Building your dream garden may start with planting a tree or your favourite shrub. For us it began by escaping our new-home subdivision and taking the leap to an older fixer-upper that provided us with the property we needed to start our dream Woodland garden.
Our woodland garden began with a pool in our neighbour’s backyard. We didn’t know it then, but life in a brand new home in the middle of the suburbs where late-night pool parties, loud teenagers and the never-ending drone of gas powered mowers was the norm, was enough to push my wife and I to extremes.
These weren’t our dreams – the pools, the parties the close proximity to neighbours.
So, it was time to sell and move into a home that, in the end was totally opposite to the one we were living in at the time.
A for-sale sign went up and before long we were in ‘our’ dream home. Well not exactly a dream home, more like a dream property. We only had one child, so my wife and I decided to go against the grain and buy a small house on a big property rather than a big house on a small property.
It was the best decision we ever made for our sanity.
In the end, we compromised a little and bought a small home (at least by 1980s standards) on a decent-size lot pushing a half acre. To say the home was a fixer-upper would be a bit of an understatement.
What does this all have to do with building a woodland garden, you ask?
Focus on the garden for long-term happiness
Our dream was never really to own a huge multi-level home. We realized we wanted to create a peaceful, natural area around us where we could enjoy nature rather than jumping in the car every weekend to go to cottage country to escape the neighbourhood noise.
The final selling factor, at least for me, was a photo album left on the table of the house left opened to a photo of a group of deer in the backyard of the very home we were touring. For many gardeners, this would be a deal breaker. For me it only made me want it more.
Building the woodland garden
Then the slow process of building the garden began in fits and starts. Not unlike the home, the garden, what little of it there was, needed a lot of work.
We brought in soil and mulch, planted trees and native wildflowers. Expanded the gardens and eliminated grass. Then eliminated more grass. Check out my post on the benefits of eliminating grass.
We brought in boulders, lugged hundreds of wheelbarrows of stone, pea gravel, mulch and soil into the backyard. Check out my post on the importance of using stone in the garden
My wife and I made paths, created dry-river beds in the front and the back and it continues to this day.
Check out my post on some of the DIY projects my wife and I tackled over the years.
Finally, more than 20 years later, the combination of time and a lot of hard work is turning our patch of rural suburbia into a woodland garden rather than a patch of grass surrounded by neighbouring patches of grass surrounded by forest.
Now, most mornings my dog, Holly, and I step outside on the patio and enjoy some peaceful time together before the neighbourhood wakes up.
Be sure to check out some of my other posts on putting together a woodland garden or natural garden. Ken Druse’s book The Natural Garden is a great place to start. His newer book The New Shade Garden is an excellent source of information. Or take a minutes to check out this post on the 5 best books for woodland gardening.
The birds are at home here. On any given morning, a young fox wanders through looking for breakfast and maybe a deer or two comes through and offers me a chance to photograph them before they are off for their daily adventure. I’ve watched skunks wander through the yard, rabbits, more chipmunks and red squirrels than I can count and even a lone coyote. Snakes have returned to the property after not seeing a single one for many years here. Toads, fireflies and a host of native bees and butterflies call our property home.
It’s taken a while to get here, and we know we will never be done. But we took that first step that needed to be taken.
Your first step might not be to sell your home, it might be to go out and plant your first tree, shrub or native wildflower.
So what are you waiting for? Take that first step. You never know where it will lead you.
Creating the right environment to be successful in the garden involves a lot of hard work. But, in the end, it pays off. It’s not luck that you saw an oriole, a fox or hummingbird in your garden. It’s the result of that hard work you put in earlier to create the right conditions.
Bridge camera can be best choice for garden photography
This fox image is an example of how the right environment created an opportunity to capture an image that presented itself.
It began with a decision to work on getting a good image of a hummingbird feeding at a native Cardinal flower, but ended hours later with a memorable image of a fox.
Let me explain.
