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Tips to create a “microforest” in your backyard

Connie May, owner of Chrysalis Natural Landscapes in Frankfort, has a degree in biology and nature studies and a 30-year background in working with native plants. She offers this advice on creating a “microforest” in your backyard:

  • Buy from a native plant nursery.
  • Learn and grow from your mistakes. May says she discovered that trees and shrubs can be relocated in the first few years. “Most plants are like lawn furniture: they don’t mind being moved around.”
  • Measure your plot, then decide how many big trees you want to plant and how close together you want them to grow. Says May: “Over time, within 10 to 15 years, they’ll grow together at the top, like the canopy of a forest.” Next, choose midstory trees and finally, select shrubs like spicebush or native hydrangea for the understory. Some of May’s favorite trees to plant include tulip poplar, sassafras, wahoo, hop tree, and redbud.
  • “Young trees and shrubs grow, on average, 4 to 6 feet a year. Don’t be afraid to plant 2- or 3-foot trees; you’ll get the enjoyment of watching them grow,” May says.
  • Go into garden and landscape design with a sense of pleasure. “Be a nature nut,” May says, using the nickname her brother has given her.

Tavia Cathcart Brown is co-author of the field guide Wildflowers of Tennessee, the Ohio Valley, and Southern Appalachians, which covers 16 states and 1,250 wildflowers, and also co-author and lead photographer of the award-winning book Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest.  She offered these tips:

  • Start by planting the largest plants first in spring or late fall: trees first, shrubs second, and then herbaceous plants. Allow for walkways and at least one seating area—bench, arbor, or an area to entertain with a table and chairs.
  • Shrubs provide more “bones” to the garden and add a wild feel, while also providing shelter for birds. Once established, they help make a woodland garden feel lush and secluded. Brown’s favorites are azaleas in spring, Carolina allspice for its sweet-smelling flowers, sweet pepperbush for its ability to handle wet soils and part shade, ninebark for its graceful and arching shape and pretty white flowers, and blackhaw viburnum for its attractive white flowers in May and its berries and red leaf color in autumn.
  • Homeowners with only a pocket or microgarden can still create a woodland garden, but may wish to add logs instead of trees and perhaps rocks, which will add interest. Plant the area with perennial woodland garden shade plants.
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