Plan your layers for space, time, litter and light
How you plant and interplant your garden with natives is just as important as what you plant. Instead of plunking down solo trees, lonely shrubs, and isolated specimens in empty mulched beds, think of what a lush, healthy woodland looks like.
To encourage birds and wildlife to return, you need to plant in several different stories or “layers” of vegetation that mimic the varying heights and density of natural habitat.
Layer in Terms of Space
Working from top down, natural layers include
- Large canopy trees such as baldcypress, oaks, hickories, and elms
- Understory trees such as redbuds, maples, hollies, and mulberries
- Shrubs such as American Beautyberry, Spicebush, and Dwarf Palmetto
- Herbaceous plants (grasses, sedges and wildflowers)
- Climbing vines (Clematis, Virginia Creeper, Muscadine Grape, Crossvine and Trumpet Creeper)
- Ground cover species, including herbaceous annual and perennial flowering plants
Consider planting wide, deep beds too. A typical city or suburban residential lot needs a four- to 20-foot-wide band around its perimeter, made up of large trees layered with understory trees, shrubs, and perennials. Add a similar band around your house. You now have far less lawn to mow, congratulations!
Tall canopy trees are bird magnets, but if you leave them standing solo without underplanting you’ll miss a wonderful opportunity to enrich your garden habitat with food sources, nesting habitat, and safe zones for creatures. A bird feeder and bird house are no substitute. A water source is a must, whether it’s a birdbath or a recirculating water feature—the sound of trickling water is another bird magnet! Moving water or resident fish will help control mosquitoes.
Layer in Terms of Time
Your garden should also be “layered” to be productive all four seasons, including
Conifers and other evergreens to provide nesting sites and winter food and cover
Spring-, summer-, and fall-flowering and fruiting trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants to attract the diverse and balanced (to avoid infestations) insect populations that pollinate plants and feed birds and other creatures year-round.
Note: Check if trees or shrubs you add are dioecious or monoecious. Monoecious plants are self-pollinating and can fruit on their own. Dioecious plants need at least one male present to pollinate the females.
Layer in Terms of Litter
Like a forest floor, leave leaf litter in place as much as you can tolerate, to nourish and condition the soil and provide habitat for worms and ground-dwelling insects–which mean more bird food! Mark the places where perennials have gone to sleep for the winter, so you can give them light and air in the spring.
Birds and other creatures love brush piles to hide in. Make some a permanent part of your garden, planted with vines and other camouflage.
Dead trees make wonderful habitat for cavity-dwelling birds and insects. If you can leave one in place without danger of it falling on something important, that’s a win!
Layer for Sun and Shade
Scorching sun is a fact of Louisiana summer, and plants can benefit when positioned in partial shade on the edge of canopy trees and understory, or where they will be shaded during the hours of most intense afternoon sun.
Many Coastal Prairie native grasses and perennial wildflowers are sun lovers. Once their root systems are deep enough, they can withstand summer heat and drought that dries our soil to a depth of several inches. The tremendous root systems of our native prairie plants can benefit municipalities that experience flooding issues due to their ability to absorb large volumes of water.
As gardens mature and shade cover deepens, the best plant performers for your sun and shade conditions will change.
The trick to minimizing maintenance of native plant gardens is to plant so thickly that competing plants and invasive plants don’t have a chance to get a foothold. Rainer and West’s Planting in a Post-Wild World has useful design, preparation, and planting tips, as does Wasowski’s Gardening with Prairie Plants.