Landscaping for Wildlife in Layers

 Douglas Tallamy has written an inspiring book, Bringing Nature Home, which explains the many benefits of native plants in our landscapes. By planting native trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants, we increase the diversity of insects which attracts a diverse population of birds to eat the insects. In a well-balanced ecosystem, various populations of plants and wildlife remain in balance by predation and natural competition. Diversity among the insects means the native plants will be nibbled on but not decimated.   Please read the article Hurray for Holes in the Garden” to learn more.

Different types of birds nest at different levels (layers) from the ground.  Cardinal nests can be found at one foot to 15 feet off the ground.  Nuthatches, chickadees and woodpeckers nest in holes in taller trees.  By providing different layers of native vegetation such as trees, shrubs and a herbaceous layer, we can increase the variety of birds and butterflies, who will feel at home in our backyard. Their flowers provide nectar and pollen for many insects.  The leaves provide food for butterfly caterpillars and other insects, and these insects in turn provide food for many types of birds, especially their young. The seeds and nuts of native plants are eaten by many birds.We meet many persons through the Conservation@Home program who have caught the “bug” of wanting to landscape for wildlife but don’t know exactly where to start.  There are as many ways to approach this as there are landscaping problems to solve (too much shade, too much water, too dry), but one angle to approach this from is to start with what you have and think in terms of what works for the birds.  


Cedar Waxwing eating berries

If you want to add larger trees to your property (perhaps replace ash trees that were removed), there are many trees, besides the usual maples and locusts, which would benefit our neighborhoods. In Bringing Nature Home, Doug Tallamy has a list of trees which are highly beneficial to butterflies.  At the top of the list are oaks (support 534 species of butterflies and moths).  Our blog, “Lost Your Ash? Native Tree Replacement Recommendations! also provides a list of several native landscape trees.

 If you already have one or two large shade trees on your property, consider adding an understory layer (20-30 feet high) with redbuds, dogwoods and viburnums, for example. 


A Dappled Shade Garden with Different Layers

The understory tree layer can be under-planted with shrubs and a shade-loving herbaceous layer which might include such plants as jack-in-the-pulpit, solomon’s seal, mayapple, bloodroot and ginger.  Birds like thrushes (robins) like to scratch around in the leaf litter so let the leaves stay where they fall and go lightly with wood mulch.  Leaves are best to enrich the soil, provide moisture for roots and hiding places for insects. Read our article “Leave the Leaves” to learn more.


Northern Wood Thrush in leaves


Following is a list of understory trees and shrubs you may want to consider.  The Possibility Place wholesale nursery ( has wonderful descriptions as does If you can’t locate the plants at your local nursery, let us know and we may be able to help find other places to purchase. 

Understory Trees

Alternate-leaf (pagoda)dogwood, Cornus alternifolia (Morning sun, moist soil)

Blackhaw Viburnum, Viburnum prunifolium (Sun to shade, dry or moist soil)

Blue Beech (Musclewood), Carpinus caroliniana (Sun to partial shade, dry or moist soil)

Ironwood, Ostrya virginiana (Sun to shade, med. to dry)

Redbud, Cercis Canadensis (Partial shade, med. to dry soil)

Wahoo, Euonymus atropurpureus  (Partial shade, medium to dry soil)

Witch Hazel, Hamamelis virginiana (Partial to full shade, well-drained soil)



American hazelnut, Corylus Americana (Sun to partial shade, dry to moist soil)

Arrowwood, Viburnum dentatum (Sun to partial shade, dry to medium moisture)

Black Chokeberry, Aronia melanocarpa (Full to partial sun, medium to moist soil)

Black Current, Ribes americanum (Sun to partial shade, dry to moist soil)

Bottlebrush Buckeye, Aesculus parviflora (Shade to partial shade, moist soil)

Common Ninebark, Physocarpus opulifolius (Sun to partial shade, dry to moist)

Yellow Dwarf Honeysuckle, Diervilla lonicera (Sun-part shade, dry to moist)

Elderberry, Sambucus canadensis (Sun to partial shade, moist areas)

Nannyberry, Viburnum lentago (Sun to partial shade, med. to moist)

Red Twig Dogwood, Cornus stolonifera (Sun to partial shade, med. to moist)

Spicebush, Lindera benzoin (Sun to partial shade, med. to moist)


Nancy Cinatl, [email protected]



Illinois Wildflowers website

Possibility Place website



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