at the Evans Children’s Adventure Garden.


A garden for the kids

Families with children will undoubtedly gravitate toward the Evans Children’s Adventure Garden that offers 1.5 acres of fun tied into natural outdoor education at its finest.

(Here is a link to my article on why kids need more nature in their lives)

The interactive garden features more than 3,200 tons (or 6.4 million pounds) of boulders positioned to encourage exploration of the natural environment. Add to that a 12-foot waterfall that cascades over the entryway and an easily accessible, man-made cave, where children can discover “ancient” fossils. The garden also features a bridge constructed from wrought-iron “Cedar tree branches” and a maze of rocks that lead down to a series of wading pools.

Parents can enjoy a bird’s eye view of their children at play from a 450-foot long, 20-foot tall elevated walkway that also provides scenic vistas of Lake Hamilton and the surrounding woodlands.

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Garden beginnings

The Garvan Woodland Gardens, a gift from local industrialist and philanthropist Verna Cook Garvan, also provides visitors with a location of learning, research, cultural enrichment, and serenity in addition to a place to develop and sustain gardens, landscapes, and structures of exceptional aesthetics.

From the dynamic architectural structures to the majestic botanical landscapes, Garvan Woodland Gardens offers breathtaking sights (and fantastic photo opportunities) at every turn.

Hixson Family Nature Preserve

The Hixson Family Nature Preserve encompasses 45 acres of natural Ouachita woodland where visitors can take in the more than 120 species of birds, including bad eagles, pileated woodpeckers and the diminutive tufted titmous along with the long list of fauna that call the woodland home. (Check out this link on attracting the Tufted Titmouse to your garden.)

The Birdsong Trail is a 1.9 mile Birdsong Trail offers resting benches for watching the birds feed at special stations and enjoying some of the best vistas of Lake Hamilton in Hot Springs.

Visitors to the preserve learn about the woodland environment from educational displays placed along the adjoining Lowland Forest Boardwalk – where visitors learn about the environmental benefits of trees and forest cover.
The woodland refuge, nestled under a towering canopy of oak and cypress trees, is also home to the Shannon Perry Hope Overlook, a secluded site for reflection.

Don’t miss out these features at Garvan Woodlands

Millsap Canopy Bridge: Stretching two stories above the forest floor and spanning 120 feet, the serpentine-shaped Millsap Canopy Bridge is one of the most exciting pedestrian structures in the region. Its gently curved walkway winds through a woodland paradise of pools, cascades, and verdant plantings nestled in a ravine christened Singing Springs Gorge. Seasonally, the site offers a showy display of cinnamon ferns, Tardiva and oak leaf hydrangeas, delicate dogwoods and a collection of heat-tolerant rhododendrons.

The Perry Wildflower Overlook: provides sweeping lake views on the 1,500 square-foot flagstone terrace overlooking a one-acre planting of more than 40 different varieties of wildflowers, with new ones added each spring.
Bob and Sunny Evans Tree House: The new centerpiece of the Children's Garden, The Tree House is suspended within a group of pines and oaks, bending easily between them. The theme is the study of trees and wooded plants, drives both the form and program of the structure. The tree house is part of an ambitious plan to bring children back into the woods, the tree house uses a rich visual and tactile environment to stimulate the mind and body, while accommodating the needs of all users.

The Garden of the Pine Wind is a four-acre, majestic rock and stream garden. Voted the 5th best Asian garden in North America in 2012 by the Journal of Japanese Gardening, it offers a quiet place for contemplation and meditation. Approximately 300 varieties of Asian ornamental plants can be viewed here – including 60 types of Japanese and other Asian maples and Oriental dogwoods. In springtime, more than 40 giant-flowered tree peonies and hundreds of azaleas complement the maple collection’s attractive foliage.

The Joy Manning Scott Bridge of the Full Moon is one of the most recognized and most photographed features of the gardens. Considered the focal point of the Garden of the Pine Wind, the spectacular 11-foot-high, self-supporting structure echoes the ancient stone bridges of western China, where native stone was laid by hand in rustic patterns.

Sugg Model Train Garden: is a popular feature with the young and the young at heart. A big draw with model train enthusiasts,
the layout consists of 389 feet of track and 259 trestles and encompasses three independent operating loops. A freight or passenger train runs on the lower outer loop while a train hauling cars operates on the lower inner loop.

