Ecologically minded garden design without trees?

GroundskeeperSmalley(7 MD)

I have been reading a lot of books about ecological gardening using native plabts, Doug Tallamys Bringing Nature Home is the prime example, and I want to incorporate these ideas and practices into the gardens at my first house. I bought almost a year ago and did minimal work on the ornamental gardens as I got vegetable beds set to grow. This year I hope to focus more on the other beds, but I am looking for some input. In the reading I have done, it sounds like trees are the most bang for your buck ecologically, supporting wildlife, caterpillars, providing shade ect... but I have a small house on a small lot with over head utilities in most of the areas that are not right up against the house.

So, whats the next best thing to trees? So far, in the little bit I have done, I have plenty of pollinator plants like rudbekia, bee balm, corepsis, a flowering dogwood, two red dogwood shrubs and a handful of blueberry bushes. Where do I go next?

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Skip1909(7a New Jersey)

Maybe try your hand at a small meadow? Clear some lawn or expand a garden bed. Fill in spaces between your plants with young slow growing perennials. Check out the book Garden Revolution by Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher. The authors describe how to use site evaluation, existing vegetation, site prep, seeding, and strategic planting to create your naturalized landscape. He talks a lot about using ecological succession in your design. If you plant some slower growing perennials like baptisia or veronicastrum (culvers root), they will eventually stand out and somewhat replace the short/medium-lived plants like agastache, rudbeckia, and monarda. You basically use the short-lived plants to get the ground covered while the taller longer-lived plants grow and eventually take over. The book doesn't actually go into great depth about species because the species you use are going to depend on your site conditions and ecoregion, but there are a lot of examples, and a sample mix with charts for niches to fill in the landscape, which you can then use to fill in your own species. The book also talks about creating shrublands and woodlands if that's the direction you want to go.

As per Tallamy, try setting aside larger areas for colonizing plants like Goldenrods, asters, mountainmint, wingstem, Euthamia graminifolia, milkweed and tall grasses. In one of my books Tallamy wrote something like "1 milkweed plant isn't going to support many monarch caterpillars, but 30 might."

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GroundskeeperSmalley(7 MD)

I finished Garden Revolution just the other week, that was a very interesting read. I am going to try my hand at setting up some areas with succession in mind. That is also a good point about setting aside larger areas. I'll be doing some lawn conversion and some bed expansion. There won't be any new massive areas, but I'll definitely keep in mind trying to provide a good amount of beneficial plants, instead of just one or two.

Any other good books in the same vein as Bringing Nature Home and Garden Revolution? I read Planting in a Post Wild World and thought it had lots of interesting ideas.

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dbarron(z7_Arkansas)

Well, there's a lot of shrubs that also support butterflies (like swallowtails), and they're like mini-trees :)

But yes, prairies are good ecologically..if you live where they work, which Maryland probably doesn't...too many trees will try to volunteer,etc.

Frankly if you don't do trees, you're gonna be fighting trees (imo) with where you live.

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GroundskeeperSmalley(7 MD)

Well, there is no option here for no maintenance, so I'll aim for low maintenance/high ecological value. My property is also two tenths of an acre, so there isnt too much area to fight on. I already maintain the fence along the back just by hand pruning the irish ivy, privet, honey suckle, creeping euonymus and forsythia, so a little more maintenance is no big deal.

Any favorite shrubs for the more formal front areas, or more productive areas out back that can be a little less manicured?

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Skip1909(7a New Jersey)

For a neater looking shrubs I picked up the viburnum nudum cultivars witherod and brandywine. They are still tiny but the foliage is nice and is still hanging on out there. It's a cultivar and maybe not as valuable to the wild gene pool, but it's native and supposedly will provide a lot of berries. I want to pick up Myrica pennsylvanica for a visible area too which is supposed to be flexible as far as soil, deer resistant, and can be sheared into a more formal shape if you want. I have a couple compact Ilex glabra shrubs for the front of the house, but they are kind of boring. Ilex verticillata is a nice option too.

There's a land trust that does native plant sales which I plan to visit in the spring. Heres a list I made of what they offer that will work in different areas of my backyard, and I think would work in Maryland too.

