Leave the Leaves, Turn Out the Lights

Most people are aware of the global biodiversity crisis, the shocking declines of insects, birds, and other animals, yet many don’t connect it with life in our comfortable suburbs. Because everything is connected, what we do at home is more important than you might think. Anyone with a house and yard can take two actions that will immediately increase biodiversity by helping the creatures that share our neighborhoods: leave the leaves and turn out the lights.  I’ve never understood why sensible people would remove autumn leaves from under their trees and bushes, only to then pay good money to add mulch and fertilizer. Fallen leaves are nature’s combination fertilizer and mulch, full of exactly the nutrients trees and shrubs need. And regarding “messiness,” nobody walks through the forest preserves in autumn wishing someone would clear out all those darn fallen leaves. Those leaves are what make the outdoors comfortable for many animals, providing shelter, food, and habitat. Fireflies d

In Praise of Native Shrubs

Prairie rose (Rosa setigera)
One of the best things any gardener can do is plant a shrub—or two or three or four. From a design point of view, as woody plants, shrubs help form the structure of a garden, and are an essential component of the layered garden—the middle layer between trees and shorter plants. There’s nothing like a mixed shrub border to screen unsightly views, provide color, and form a backdrop for flowers and grasses.

Many people think of a shrub, or a row of shrubs, or hedge, as a place holder, usually a row of non-native, nursery-industry boxwoods, yews, Japanese privet, or the like, possibly with a couple of Japanese barberry or euonymus for color or as accents. We’ve all seen this. In common practice, hedges and bushes are given crew cuts in spring with electric or gas hedge trimmers—tools I sometimes wish had not been invented (see my post “Power Down”): it’s too easy to do too much damage, whether in the interest of expediency, or misguided aesthetics. Why should we make shrubs, with their complex, individual shapes, conform to our simplified notions of squared-off order?

Wise pruning is a subtle art. Someone once said, “ten men with shovels can do well in a week, what one man with a backhoe can do badly in a day.” I say one or two persons with good sharp loppers, hedge trimmers and pruners—wielded mindfully, at the proper time, in accordance with the shrub’s growth habits—can do well in however-long-it-takes, what a “landscaping crew" can never do.

A healthier concept of a shrub would be: a usually-native woody plant whose roots stay involved in the complex soil ecosystem for years, helping to stabilize the soil and manage water; whose branches provide shelter for birds; whose leaves may be larval food for pollinators while conducting photosynthesis, and help build the soil when they fall and decay; whose flowers offer, besides beauty, pollen and nectar to pollinators; whose fruits offer food for birds, small mammals—and us. Such an entity deserves respect.

Everyone living in an urban area, if at all possible, should plant, not a single-species hedge but a mixed shrub border. Using several varieties enhances biodiversity while offering more interest to the eye. If your yard is small, even one or two thoughtfully-placed shrubs will enliven the place. And not just any shrubs, but shrubs native to their own region that offer the full panoply of ecosystem services.

Most garden centers offer a limited number of non-native species said to be suitable for a large number of situations. Deciding to go native requires more care to make sure you are choosing species that won't outgrow their spot, and that are adapted to the light, soil and moisture conditions of your yard and garden. The best place to get them would be from a nursery that specializes in native plants. The proprietors are experts, passionate and knowledgeable about their subject, not only about the plants but the ecosystem as well. They can offer good advice about what shrubs might be appropriate to your locale and specific garden situation.

As a gardener with an interest in design, I feel native shrubs, placed in a border where they are allowed to express their shrubby natures and perform as full, functioning parts of the ecosystem, are wholly beautiful. Not only that, but they help the gardener garden in his or her local, regional style, avoiding the McLandscape look. And if you can beat the robins to the serviceberries, you can make some tasty jam.

Resources: My two favorite nurseries for shrubs in my region are Prairie Moon, which ships healthy, bare-root stock, and Possibility Place, which you call and then go pick up your container-grown or bagged stock. Both are reputable, reasonably priced and sell all natives all the time.