The cardinal flower was at its prime and I knew that, if I wanted to use it to get an image of a hummingbird feeding, I needed to act swiftly. So I set the camera on a tripod, filled up my coffee and waited.
(If you are interested in exploring garden photography at a higher level, be sure to check out my comprehensive post on the Best camera and lens for Garden Photography.)
If you are looking for a new camera or lens, check out B&H Cameras & Video for a complete line of cameras and lenses.
And, if you are wondering how a point-and-shoot digital camera that’s more than 10 years old can perform in the garden, be sure to check out my post on the Canon PowerShot Elph 500 HS.
The hummers came to the feeders surrounding the Cardinal flowers but only stopped at the flowers three times for a brief moment.
About three hours into the shoot, I noticed a fox standing by our shed looking my way. It was by no means stressed by my presence. In fact, it seemed perfectly happy to share the yard with me provided we stayed at a comfortable distance.
How often have you been in the yard and a great photographic opportunity presented itself to you? Too often, we are not prepared. Chances are, all we have is our smart phone by our side and the resulting image is nothing but a poor replica of a memorable moment.
But on this day I was in luck. The camera was already set up with my favourite 300mm F4.5 lens on a monopod.
I couldn’t ask for a better situation. Even our dog Holly had yet to notice the fox that trotted over to our three large water bowls and helped herself to a long drink.
A few quick bursts of photos from the 35mm DSLR camera and off she went. Like a ghost. There one moment … the next, gone. It was over as quickly as it began.
The lesson learned was simple: Be prepared.
Today, even if I just go out to enjoy my morning coffee, I always have a camera by my side ready for action. Sometimes it’s a simple “Travel camera” (read my travel camera review here) with a wide angle to short telephoto lens that is great for basic garden shots but will not likely get you close enough to most wildlife.
Most likely, it is my versatile “Bridge camera” that allows me to shoot everything from long telephoto images of wildlife, including birds and butterflies, to sweeping wide-angle garden vistas, to macro shots of flowers and insects.
On this day, I happened to have my 300mm lens on the camera and ready to go, which made capturing the fox image possible.
More recently, however, I have a “bridge camera” with me. I have used the camera for more than a year now and have come to appreciate its versatility, with its ability to go from extreme telephoto to wide angle and even a very usable macro mode.
Bridge cameras, which are offered by all the major camera manufacturers, can be the perfect camera choice for garden photographers looking for a single extremely versatile camera that is at home photographing garden vistas as it is birds and other wildlife. Add to that versatility the ability to get in close to flowers for macro photography and it’s hard to believe that everyone is not lining up to purchase one. These cameras can be described as mid-priced cameras situated between a simple point-and-shoot and a more serious 35mm SLR with a complete line of lenses. Bridge cameras look like a typical digital single lens reflex (DSLR), but without the interchangeable lenses.
The bridge camera offers a built-in lens sporting a wide angle to long telephoto lens. The combination creates an easy-to-carry-around versatile camera that can deliver very good results with a little practise.
But they are not by any means perfect.
My bridge camera uses an electronic viewfinder in addition to the back LCD screen to view the image. The electronic viewfinder takes getting used to and falls far short of a optical viewfinder found in traditional DSLRs. To add to the difficulty of using the Bridge camera is a significant “shutter lag” meaning an excessive amount of time between when you press the button to take the image and the time it is actually taken. This shutter lag can mean the difference between getting the shot and missing it entirely.
In addition, because most of these cameras are so dependent on electronic viewfinders and the electronic zooming of the lens, some of these cameras tend to exhaust your batteries quickly, especially if you use the large back LCD screen as your primary viewer or to check your images regularly. My camera uses regular AAA batteries, which can be convenient when you are travelling, but compared to rechargeable batteries, can also be expensive to use. The other issue I have with the Pentax (which is no longer available) is the fact I cannot easily add filters to the front of the lens. This may not be a problem for most photographs, unless of course, you need to use a polarizing filter to remove glare from leaves or a pond.
