Green Thumb Tip #16: Diversify!

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Strange but true:  Gardening can become political, too.

This disturbing notion is reflected in our gardening styles.  Consider the traditional scheme of evergreen shrubs and lawn.  Maybe there is an urn filled with bright annuals, somewhere.

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A ‘monoculture’ garden where the same plant, or small number of plants is repeated over and over, lacks diversity.  Most everything in the garden is green.

Now, where there is a limited palette of plants, there will also be a very limited number of insects, birds and small mammals supported.  What will they eat?  Where will they rest?  Other than a few robins pulling worms from the lawn, there will be a very small number of species observed.

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This common scheme, repeated over and again in neighborhoods across the country, gives us a clue as to why native birds, butterflies, amphibians and other small animals have been in decline for some time.  We have transformed woods and prairie and farms and natural riparian communities into suburbs.  Suburbs of lawn and largely imported shrubs and trees.

Once we introduce a larger palette of plants, providing more ‘niches’ for both plants and animals, the diversity and interest increases exponentially.  And interestingly, our garden comes alive with synergistic abundance.

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For example:  A single oak tree can support over 250 different species of insects.  It serves as a host for many common butterfly larvae, too.  The insects it harbors attract songbirds who will visit to eat, but will also use the tree for cover and nesting.  Every native tree and large shrub will provide food and shelter to wildlife, and will become a hub of life in the garden.

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Native Live Oak in Colonial Williamsburg

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Trees form the backbone of our garden and of our ecosystem.  They offer us shade.  They freshen the air, fix carbon, and may even bloom in the spring.

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Dogwood was chosen as the Virginia Native Plant Society’s Wildflower of the Year for 2018.  Its spring blossoms support pollinators, and fall berries feed birds.  Many sorts of insects, including caterpillars, live in its canopy each summer

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Native trees support more animal species than do exotic imports, but all trees have value.  Willow, Magnolias, poplars, sycamore, black cherry, beech and redbud all enrich the lives of wildlife and of gardeners!

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March 2017, with the flowering Magnolia trees in our garden covered in blossoms.

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Deciduous trees mark the passing months, providing different sorts of beauty in each season.  Evergreen trees anchor the landscape, serve as windbreaks, and give us bright green structure through winter.  Many, like hollies, also produce berries to feed wildlife when little else can be found.

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American Holly

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As we add various layers to the garden with ground covers, ferns, herbaceous perennials, shrubs, vines and trees; the number of wildlife species our garden can support increases exponentially.  But even more importantly, it comes alive as an interesting and intriguing habitat for us humans as well!

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A dynamic cast of horticultural characters come and go with the seasons.  They grow and change, transforming the character of our outdoor space as well.  We bring color, fragrance, texture and maybe even delicious flavor to our garden as we diversify our planting scheme.

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We can begin with what we have, converting turf into habitat a little at a time.  Plant ground covers under existing shrubs to form a living mulch; plant large shrubs to anchor new planting beds, or begin to cultivate wide borders beside walls or fences.  Early spring is the perfect time to plan and establish new plantings.

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Brent and Becky Heath’s Gloucester display garden December 4, 2015

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A tidy benefit of this approach comes with reducing the amount of turf we need to maintain each year.  Consider the savings when there is less grass to water, fertilizer, treat with chemicals and to mow.  Turf is the most expensive landscape plant, per square foot, of any commonly grown plant in North America.  It demands the most effort and gives the least return.

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The Heath’s display gardens in Gloucester, October 2015.

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It is our adventurous spirit which motivates us to try new plants each year.  As our gardens evolve, we evolve with them; building a wealth of experience and appreciation with our ever expanding community of plants and wildlife.  We add beauty to our home and to our neighborhood.

We help preserve species for future generations, sustaining the wildlife that sustain the web of our own existence on planet Earth.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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Gardening for Wildlife

Butterfly Garden Plants

Bringing Nature Home by Dr. Douglas Tallamy

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Black Swallowtail butterfly and caterpillars on fennel, August 2017

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“Green Thumb” Tips: 
Many visitors to Forest Garden are amazing gardeners with years of experience to share.  Others are just getting started, and are looking for a few ‘tips and tricks’ to help grow the garden of their dreams.

I believe the only difference between a “Green Thumb” and a “Brown Thumb” is a little bit of know-how and a lot of passion for our plants.

If you feel inclined to share a little bit of what YOU KNOW from your years of gardening experience, please create a new post titled: “Green Thumb” Tip: (topic) and include a link back to this page.  I will update this page with a clear link back to your post in a listing by topic, so others can find your post, and will include the link in all future “Green Thumb” Tip posts.

Let’s work together to build an online resource of helpful tips for all of those who are passionate about plants, and who would like to learn more about how to grow them well.
Green Thumb Tip # 13: Breaching Your Zone
Green Thumb Tip # 14: Right Place Right Plant
Green Thumb Tip # 15: Conquer the Weeds!
‘Green Thumb’ Tip:  Release Those Pot-Bound Roots! from Peggy, of Oak Trees Studios
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About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

3 responses to “Green Thumb Tip #16: Diversify!

  1. Working towards a world that works for all species is a fine way to garden! Thanks for posting this.
    What is the flower being visited by the yellow Tiger Swallowtail? Must be a more southern shrub that I don’t know.

    • Good morning, Eliza. A start in the right direction is to at the least consider the needs of creatures beyond ourselves, and to refrain from activities (and products) sure to destroy them! I realize that everyone won’t welcome all of the beautiful wasps a native like Joe Pye Weed will attract, but perhaps we can all agree on attracting more birds and butterflies 😉 The tree you inquire about is commonly called ‘butterfly tree’ and grows across our neighborhood. I didn’t plant ours, but neither have I found seedlings of it. It is called Clerodendrum trichotomum, is absolutely stunning in bloom, and has the vague aroma of peanut butter! After the flowers fall, the berries are bright blue in a magenta bract. For its wild late season color it is also known as ‘harlequin glory bower,’ a much more evocative name! It is marginally hardy here, Eliza, doing better to our south. (Maybe your sister could grow it?) I hope you guys are doing OK with the wind and snow. Been thinking of you… ❤ ❤ ❤

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