-Cercis canadensis Redbud 15-30'
-Carpinus caroliniana American hornbeam 20'-30'

-clethra alnifolia summersweet

-Cornus amomum
-Cornus florida 20-40'
-Diospyros virginiana American persimmon 35-40'
-Euonymus americanus
-Hamamelis virginiana common witch hazel
-Lindera Benzoin spicebush
-Lyonia ligustrina Maleberry
-Magnolia virginiana 10'-35'
-Myrica pennsylvanica Northern bayberry 3-12' (Myrica cerifera would be perfect for Md too)
-Nyssa sylvatica Blackgum tree 30-60'

-physocarpus opulifolius
-Sambucas canadensis
-Sassafras albidum 35-50'
-Staphylea trifolia bladdernut
-Viburnum acerifolium maple leaf viburnum
-Viburnum prunifolium Blackhaw Viburnum 10' - 20' tall, 8' - 12' wide

Id consider serviceberry (amelanchiar spp.) Pawpaw (asimina triloba) , catalpa speciosa, and hazelnut Corylus americana as well, although pawpaw reportedly attracts flies, and catalpa attracts hordes of caterpillars.

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dbarron(z7_Arkansas)

Nice list Skip I think realize ornamental value as well as wildlife value on most of those, if not all. I would say that persimmon is messy...be aware, though high-value for larger mammals in late fall/winter. And I'm a bit prejudice in saying that do we really need to attract opossums and raccoons? :)

A couple of vines come to mind, lonicera sempervirens (hummingbirds and song birds), and some form of Aristolochia for pipevine caterpillars. If you're of the mind, you could also plant a bit of native clematis (suggest viorna) the hummingbirds also like that. An optional would be passiflora incarnata (which can spread rapidly) but has lovely flowers and if the fruit ripens high wildlife value.

As to forbs, I'd suggest to include a lot of Echinacea purpurea (gold finch among others), rudbeckia maxima (if you like the wild look, it makes very tall seeds), asclepias species (pick one as to your conditions for the monarchs), salvia species (again conditions) are usually hummingbird magnets.

I'm sure I left lots out, because it's 2 am and I just got up. However, with some trees (even if not on your property), shrub backbones once they get some size, and food sources, they will come.

The lonicera (once bulked up) and several of the shrubs and smaller trees would provide cover and nesting places for birds which they will use.

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GroundskeeperSmalley(7 MD)

Great suggestions, thanks! I have a lot to work out space wise, but I am going to certainly include at least the blackhaw and the pipevine. I do have a catalpa along the fence in the back and was looking out for caterpillars(not with any exceptional vigilance, but looking nonetheless) but didn't notice any of them. I was hoping to see a few for the birds, or to take in to work for some of the avid trout fishermen I work with.

Any experience with how fast the blackhaw grows? I am thinking about putting one near a flowering dogwood I planted last spring which is probably two or three feet tall now...

Thanks again for taking the time to make the suggestions!

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Skip1909(7a New Jersey)

I can't speak from experience about the black haw, but I found a site saying the growth rate is slow-medium, less than 12-24" per year. My guess is it will take 5-10 years to reach 10ft.

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docmom_gw(5)

A favorite of mine is Virginia Creeper. It is a climbing vine that produces fruit used by many bird species, and the foliage is used by a large number of beautiful moths. It has bright red fall color, and will cover a fence or pergola wonderfully. It will grow in nearly every sun exposure and tolerates drought, once established.

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GroundskeeperSmalley(7 MD)

I have some creeper creeping up a section of fence that I am keeping trimmed back! I was a landscaper for years and must have removed literal tons of it, because it is a weed and weeds are bad. A few years ago helping a friend with a native planting project she pointed out some and told me to avoid it because it is a "wonderful native groundcover." I laughed about it, but as I had started learning more about native plants and such, it made sense. Now I have plans for it to grow up a teepee sort of trellis by the back door, and over my cheap plastic shed! It does have a wonderful vibrant fall color, and from what I read it has good wildlife value. It is funny how perception plays such a big role in gardening decisions and actions. Six years ago, I knew creeper was bad, that was all there was to it. I wonder what I will know six years from now...

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