Like most Bridge cameras, the Pentax X-5 bridge camera that I am using came with a very long 26X telephoto lens (the equivalent zoom for traditional 35mm cameras of about 22-580mm.) Most bridge cameras come equipped with a lens that provides the photographer with both a solid wide angle lens as well as a super-long telephoto lens.
Bridge cameras like my Pentax X-5 also come equipped with an impressive macro feature making it the perfect camera to carry with me into the garden for casual macro shots. For more serious macro photography, I will mount a 50mm or 100mm dedicated macro lens on a 35mm SLR camera.
Being prepared, having the right tools at hand and, of course, some luck on your side can mean the difference between getting the shot and missing it.
Even seeing wildlife, let alone getting good photos of them, depends on a lot of factors going your way.
Luck certainly plays a role in any shot, but I like to think that it plays a smaller role than most people think.
Being out in the yard for more than four hours patiently waiting for the hummingbirds to cooperate creates the opportunity to be successful. Still, I was unsuccessful getting that shot of the hummingbird. Instead, I had to “settle” for the fox shot.
I like to think you create your own luck.
Setting out large water bowls meant to provide local wildlife with a fresh water source helped create that opportunity for the photograph.
Creating a natural garden, providing a source of natural food and moving water in the form of bubbling rocks and fountains, not using pesticides, having woodpiles … these all provide the right environment to getting the photograph, or the opportunity to observe the wildlife that call our property home.
PopPhoto website lists their favourite Bridge Cameras in this informative article starting with the best overall camera going to the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 IV, the Canon PowerShot SX70 HS as the best Wildlife camera and the Panasonic Lumix FZ80 as the best budget camera.
It doesn’t have to be a fox. It could have been a bird, a butterfly a reptile, or even a photograph of a beautiful tree or grouping of flowers.
The day before this shot was taken, I was trying to capture some photographs of birds enjoying my new solar-powered fountain, when a little chipmunk decided to hang out with me for a while. So I got “lucky” and was able to get some great shots of the chipmunk too.
Getting lucky is really about creating the right environment to get photographic opportunities and then taking advantage of these opportunities.
It’s the same in your everyday life. Put yourself in the best environment to succeed and chances are you will.
Getting up early, spending time in our gardens, getting up close and intimate with flowers. These all create the opportunities to be successful.
I’ll be out again soon working on getting the shot of the hummingbird at the cardinal flower. Maybe I’ll get “lucky” and the hummer will cooperate this time.
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Creating a window into your low-maintenance Woodland Garden can be as simple as planting a tree or shrub up close to your favourite window to experience nature up close. Most gardeners have been happy to view their gardens from afar. Now is the time to consider landscaping our yards to bring our gardens indoors. Consider creating garden vignettes that incorporate a beautiful bird bath, a bird house or even better an elegant bird feeder, or water feature just outside your window for full-season interest and a window into your woodland.
Trees planted close to windows create rooms with a view
You shouldn’t have to step outside to enjoy your Woodland and wildlife garden. By creating impressive views from inside your home, the garden and its wildlife always has a presence.
Whether it’s a full fledged Woodland that stretches out as far as the eye can see, or a smaller area in your garden, consider finding ways to welcome it into your home.
In winter, you’ll appreciate looking out at the birds flitting from branch to branch. In spring, you might be lucky enough to watch a pair of cardinals build a nest and raise their young.
There are plenty of ways to bring the outdoors in, but I find planting trees, shrubs, grasses, ground covers and flowers close to the windows in our one-storey house to be the best way to experience the woodland garden at all times.
Looking out and seeing birds in the branches just outside the window is such a pleasant experience compared to looking out over a sea of grass with gardens in the distance.
I also don’t worry about tree roots invading our basement. I am aware that this can and does occur at times – mostly in 100-plus year old homes with massive oak trees or maples planted very close to the home. By planting trees with less aggressive rooting systems, these problems can be averted.
