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

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Wildflower Wednesday: Celebrating the Supporting Players in a Wildflower Garden

When we moved to this property there was a canopy of secondary growth shagbark hickories, white oaks,a winged Elm (above) and a few hackberries all growing in a weedy front lawn.
Other than a diseased Cercis canadensis/redbud and a lovely Ostry virginiana that was being smothered by a wisteria vine, there was absolutely no understory.

I loved the canopy and the beautiful fall colors, but, I didn't want a lawn with big trees towering above. What I really wanted were more flowers like the ones I saw on the edges of my new yard that first day in mid-October after we closed on the house. They were a beautiful blue and were covered with bumble bees.

It was my first sighting of the ex-asters and I was in love.
Amelanchier fall 2015 with offspring of the ex-asters I fell for 30 years ago.

I had always wanted to garden, so the following spring I planted more flowers. Most of them died. Lavenders, hostas and other exotic plants that I found at a local nursery just didn't belong in this garden.

Cercis canadensis and Cotinus 'Grace'

It took a while and a lot of research, but, once I figured out that the conditions in my garden, (soil, sun and moisture) resembled the woodlands that are adjacent to cedar glades, I began to plant native plants, including an appropriate understory of small trees and shrubs to create a healthy and diverse ecosystem. By then, I was head over heals in love with wildflowers and gardening for wildlife had become my passion.

The Dancing Tree, Ostrya virginiana
After dozens of years of tweaking and experimenting, I think that there is a pretty good balance of canopy trees, understory trees and shrubs that thrive in the shallow clay soil that is dry during the summer and wet during the winter.
 Hamamelis vernalis and Itea virginica  (2014)
My garden is a Central Basin woodland with dryer, heavier and more neutral soil. Native plants adapted to this kind of environment were essential, the supporting players are small trees (redbuds, hop hornbeams, witchhazels, smokebush and spicebush) and various sized shrubs (Hydrangeas, Iteas, Hypericums and  native azaleas) that are shade tolerant.  My goal has been to provide habitat for critters in a visually attractive space.
Hydrangea quercifolia
In the drama of a wildflower garden there are no bit players. The canopy, the understory, the herbacious layer and the ground cover are all part of a diverse ensemble. All the players are essential; all provide food, nesting and shelter for mammals and birds; they're host plants for a variety of insects that are a primary food source for birds, bats, small mammals, amphibians and even other insects that you want in your garden.

Hamamelis virginiana
They are essential if you want to garden for wildlife and that's what my garden is all about. It doesn't hurt that they are all darn good looking for most of the year.
Aronia/Photinia arbutifolia
The Supporting Players:
Lindera benzoin
Hypericum frondosum
Hydrangea arborecens sps and cultivars 'Ryan Gainey', 'White 'Dome'
Viburnum rufidulum 
Hydrangea quercifolia
Itea virginica
Aronia/Photinia arbutifolia

Euonymous americana
Intense fall color on Hypericum frondosum 2015
Aesculus parviflora (just one)
Hamamelis vernalis
Hamamelis virginiana
Rhododendron periclymenoides (Pinxterbloom Azalea)
Juniperus virginica 'Grey Owl'

Lindera benzoin  with Hydrangea arborescens and Mr I's maple.

Asimina triloba
Cotinus 'Grace'
Cercis canadensis
Cornus florida

Callicarpa americana
Ilex glabra
Illicium parviflorum 'Florida Sunshine'
Cornus drummondii 

Amelancer laevis (just one)
Magnolia 'Little Gem'
Ostrya virginica
Neviusia alabamensis
Dirca palustris (just one)
Rhus aromatica

Rhus aromatica

All across America families and friends are making plans to gather for Thanksgiving dinner. It's our annual celebration of the "First Thanksgiving" when colonists celebrated arriving safely in the New World. In my house, before the feasting begins, we all take turns sharing our feelings of gratitude. This year, I am especially grateful for the health and well being of my family; for our first grandchild, Ever Mae; for loving and supportive friends; for fall weather that finally appeared; and, for wildflowers that bloomed no matter how horrid the weather has been.

Happy Thanksgiving to you all,

Welcome to Wildflower Wednesday and thank you for stopping by to help me celebrate the many supporting players in my garden. This has been a challenging year and there isn't anywhere near the foliage color display that one expects in a Middle Tennessee garden in November, thus, many of the photos shared are from previous years. There's rain in the forecast and all of us in Tennessee are keeping our fingers crossed that it happens. Too often this summer and fall rain has skipped past us. We need a good rain to put out the wildfires that are ravaging the forests in the southeastern states.

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. rain for mountain fires - we need that too!
    We got a whole millimetre overnight.
    You remain a source of great inspiration as neighbours either accept brown summer lawns or insist on life support!!

  2. Your garden is always an inspiration.

  3. Lovely photos. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving Gail, all is lovely there in your autumn garden!

  5. Your garden is lovely and the photos divine. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. There is nothing so wonderful as the hug of a grandchild. Enjoy!

  6. I wouldn't know what to think if your garden wasn't filled with beautiful natives. It's nice to think that understory plants even have their moment in the spotlight, even though brief. Happy WW Gail.~~Dee

  7. Thank you for the inspirational post, Gail. I love being able to virtually visit your beautiful habitat garden. I lack the canopy (especially after losing my 40 year old ash to the Emerald Ash Borer), so my growing plan is just the reverse. I am planting all 3 layers, but the flower layer grows fastest, then understory, and hopefully one day my little native saplings become big beautiful trees. Next year I am saying goodbye to my useless front lawn! Happy Thanksgiving!

  8. Gail your garden is in beautiful fall glory! It makes me what to move out to the country. Your photographs are stunning. I enjoy your garden story. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family! xo

  9. Beautiful autumn colors!
    Happy Thanksgiving!

  10. Well, I'm at the beginning of my journey and so can very much relate to your early experiences in the garden as that's what I'm going through right now. It will be a long process but I'm looking forward to getting to the stage where I "know" what works and what doesn't.

  11. So many wonderful Fall colors. A great time of year - even though we know what is coming - and it is all WHITE! Jack

  12. What a wonderful post. Beautiful photographs, but such a good story about how we all come to learn what our garden needs and wants. If we are lucky that learning never ends.

  13. Gardening is the best thing one can do. Some people don't go on vacations because they have to water the plant. Such is the connection between the people and plants. Thanks for the article.


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