Garvan Pavilion: is an architectural masterpiece that stands as the centerpiece of the 210-acre botanical garden. The stunning open-air redwood and sandstone structure features a one-of-a-kind, faceted steel and glass ceiling centered around a classical oculus. This traditional ‘window in the ceiling’ serves as the focal point of a flower-like composition unfolding overhead. A wonderful complement to its woodland surroundings.

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and woodland garden in Texas is a must for gardeners looking to experience shade gardening at its best.

Lady Bird Johnson: A celebration of native wildflowers

Lady Bird Johnson Texas: Visitors to the Lady Bird Johnson gardens in Texas (zone 8) will marvel at the numerous examples of shade tolerant plants and other wildflowers in this peaceful, nature inspired garden that includes a stream compete with native fauna and flora.

But for Woodland gardeners, the garden offers a perfect place to ponder the subtleties of the woodland with its many shapes and textures among the wildflowers, vines, layers of trees and shrubs.


The garden is the ideal place for inspiration as well as specific ideas on what plant communities work well with one another. The garden’s website points out that the “Woodland Garden features Hill Country woody plants, many arranged based on the occurrence of plant communities in nature.”

It is also quick to point out that the garden “is also a great classroom for gardeners and homeowners to learn about shade gardening, or planting for low-light situations within a landscape.”

The gardens also feature an area of chalky limestone that supports sumacs, snowbells and the rare Texas madrone.

The garden hosts a number of activities throughout the year including seminars on birding in Texas, native orchids, ecology based landscaping, collecting and processing wild seed, botanical illustration and watercolour, wildflower research and even fitness, which we all know is an important aspect to gardening.

I highly recommend readers to check out the gardens informative website (see above), especially the area on wildflowers.

Spring is spectacular in the English Woodland Garden at the Missouri Botanical Gardens when 300 rhododendrons bloom alongside 100 flowering dogwoods.

Missouri Botanical Gardens: A St. Louis refuge

St. Louis Missouri Botanical Gardens and the woodland garden: Maybe it’s the natural sound of the babbling brook sparkling under a canopy of trees along the shaded pathway that stops you in your path as you stroll through the Cherbonnier English Woodland Garden (zone 6). If it’s spring, however, it’s more likely the more than 300 rhododendrons and azaleas, and 100 dogwoods in full bloom that will get your attention.

Even a single flowering dogwood is a stunning addition to any garden, but 100 dogwoods under planted with hundreds of blooming rhododendrons and azaleas is enough to stop anyone in their tracks. Stunning is an appropriate description of the garden in mid April when it is at its prime viewing.

And if that is not enough, add to the scene clusters of wildflowers, hydrangeas and perennials providing surprising splashes of color throughout the seasons. It’s not hard to see why this stunning garden is a favourite refuge during intense St. Louis summers.

Visitors can follow the meandering brook along a winding path of stepping stones, taking in the streamside plantings of primroses, ferns, cardinal flowers, and ground orchids, as it flows under several limestone bridges and into the Japanese Garden lake by way of a waterfall.

The English-style garden – with its informal display of botanical treasures from around the world – started as 1.5-acres but has expanded to the present-day size of nearly 3.25 acres.


The garden is intended to showcase plants from all over the world, rather than focus exclusively on native plants and features.

Rather than focus exclusively on native plants, the garden’s focus is to showcase – in its distinctive three vegetative layers making up the woodland canopy – plants from all over the world.

“First is an upper canopy provided by trees such as oaks (Quercus sp.), maples (Acer sp.), ashes (Fraxinus sp.) and tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera). Some of the most impressive specimens include Pumpkin Ash (Fraxinus profunda, formerly Fraxinus tomentosa), Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor) and Pin Oak (Quercus palustris). The middle layer contains smaller trees such as redbuds, fringetrees and witchhazels, as well as shrubs including hydrangeas, viburnums, beautyberries and camellias. The lower layer is filled with ferns, wildflowers, and herbaceous perennials, such as meadowrues, bishop’s hats, and foam flowers. The intent of horticulture staff is to “work in ‘garden rooms,’ with clusters of the same or similar plants to draw people from one room to the next,” according to Enkoji,” states the gardens website.

What to watch for in the woodland garden

• A second water feature is a bog display of plants that thrive in wet soils or aquatic habitats.