A few good trees to plant near a home include birches, various forms of apple including crabapples, dogwoods, Japanese maples and hawthorn trees.
Trees to keep away from your home’s foundation include silver maple, poplars and white ash.
Our trees are far enough away that I am not concerned that they will ever get large enough to do any damage to the foundation of the home. Besides, I won’t probably be around by the time that occurs. In the meantime, I am going to enjoy feeling one with nature.
Getting up close and personal
There are many ways to get up close and personal with nature.
Some involve constructing outdoor structures … or building expensive three- and four-season rooms that reach into your garden and surround you with your woodland in a climate-controlled, mosquito-free environment.
Perfect, but often very pricey.
It’s a whole lot easier and much less expensive to simply take advantage of what’s already staring you in the face.
Existing windows and doors are an opportunity many gardeners overlook when it comes to maximizing their gardens. It’s not enough to simply look out over the garden, try to bring the woodland in close to give you an intimate window into the goings on in your garden. Birds flitting from branch to branch or a mother feeding her young just on the other side of the window provides all the entertainment you need over your morning coffee, breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Create vignettes outside your windows
Similar to indoor decorating, look to create vignettes on the outside that you can appreciate from inside.
French doors, for example, provide the perfect opportunity to create a beautiful vignette just outside the doors.
Outside our family room French door is a beautiful copper birdbath, a small concrete bench, a container full of annual flowers as well as a beautiful flowering Cornus Kousa. A small flagstone pathway gives the viewers’ eyes a view past a rose bush and into the main garden.
From the couch in the family room, I can watch a steady procession of birds at the birdbath and admire the beautiful view of the flowering dogwood. In winter the birdbath is heated to continue to provide entertainment while giving the birds vital fresh water and a bathing opportunity even in the dead of winter.
In your garden, it may be nothing more than a grouping of pots filled with colourful plants or dramatic grasses, garden art or a simple bird bath, or water feature that you can appreciate from both indoors and out.
Five ways to bring the Woodland inside:
• Spend time standing at or looking out the windows of your home in every season and dream of what you might want to view. Then make it happen
• Plant trees or clumps of trees close to your home outside windows and doors to give you intimate views of nature from inside your home.
• Plan a lovely vignette outside your favourite window.
• If you have a window overlooking a neighbour, consider planting cedars. Make sure they are either native white cedar, black cedar or a cultivar that is loose and natural feeling. Some of the cedars sold at nurseries are more ornamental and not really the best for hedging. The best cedars grow taller than a fence, provide year-round interest and attract birds both as nesting areas and food sources. Hang a small feeder nearby for even more entertainment.
• If you need new windows or doors, take advantage of the opportunity by either increasing the amount of glazing (glass) or using a French door or sliders over a standard door. Maximize your view and then create the view you dream of through landscaping.
Wise words from a professional landscaper
A landscape professional once told me that a good landscape allows people to live in it not just admire it from afar.
It’s an approach we all need to consider more carefully when we create our landscapes. Planting trees or shrubs close to windows and places where we spend the most time is a sure fire way to fully experience our gardens.
Natural tree canopies replace umbrellas
Why use a massive garden umbrella to give you shade from the afternoon sun, when a large tree canopy can do it with greater style? Plant that tree now and by the time it provides you with the canopy you desire, your existing umbrella will need replacing.
We are lucky enough to have large windows in both the front and back of our ranch-style home. In addition, to open the garden up even more, every exterior door has been converted to either have a large window or turned into a French door for maximum viewing.
To some extent, our gardens are designed around the windows.
Our large front picture windows look out onto a grassless woodland setting that includes, among other plants and trees, Japanese maples, a lovely serviceberry, fully mature Crimson and red maples as well as our neighbour’s large blue spruce trees.
But it’s our view out into the back garden that best illustrates our attempt to bring the Woodland indoors.
Creating a view: Designing a dry-river bed
After years of looking out a large dining room bay window into our back garden, it donned on me that we really needed to create an interesting view that we could appreciate year round.