Related Posts:
An Excellent, Timeless Book
The Three Best Things to Do for Birds in Your Backyard


Heather Holm said…
Hi Adrian,
Well said about the shrub shearing. One of my major sources of frustration in the landscape industry. All shrubs have unique and interesting forms and that should be celebrated and fostered. I have to admit there are a few native shrubs and trees that can trip me up with finding the best way to prune them, for example American Plum.

Anonymous said…
Adrian, I will always be grateful to my mother for giving me a rhododendron seedling (a volunteer from a woody area of her next door neighbor's property) when I first bought my house. I have no way of knowing if this plant is a native, but it is certainly tough and adaptable. In my ignorance, I plopped it in the ground in full sun near the top of a steep sandy slope that I was desperate to hold in place. Against all odds, the plant has done beautifully. Twenty years on it is a huge, sprawling architectural presence that not only holds the soil in place but provides the focal point of my back slope garden. -Jean
Don Plummer said…
I have a Viburnum dentata in the front of the house by the porch. It's been home and cafeteria to mockingbirds, among other feathered creatures. I do need to prune it this year, though. :)

In the back yard, I'm going to plant some native hazelnuts (Corylus americana) this spring. I hope to get some tasty nuts from them! Also in the back, I have other native shrubs: spicebush (Lindera benzoin), wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus) and black haw (Viburnum prunifolium)--all of which I grew from seed.
Hi Heather, a source from 1900 says that as American plums sucker, you just cut out anything dying or dead and let everything else alone--except don't forget to harvest the plums and make jam.

I'm glad, Jean. Some rhodies are native, who knows about yours--it sounds lovely.

You go, Don. Viburnum dentatum is a very bird-friendly bush that responds well to selectively removing old thick growth down to the ground.

I've got some Lindera and Corylus seedlings starting right now. I'm not sure where I'll put them. Some will be gifts. Too bad I can't give them to my blogging friends!
Megan said…
Hooray for mixed shrubs!

No matter how beautiful the particular shrub at hand, they all look so sad when planted in a rigid monoculture formation.

Nice article!
Thanks, Megan, glad you agree.
garden girl said…
Amen! I've planted mixed-shrub borders at previous homes. We have a blackhaw viburnum hedge that's been sheared for years (before I moved here.) That's how my husband likes it, and I've been unable to convince him otherwise. The poor shrubs don't bloom, hence no berries for the wildlife, and are a shadow of what they could be. Same for a Cornelian cherry hedge (not native, but great for wildlife, and but close enough that even Possibility Place carries them.) At least it does manage to produce some blooms and berries.

I'm working on a mixed-shrub border behind the bioswale at the back of our yard, and have given him notice they're MY shrubs and he'd better not touch them!

I LOVE Possibility Place. Connor is a wealth of knowledge, and I'm thrilled to live so close.
Hi Garden Girl,

Glad you like Possibility Place, too. I just went to their propagation workshop last week--very worthwhile.

Re your shrubs--good for you!
Unknown said…
Love your definition of a shrub, and particularly the plug for not shearing them. Driving down the parkway the other day, I was admiring the billowy natural structure of Baccharis and Myrica along the Potomac. The idea of mixed shrub border is a great one, and one that fits into the context of most American gardens.

While I am cautious of plant breeding, I do think there's a need for more compact cultivars of native shrubs. Not every yard can support plants that get 10-15' feet tall or wide. If you've got the space, go for straight species, of course.
Hi Thomas,

I agree about size, though we could also say that too many yards are too small, not that the shrubs are too big. ;)

I suspect you could select for size. There are smaller shrubs--they just aren't that well known.

Running serviceberry, for example (Amelanchier stolonifera) only gets 3-4 feet high (or so I'm told--I'm testing it in my yard now). Rosa setigera and Rosa palustris are 5-6 ft. tall.