• A bronze sculpture of the Three Graces by Gerhard Marcks (1889-1981). In Greek mythology, the Three Graces were lesser gods of Olympus, daughters of Zeus and Eurynome.

•The garden also features the Mary Phelan Memorial Birdbath, created from a naturally concave piece of lava rock from the Seattle, Wash. area.

An impressive 100-acre woodland and natural area that has undergone a successful rewilding since 1988.

The Chicago Botanical Garden: A woodland rewilded

Chicago Botanical Garden is proving that a woodland cut up by development and highly fragmented, located in an urban area can be revived through careful management.

The impressive 100-acre woodland and natural area (zones 5b-6a) has undergone extensive ecological restoration since the efforts began in 1988, transforming a formerly degraded oak woodland remnant into a natural treasure. It is home to five community types and a startling amount of plant and animal diversity.


“Our ecologists, along with dedicated volunteers, have worked for decades on repairing and restoring this woodland habitat. In 2013, these efforts were recognized with a “Gold Accreditation” from the Chicago Wilderness Excellence in Environmental Restoration Program,” reads the gardens website.

Spring ephemerals kick of the wildflower display. Throughout the seasons visitors can enjoy the nature trail to experience fall color as well as explore the many birds and wildflowers that call the woodland home. The woodland garden has become important for school groups and adults to benefit from outdoor nature education, including school field trips, Nature Preschool and camp programs, as well as nature walk, birding, plant ID, nature study, and photography classes.

Keeping to the educational focus of the woodland garden, staff encourage visitors to consider restoring their own properties by showing them how they can create woodland gardens in suburban or even urban areas.

I encourage all readers to check out their website at McDonald Woods for invaluable information on establishing or rewilding their properties back to woodlands.

In addition to the Woodland garden, Chicago Botanical Garden offer a number of gardens areas featuring: native plant garden, prairie garden, naturalized garden, Japanese garden, sensory garden, heritage garden and many more.

This free garden offers visitors an opportunity to explore an eight-acre woodland garden and native plant habitat.

Morse family Woodland Garden, Georgia

Morse Family Woodland Garden - Georgia: Woodlands Garden is an eight-acre garden and native plant habitat near downtown Decatur in Atlanta, (zone 7b-8a) with a mission to preserve the woodland garden as an urban sanctuary for educating and engaging the community in the natural world.

It’s the result of a land donation in 2003, by the Morse family who donated 7 acres of greenspace to become a public garden. A one-acre parcel was added to the site and today the free garden is open to the public – at no charge – to explore the historical Morse garden and an educational native plant garden which envelope visitors into the appealing, diverse plant world of the Georgia Piedmont.


Visitors can explore a winding network of mulched trails meandering through the woods and explore the plants native to the Georgia Piedmont region. Here they will see some incredible Champion Trees like the Bigleaf and Cucumber Magnolias or the Devil’s Walking Stick.

“The core of the 8 acres surrounds the previous home site, which is now a grassy lawn where the Heritage Garden can be found. In the Heritage Garden, visitors will find Dr. Morse’s original camellia collection, ornamental Japanese maples, and the all ages Children’s Natural Play Area. The staff and volunteers provide educational opportunities to learn more about the importance of native plants through workshops and signage, while also maintaining a balance of focusing on the space as an urban sanctuary full of natural serenity.”

In conclusion: Garden destination vacations open up a new world of travel

Finding a family vacation that is relatively safe from the dangers of contracting Covid is becoming more and more difficult. It’s always a good choice to choose a destination that offers low density, primarily outdoor activity in a natural environment.

Garden tourism destination vacations offer a safe vacation experience for gardeners and some even offer specific activities for children. Woodland destinations give families an opportunity to explore outdoor education while breathing in fresh air and relaxing in the serenity only nature can provide.

You don’t have to go to public gardens to experience nature. A state park and conservation lands can offer many of the same benefits in a less organized and focused way.

Whatever you choose, it’s time to take a long walk in a woods, whether it’s a managed woodlot aimed at providing the best woodland garden experience in a defined space, or a more natural experience in a state park.

Vic MacBournie

Vic MacBournie is a former journalist and author/owner of Ferns & Feathers. He writes about his woodland wildlife garden that he has created over the past 25 years and shares his photography with readers.

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