The view had always begged for something special, but I could never decide how best to use the space.
Over the years, it primarily served as our main bird- and deer-feeding stations. The birds and deer provided plenty of entertainment, but it was time for a change.
Although it was completed just three years ago, it’s fair to say this project was years in the making.
It began with a plan to create a dry-river bed that connected to an existing pathway of river rock, pea gravel and flagstone stepping stones – a landscaping project my wife and I completed many years earlier. I liked the look and feel of the existing pathway and thought it would be good to bring that same feeling out into the landscape.
Since a bubbling rock has always been a dream of mine, we incorporated a small solar powered pump with a bubbling rock at the head of the dry-river bed. The idea was coming together in my mind but it needed more to make it look natural and bring it together as a cohesive landscape.
Eventually, after combing Pinterest for dry-river ideas, the concept of a bubbling rock and dry river bed running through a forest of birch trees was born.
Soon after, three clump birches were planted in the area around where the dry river bed would eventually go. The bubbling rock and dry river bed followed.
Grasses, ground covers and native flowers have been added since then to soften the hard edge of the river bed rocks and, three years later, the entire project is beginning to settle nicely into the landscape.
The birches seem happy and the branches are growing together creating a lovely birch-grove canopy over the bubbling rock and dry river bed.
Together, the tree canopy and fresh moving water attract plenty of birds, chipmunks and red squirrels that come in for a taste of the cool water rising up from the underground and spilling over the rock into the river rock below. I have even seen toads and snakes visiting the area.
Add solar lights for night views
At night, three solar-powered spotlights on the birch clumps allow us to enjoy our birch grove at all times, whether we are sitting outside or inside at the dining room table.
In fact, the lighted birch grove is the last thing I see every night and never fails to bring a smile to my face.
Now is the perfect time to consider creating vignettes outside your windows and doors to bring your Woodland garden into your home. I guarantee it’ll bring a smile to your face every day.
I would love to hear from you on how you were able to take advantage of existing windows and doors to create a dream view.
Take a few minutes to share your thoughts down below and inspire others to bring their Woodland indoors.
This page contains affiliate links. If you purchase a product through one of them, I will receive a commission (at no additional cost to you) I try to only endorse products I have either used, have complete confidence in, or have experience with the manufacturer. Thank you for your support.
Dream of what your woodland garden can be and we will work together to make it real. By using native and non-native trees, plants and flowers, you can transform your garden into a wildlife haven. Then spend the day photographing the nature around you.
Woodland wildlife garden needs time to mature
A woodland garden can be as big or as small as you want. Start with a single tree in your yard and try to imagine what that tree can become.
Remember a woodland garden can take time to mature into perfection. Like a freshly-built home that lacks the layers living brings to it, a woodland needs that same time to develop the multiple living layers that make it the inviting place we want to experience. It too needs its spirit; one that starts deep in the soil and stretches high into the upper layers of the forest canopy. If you are just starting out developing your woodland garden design, the first rule to understand is that a woodland garden is all about layers. Three layers really, but you could argue four even six and still be correct.
It all starts with the upper canopy
The top layer, the upper-level canopy, is what builds the strength of the woodland over time. If you do it right, the middle layer is where much of the beauty resides. Then there is the shrub layer and finally the ground layer, also not without its share of beautiful things. The ground layer, appropriately made up of ground covers, forms a protective layer that encourages all that is above it to prosper.
Maybe, if you are like me and bought into an older neighbourhood, you are already blessed with a mature tree or several that helps to create the critical upper canopy. If you are not blessed with any large trees on your site, that large maple growing in your neighbour’s yard casting its lovely shadow over your yard will do the trick too. Remember though, your neighbour could cut that tree down and your upper canopy can disappear in an afternoon. Better to plant your own as soon as possible as a backup to your grumpy neighbour’s tree.
