Sunday, September 30, 2018

Native Landscape Pyramid

Last week I suggested some good basic ideas for native plants to incorporate into your landscape. You still might be wondering: how many should I get? Well, 100% seems like more than most people would be willing to do – and even I still have a gardenia and a tea olive for sentimental reasons – but several years ago I thought about using this graphic to put some structure into the thought process.

I’m not the first one to have this idea, but I have tried to put some regional consideration into what the components might be. You see, regional does matter. In the southeastern part of the US, native trees are generally an important part of the plant communities and that’s why they should make up a significant portion of our landscape (the lowest layer).  Canopy trees include oaks (Quercus), hickory (Carya), maples (Acer), conifers (Pinus and Tsuga), American beech (Fagus grandifolia), ash (Fraxinus), elm (Ulmus), and tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera); their large size might mean that a small yard could have only 1-2 mature ones yet the plants would still represent a large part of the vegetation.

Amelanchier laevis
Shrubs and small-medium trees fill up the next layer of the pyramid. These include viburnum (Viburnum), hydrangea (Hydrangea), blueberry (Vaccinium), cherry/plum (Prunus), sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum), dogwood (Cornus), serviceberry (Amelanchier), redbud (Cercis canadensis), hawthorn (Crataegus), azalea (Rhododendron), buckeye (Aesculus) and many others.

Between these two woody layers (canopy trees and shrubs/small trees), your landscape would provide massive amounts of eco-system services in terms of the flowers (pollen/nectar), fruits (both fleshy and seeds), foliage for herbivores and butterflies/moths, as well as shelter for a wide range of animals and insects.

Liatris pilosa with Solidago nemoralis 

With those two layers alone, you could be a real winner with some careful choices (see this link for details on how some plants support more herbivorous insects than others). Let's not stop there. The perennial layer provides some things that woody plants can’t – like milkweed for monarch butterflies! Or perhaps you want some seasonal color after most of the shrubs and trees finish blooming in the spring?

There are many good reasons to have native perennial plants so save some room, but don’t fill up that whole layer. Native grasses and ferns have benefits, both in terms of ecological services and design aesthetics, and deserve some space of their own.

With that third layer filled, we are at the top. If you’re still craving a little something exotic - perhaps those daylilies you love so much or a crape myrtle for that corner by the neighbor’s yard - go right ahead. You can enjoy it all the more knowing that you planned for it.


  1. This is an excellent way to visualize the concept of a sustainable landscape.

  2. The picture is for the Southeast. The title of the article state Georgia plants. Would the plants differ in Florida? Or would they stay the same for North Florida near the Georgia border?

    1. That area is part of the Coastal Plain and I think the proportions could be adjusted a bit. I highly recommend this book for a good understanding of those plant communities:

  3. I would nominate the Mexican sunflower as the non native at the top. The butterflies love it.