Wild Ones   Green Gables: An American Landscape Designed With Nature in Mind: A Front-Yard Forest. Part 3  
By Richard J. Ehrenberg

This third article about Green Gables, my home in Whitewater, Wisconsin, focuses on the front-yard forest that measures 50 feet x 85 feet. It fills the front yard from the driveway to the side yard, and from the house to the front sidewalk. In the spring of 1994 I planted 40 6-foot trees and proceeded to water every three to four days, slowly soaking each tree for 15 minutes during the warm, dry days of summer. Each tree was given a root stimulant at planting time. All survived.


In 1993, when the Ehrenbergs moved in, the house looked like many houses with extensive, unimaginative lawns do – alien to its setting, on top of the soil.

The initial planting of 40 included only four different species of native trees and one cultivar of a native. For a number of reasons the black cherry (Prunus serotina) dominated my selection. It is one of my favorite native trees, though it is seldom seen in established woodlands. They prefer full sun, and since I was planting into a previously mowed lawn area with shade from only two street trees, I knew the black cherry would do well. The good qualities of this species are many: It’s a fast-growing hardwood; has showy, white, spring flowers; in the fall, the fruit – black cherries – are loved by many birds; and its fall color is a striking combination of purple and orange. A few red oaks (Quercus rubra), were planted, but have not done well, only holding their own and dying off as the shade from the fast-growing black cherries took over. Four quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides), were located on the southern edge of the planting, in order that they might get maximum sun once the trees have matured. Eastern redbuds (Cercis canadensis), were planted for their unique pink spring flowers. A few white ashes (Fraxinus americana), and a cultivar, “Autumn Purple Ash,” were added for fall color.


The following years, 40 6-foot young trees were planted in a 50-foot x 85-foot area, between the house and the fronting sidewalk.

Fortunately, additional species emerged in 1994 and 1995, as soon as mowing was discontinued. Black walnuts, planted by my neighborhood squirrels, came up all over. I learned quickly to cover them with protective screening since the squirrels dug them up as quickly as they discovered this spring delicacy.

The black walnut (Juglans nigra), I discovered, is an extremely fast-growing tree. They quickly extended their height above the trees I had planted, and have become tall, straight, and impressive. Their presence has not affected the other trees, nor decreased the number of wildflowers; natives seem to be tolerant of the walnut’s toxic chemical, which can destroy a vegetable garden. American linden, or basswood (Tilia americana) also appeared, along with hackberry (Celtis occidentalis). Both are very shade tolerant, and have grown extremely well, also growing faster and higher than my plantings.

My experience with the walnut, basswood, and hackberry volunteers prompted this conclusion: Trees that grow from seed in one location and never have their roots disturbed, as do nursery-grown trees, grow faster than nursery trees. Even additional white ashes which volunteered in the constant shade next to the house outpaced all the nursery plantings. Thirty volunteers have graciously increased the front-yard forest to 70 trees, which shows how anxious nature is to fill a space if only we get rid of the lawn and the mower.

Green Gables

A strip of lawn surrounded the young woodlot, emphasizing it while also giving the impression that it was tended and intended.

The design included a curvilinear edge for the planting, along my driveway, and along the street. By leaving an edge of mowed grass which is seen by my neighbors, the planting has the appearance of a planting bed – it is intentional. The lawn blends in with the neighborhood lawns, and it reflects a casual artistic contrast between a manicured lawn and natural growth. The mini-forest was planted right up to the house, thereby avoiding any hint of a foundation planting. The woodland snuggles up to and incorporates the house into the landscape. Originally the house stood on top of the lawn and dominated the view and a visitor’s initial experience.

In the fall, prior to my spring planting of the forest, I asked the city to dump 700 bags of collected leaves onto the front lawn, leaves that had been slated for the city composting facility. I hired a young man to spread the leaves approximately 18 inches deep, up to the designed edges and up to the house. A path of grass through the woods was allowed to remain. The winter snow packed down the leaves. When spring arrived, the mulch had done its work – there was no more grass, and the area was ready for planting. The weed problems over the years have been minimal. The tree seeds in the mulch added to the species list. And after 14 years, I’m still using the discarded plastic leaf bags for miscellaneous projects. The savings in plastic bags probably paid for the trees I purchased.

The understory consists mostly of alternate leaved dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) shrubs, which were first planted but now reproduce from seed. They do well in shade. Virginia creeper (Parthenosisus quinquefolia), provides the dominant groundcover. It is a very fast-growing, creeping vine with attractive palmate leaves which sit about 8 to 10 inches off the ground. Its growth habit is open enough to allow wildflowers to grow through, unlike that of alien periwinkle or pachysandra whose compact growth suffocates any volunteering natives. The woodland violet, which is Wisconsin’s state flower, branched coneflower (Rudbeckia triloba), and Virginia blue-bells (Mertensia virginica) add color to the dappled shade and otherwise green environment. The smell of wet leaves in the spring, and the smell of dry leaves in the fall, add to the woodland experience. Squirrels and birds abound around the edges. The shade reduces temperatures by 10 or 15 degrees during the summer, and keeps our bedrooms on the north side of the house comfortably cool. No need for air conditioning.

Green Gables

Fourteen years after the original planting, the house no longer appears alien in its setting. Rather, it nestles among the trees and softening ground covers. It belongs. It is part of a larger habitat.

Maintenance has been minimal, primarily pruning dead branches that result from the increasing shade. Any small twigs or branches which fall are easily broken into smaller pieces and scattered in the woodland. No need to rake leaves. Nature will recycle. Leaves on the lawn edge are raked into the woodland. No need to bag any leaves. The front-yard forest is not only good habitat for wildlife, it is also good habitat for Kim and me – with much less work than lawn maintenance.

What is good for nature turns out to be very good for us as well. It is definitely a win, win situation.

Richard J. Ehernberg, of the Madison (WI) Chapter, is a landscape architect.

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Updated: Jul 29, 2009.