Where the Wild Things Are

Understory is the unsung hero of your landscape, providing critical habitat for wildlife and requiring zero maintenance. Yet, it’s often underutilized. Here’s why you should love it and leave it in your landscape.

While our heritage trees are revered and protected, as they should be, very little regard is given to the understory associated with them.

Countless times I’ve heard remarks about how much better things will look after “clearing out the scrub-brush under the tree.” Yet, all I can think when I hear that is there goes the songbird nesting habitat, food for all kinds of wildlife, a buffer from whatever is on the other side of the tree, and protection of that heritage trees’ roots.

Understory is a critical forest ecosystem component that is described so well by our own Garden Geek, Mark Peterson. And if his article doesn’t quite convince you to plant, cherish and speak up for understory, I’m going to spend a little more ink in that pursuit.

Here are 5 reasons you must have some understory in your landscape.

Did I mention it’s critical wildlife habitat?

Most songbirds spend most of their time foraging and nesting between the ground (leave that leaf litter for them) and about 20 feet up. Try for a continuous curtain, layering small woody and herbaceous plant material from the ground up and about 6-10 feet deep. (Less to mow too!).

My “plant curtain” has both native and non-native plants. I live in an older neighborhood, in an old house that came with a great evergreen loquat that is flowering and fruiting. I’ve been able to use it as a backbone plant, filling in around and beside it with Turk’s cap, an Anacacho tree, and mountain laurel. And the canopy tree — my favorite wildlife shade tree — the much-maligned hackberry is the place for the birds to congregate in my yard.

Possibly the lowest maintenance area of your yard.

Not much more to say here. The more understory you have, the less maintenance you have to do. Understory takes care of itself. You can do an occasional pruning if you desire, but it’s generally best to let it do its thing. And you don’t have to water it either. In 23 years I’ve hand-watered my loquat about four times in the driest, hottest of times. Though it probably would have done fine without.

Makes a great living fence.

Layering trees and shrubs along the fence line soften the edges and can be a barrier to intruders if that is a concern for you. For those of us without wood privacy fencing, it is instant privacy, too. Just remember to plant far enough away from your fence to allow the plants’ room to grow. And while you may be taking up space in your yard and think it will feel smaller, I’ve found the opposite to be true. The living fence idea is easier for yards with open fencing rather that wood privacy fences. A little more thought will need to go into plant selection and placement along a wood fence so as not to interfere with the fence. For open fences, the plants can just go through it a bit.

Flowers and Fruits!

Many understory trees have the best flowers and fruits. We love it, the bees love it, the butterflies love it and the birds do, too. My loquat is a prolific fruiter. And everyone gets into the game. Years when I’ve been feeling ambitious I’ll make loquat jelly with a little Asian flare to use as a dipping sauce with tempura squash blossoms. Though most years I’ll try a few from the tree and leave the rest for my garden denizens.

Other great flowering and fruit trees include: Texas persimmon, with the added bonus of having beautiful silvery bark perfect for a moonlight garden; anacacho with its profusion of small white flowers throughout the summer; Texas mountain laurel, king of flowering understory with all its grape jelly mouthwatering blossom goodness; and Texas redbud, an early bloomer with profusions of pink. The redbud is part of the legume family. The flowers, which taste sort of like peanuts, are great sprinkled on spinach for a nice winter-to-spring salad.

Understory provides critical habitat for all kinds of wildlife, is zero maintenance, adds additional privacy to your yard, adds flowers and fruits to your garden, and is partially paid for with the WaterSaver Landscape Coupon. So what are you waiting for? Start planning and planting your understory today!

Picture of Dana Nichols
Dana Nichols
As conservation manager at SAWS, Dana spent her days promoting beautiful San Antonio landscapes that need little to no water while benefiting Texas wildlife. While she’s no longer whipping up new landscape programs, she’s still cooking up delicious dinners made with fresh herbs from her low-water-use garden or planning the next trip with her husband, Rick -- preferably to some exotic place that requires a passport.
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