Home of the Practically Perfect Pink Phlox and other native plants for pollinators

Monday, February 25, 2013

Consider The Understory In Your Garden

Flowers are fantastic, but, please don't forget to include native shrubs and small trees when designing or improving your garden.
You can't beat them for wildlife value. Not only do they provide food, nesting and shelter for mammals and birds, they are also host plants for a variety of insects. Insects that are a primary food source for birds, bats, small mammals, amphibians and even other insects that you want in your garden. They are essential if you want to garden for wildlife.
Slipper Bark Elm Spring and Fall
 My own garden came with a canopy of Shagbark Hickory, Elms (American and Slippery Bark) and a variety of Oak trees all growing in a weedy lawn with absolutely no understory.

Hydrangea arborecens
Once I figured out that the conditions in my garden~soil, sun, moisture~most resembled the woodlands that are adjacent to cedar glades, one of the first thing I had to do was to plant an appropriate understory of native shrubs and wildflowers to create a healthy and diverse ecosystem.

 Finding those understory shrubs and small trees has been and still is an adventure. Not just any Middle Tennessee native will grow in the shallow, clay soil that is wet all winter and dry all summer...It is still trial and error, there have been many plant deaths! The ones that thrive are real troopers~Honorary members of the Rough and Tumble Wildflower Club. They meet my criteria to a T~They are native, they provide for pollinators and other critters and they are lovely to look at.  You can't ask for more in a plant.

Viburnum rufidulum aka Rusty Blackhaw

Supporting Players in the garden~Each has many wildlife visitors

Lindera benzoin
Hypricum frondosum
Hydrangea arborecens sps and cultivars 'Ryan Gainey' White 'Dome'
Viburnum rufidulum 
Hydrangea quercifolia
Itea virginica
Aronia arbutifolia
Euonymous americana

Hamamelis vernalis
Hamamelis virginica
Rhododendron periclymenoides (Pinxterbloom Azalea)
Juniperus virginica 'Grey Owl'
Cotinus 'Grace' and Cercis canadensis

Cotinus 'Grace'
Cercis canadensis
Cornus florida
Cornus drummondii   
Amelanchier laevis

Amelancer laevis
Ostrya virginica
Neviusia alabamensis
Dirca palustris
Croton alabamensis 
Rhus aromatica

My little ecosystem is a hybrid crossing of a cedar glade woodland,  with Central Basin natives and the unique characteristics of this place I call Clay and Limestone. There's no way C and L would ever be confused with a naturally occurring ecosystem, it's an artificial construct that I weed (occasionally),  prune, add and subtract plants, and delight and despair over. 
Hypericum frondosum
The critters seem pretty happy and that makes this gardener happy.

PS. Want to learn more about the wildlife value of trees, shrubs and forbs?  Check out Doug Tallamy's research on Lepidopteran Use of Native & Alien Ornamental Plants and do a web search using the phrase "wildlife value of native trees and shrubs".

Gail Eichelberger is a gardener and therapist in Middle Tennessee. She loves wildflowers and native plants and thoroughly enjoys writing about the ones she grows at Clay and Limestone. She reminds all that the words and images are the property of the author and cannot be used without written permission.


  1. Lovely photos, as always, Gail. It is so satisfying to see fall and winter color.

  2. An important message, Gail. Your garden looks most welcoming, to creatures of all shapes and sizes (including mine).

  3. Hi Gail...I just love your Rough and Tumble Wildflower Club!! I also love the picture showing the path and the chalkboard. The path is so inviting and the chalkboard is so creative. Since you are in TN, I'd love to visit your garden one day!

  4. Well, there is the layered garden right in your backyard. Lovely.

  5. What a wonderful list to help us figure out what to plant, dear Gail, thank you! I had no idea that the PJM was a native, I have three of them and they are rough and tumble, as you say. You have done exceptionally well in making a wildlife friendly and still gorgeous garden.

    1. That was my bad Frances, it should have read Rhododendron periclymenoides Pinxterbloom Azalea. But, I do have three PJM rhodies that still are alive! xoxogail

  6. I think the understory shrubs and small trees are especially lovely in the winter months. I'm now planting more shrubs and small trees and fewer flowers, partly for that reason.

  7. Gail, much food for thought. I find I'm growing more and more shrubs and trees that are suited for my climate. With all the changes afoot, it's important to turn to natives too.~~Dee

  8. I just finished reading his book _Bringing Nature Home_. I think anyone interested in native ecosystems and improving our environment would do well by reading this book. A lot of interesting helpful information.

  9. I've just been pondering over what understory shrubs I should add in my garden! Of course my 'big' trees really aren't that big, so the understory shrubs will have to be compact. But thanks for the reminder about planting for wildlife - I am not a 'natives' gardener but I can pick hybrids with flowers and berries that will please the fauna as well as my eyes.

  10. Wonderful layering advice and your choices are great!

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  12. A wonderful look at using understory plantings in your Tennessee garden.
    This diversity of plantings is so beneficial to wildlife. I share my latest: http://www.beautifulwildlifegarden.com/birds-need-more-than-just-trees.html

    1. May I be so bold to say~Great minds! Thank you for the link~loved your article!

  13. Oh even if it's not fall, some leaf colors look like it. Of course i am not familiar with these as they don't grow in the hot tropics. So beautiful flowers too. I smiled at the style of your label, as in the menus for the day, if i have a big garden for visitors i love doing that too!

  14. Heidi IN Woodland GardenerFebruary 26, 2013 at 7:25 AM

    Our SE Indiana woodland home was once grazed by beef cattle, so now 15 years later, I am slowly getting rid of the rosa multiflora, japanese honeysuckle, amur honeysuckle, and garlic mustard that took over under the towering Black walnut, Black maple, Yellow poplar, Green Ash, Black Locust, and Red Cedar and planting a native understory and shrub layer. This list will be quite helpful!

  15. I have some of the same shrubs: Spicebush, flowering dogwood, and Black Chokeberry. I also have a variety of others, perhaps a little more northern-oriented: Cranberrybush Viburnum, Black Haw Viburnum, Gray Dogwood, Black Elderberry, Red Elderberry, and Smooth Hydrangea.

  16. I love the bloom of the St. John's Wort! You have shared a great list of understory plants. I should plant more -- another Hamamelis or two and I keep looking at Spicebush, Lindera benzion to add...not sure where to put it, but know I could find a place.

  17. I love your wonderful combination of shrubs. Many similar ones are the mainstays of my own garden, offering colorful leaves and blooms through most of the year.Your purple chairs are delightful. Their color perfectly complements the nearby plants.

  18. I decided to only plant s bit of understory as the ash trees are being replaced due to EAB. The whole garden will change soon.

  19. I loved the opportunity to walk through your garden and get pointers on how to improve my eco system. The photos were both vry informative and very enjoyable to look at. I have seen that each small eco system improvement does make a difference. The plant/bird/insect mix in my garden has almost totally eliminated pests. I also find it is a much more wonderful place to sit.


"Insects are the little things that run the world." Dr. E O Wilson