Large trees form the upper canopy
When we talk upper-level canopy, we’re talking the big boys of the tree world.
Think maples, locusts, lindens, oaks and a host of other native trees that will grow large enough to eventually tower over the garden.
If you live in the Carolinian zone (link to my post) or a similarly appropriate area and need a quick canopy, consider planting a couple of Tulip trees. They are fast-growing native trees, growing up to 35 metres tall. In fact, they are among the tallest and straightest trees in the forest. In fact, they were often the tree used as telephone poles because of their straight growth habits. Their canopy can be trimmed up high as they shoot to the sky, and the shade they throw is open enough to allow understorey plants to grow happily.
Tulip trees have a spectacular yellow-green 5 centimetre long spring blooming, tulip-shaped flowers. Although the fast-growing tree is not the best host of insects and caterpillars that provide food for birds, the seeds of the tulip tree grow every year and are a source of food for birds and small mammals.
Oaks are kings of biodiversity
If you are looking for the perfect tree to form your upper canopy, you would be hard pressed to do better than one of the mighty oaks. Consider planting an oak near your tulip trees where it will grow up to provide a future canopy after the tulip trees have served their immediate goal of providing a fast and effective canopy in the short-term.
What makes Oak trees so important?
As Douglas W. Tallamy explains in his book Bringing Nature Home: How you can sustain wildlife with Native Plants, (link to my review of the book) a single white oak tree can provide food and shelter for as many as “22 species of tiny leaf-tying and leaf-folding caterpillars.” These combined with all of the other “lepidopterans (moths and butterflies), heteropterans (true bugs), homopterans (aphids, plant hoppers,and scales), thysanopterans (thrips), orthopterans (katydids, grasshoppers, and crickets), … that develop on white oaks are considered s well, you can appreciate how important this one plant species is to the mintenance of biodiversity.
In fact, a single oak can support up to 534 different species and leads the list of important native trees providing biodiversity in our forests and woodlands.
In Tallamy’s list, The willow is second supporting 456 species followed by cherrry and plum (also 456); birch trees (413); poplar, cottonwood (368); crabapple (311), Maple, box elder (285), Elm (213); pine (203); Hickory (200); Hawthorn (159); spruce (156) …”
If attracting birds and creating a biodiversity of insects, caterpillars, moths and butterflies in your garden is important to you, I urge you to get Tallamy’s book and use it as a bible for creating your backyard landscape design.
Blessed with mature trees in our yard
When we bought our home here in southern Ontario some 25 years ago, my wife and I were blessed with several large trees on the property, including two lovely locust trees, a large linden and Austrian pine in the backyard and two large maples in the front yard of the property. Since then, more trees big and small (at last count 28) have joined the originals to help form the foundation of our woodland.
The understorey: Where the (real) fun starts
The middle layer is the one that can really shine in the woodland.
This is where you can introduce a myriad of flowering trees. Think flowering dogwoods, both the native variety (Cornus Florida) with a multiple of hybrids or the prolific Kousa Dogwoods that flower later in the season after the leaves appear on the branches. A combination of the two gives you a magnificent show from early spring into summer. Then, if you have room, intermingle a couple of Redbuds (link to my post on Redbuds) or Serviceberries between the dogwoods. Their ethereal flowers are absolute showstoppers in any garden big or small.
And, if that’s not enough, how about a couple of azaleas growing beneath the Dogwoods, Serviceberries and Redbuds. That’s a showstopper.
These are just a few ideas to think about while you contemplate your Woodland. Future posts will delve a little deeper into the different layers, so stay tuned. For example here is a post on three of my favourite groundcovers. Here is another post on a favourite groundcover for a hot dry location. This post looks into moss as a ground cover and plants that create a similar experience as moss in the garden.
I would love to hear some of your planting ideas for your top two layers your Woodlands. Share them with us below in the comment section.
This page contains affiliate links. I try to only endorse products I have either used, have complete confidence in, or have experience with the manufacturer. Thank you for your support.