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Natural Landscaping, Designing for Wildlife

by James P. Engel, © 2003

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Replacing non-native plants with native trees and shrubs will not make it more wildlife friendly. The arrangement of the plants in the landscape, not simply the choice of plant is what is most important to wildlife.

It is necessary to understand the needs of the animal species in order to best satisfy its requirements when planting. Wildlife need three things for survival: food, water and shelter. All of these requirements are satisfied by habitat.

A woodland is generally described as having three vegetation layers: the upper canopy, understory and the forest floor. I like to group plants into four general categories based on height and growth habit; full size canopy trees, understory trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants. One should try to combine an assortment of plants from these four different height groups when designing a landscape. Most people think of landscaping in terms of a two-dimensional surface, the soil surface. Whether planting flowers, shrubs or trees they cover the ground with one type of plant. But all that vertical space above the ground reaching to the sky is literally wasted space. Instead try to design a landscape not just horizontally but also vertically.

Natural landscaping strives to combine these different height elements in a natural display. My rule of thumb is to combine plants from at least two different groups into any planting. You should use at least two levels of planting in any grouping. The space beneath tall shade trees is available for plants from all the other groups. The space beneath understory trees is available to plant shrubs and herbaceous plants and so on.

For example plant herbaceous plants under a canopy of shade trees; group a mixture of shrubs and flowering trees together for effect or for the maximum display combine canopy trees, flowering trees, flowering shrubs and woodland flowers for a full complement of woodland variety. The choice of plants is not as critical as creating multi-layers of habitat and interest for both wildlife and viewer.

This page updated September 10, 2004