Tennessee Smart Yards Native Plants

A comprehensive database of Tennessee native plants

The Living Landscape by Rick Darke & Doug Tallamy

LLthumbThis book has just come out, and it is great reading for anyone who wants to work with native plants in their yard. I just finished reading it, and while I don’t want to write or post a book review here, I thought it would be fun to highlight the key points that I learned and what I would do differently in my yard if I had read the book before I started planting.

The book is focused primarily on understanding the benefits of woodland plantings in our home gardens. It focuses on the structure, functions and benefits of native species of the forest with lots of helpful tips on good species to choose and how to plant them.  Plus there are lots of gorgeous photos to illustrate the points being made.

The book describes each of the distinct, horizontal layers of a forest—canopy trees (the uppermost layer), understory trees (growing within the canopy), shrubs, herbaceous plants and the ground layer of accumulated organic matter and soil. They review the functions and plants of each layer as well as the creatures that live in each layer and beautifully describe the interactions between the layers.

When I created two smaller areas of woodlands in my yard, I knew about the various layers of the forest.   However, it never occurred to me to actually try to build the layers one on top of the other.  I put in trees here and there and shrubs here and there, with a goal of eventually having full shade.  Although I planted a few canopy trees, I put my understory trees outside the canopy such that the canopies of all the various trees would meet when the trees were full sized.  Then I filled in the open spaces with shrubs and herbaceous plants.   I didn’t think about building my woodland garden from the top down.  However, according to the authors, it is possible to plant all the layers at once and have it work.  That is a bit of a revolutionary idea.

Now I am trying to amend my plantings by going out into my gardens to find openings where I can sandwich in more trees and shrubs and better implement the concept of layers. Unfortunately for me, my spacing is already pretty well set.  Adding more canopy trees now with their 50-80 foot spread is out of the question.   Adding more understory trees is possible but requires me to try to sandwich them in where I can find the appropriate amount of space needed.

It seems like this concept will work in our home gardens even if the yard is small. If you need to, you can limit yourself to just one large, canopy tree and then plant the smaller understory trees, shrubs and herbaceous layer  beneath what will be the canopy once the canopy tree matures. There are a number of species that can take both shade and sun.  It does require us to think well ahead and arrange our plantings to take into account the plants’ mature size and probably provide a little more water to the understory plants until they become shaded.  But other than that, it is a fun, creative way to approach creating a mini-forest in our gardens and yards.  Plus you get the wildlife benefits of the layers.

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