The easiest way to create a successful native landscape is to replicate your local plant community. If you’re unfamiliar with the plant communities in your area, plan a visit to a local park or remnant to observe what is growing together and in what conditions. If you are new to the area – find a naturalist or sign up for nature walk at the local nature center.
Although many of our woodland landscapes have been invaded with invasive species and altered by humans, diminished representations of the former plant community still exist and provide us with a window of what the woodland used to be. The understory and herbaceous layers are often the first to go from human intervention, over browsing by herbivores and invasive species. Locally, this is the largest portion that is missing due to European Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) invasion.
When we purchased our home we inherited many mature trees on our property. The understory and herbaceous layers had been eliminated and converted to lawn – except for a small strip along the southern portion of our lot. This unmown strip was a mixture of both native and invasive plants.
After removing the invasive species, I inventoried the existing native plants. While walking at local parks, I would then see these same natives that I inventoried and would make note if the conditions were similar to my own yard, and what other natives were growing in association with these.
To reestablish the herbaceous and understory layers in our backyard, I started by smothering the grass with leaf litter, paper and shredded wood mulch to redefine the woodland. Leaf litter in subsequent years is left and the mulch has completely decomposed adding to the organic matter in the soil. This area of our yard is extremely dry with sandy soil (the house sits on top of a gravel esker). Most of the newly formed woodland area is partial to full shade.
After the grass was smothered over the winter months, I began purchasing tree, understory and woodland edge species that were growing locally as well as in my yard. The understory and edge species included American Hazelnut (Corylus americana), Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa), Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), Downy Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum rafinesquianum), Nannyberry Viburnum (Viburnum lentago), and Serviceberry (Amelanchier species). We planted several 6-8 foot tall trees as well, to widen the woodland. Tree species included Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana), Red Maple (Acer rubrum), Sugar Maple (Acer saccharinum), Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) American Basswood (Tilia americana) and Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa).
Because our lawn had a lot of Creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea) in it, I worked on eliminating it from the lawn (pulling it out by hand) so it wouldn’t ‘creep’ back into the newly established woodland edge. Once I was satisfied that the majority was gone, we began to add herbaceous forbs and sedges to the ground layer that already had a few years of leaf litter build up.
Several spring flowering natives were added, Woodland Phlox (Phlox divaricata), Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum), Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), Downy Yellow Violets (Viola pubescens), and Virginia Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum). Later in the summer, Large Leaved Asters (Aster macrophyllus) provide color and interest along the border.
It has taken several years but the backyard is really beginning to fill in, enough so to provide much needed cover and habitat for birds and other wildlife. We have expanded this little woodland making it 25 to 30 feet deep and 100 feet wider. Migrating warblers stop by in the spring and fall to forage for insects on the understory shrubs and new trees.
New tree seedlings began to emerge in the leaf litter about 3 years after reestablishing this as a woodland edge. We have added old logs back into this area, partially burying them into the ground. Now woodpeckers have enough cover from the shrubs to peck away at these downed logs for insects.
As the new trees grow, they will replace the older trees on our property that will eventually complete their lifecycle.
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