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Layers in the Woodland

Here in Pennsylvania, May is all about flowering dogwoods, crabapple trees, viburnum shrubs and even some Cercis siliquastrum (Judas trees).  It's as if the cherry blossoms and beautiful magnolias bow out gracefully, giving these other beauties the chance to take center stage for us to admire.  I'm not reticent about the love that I have for the numerous trees which surround our home.  

It is the layers of the woodland, however, during the warmer months that deserve to be noted for what they are.  I have been wanting to share with you the various noteworthy layers which are crucial to any property, big or small, and I've even included two short videos taken while on my walk around the meadow for you to see what I'm talking about.  Layers in the woodland have several benefits in promoting biodiversity for plants and animals.  The more 'structures' one provides near and around one's home, the more flora and fauna it can sustain throughout the seasons.

The Woodland Layers

The deciduous trees in our woodland far outnumber the coniferous specimens, but both are equally important.  If we observe closely, from day to day, we'll note that during the months of April and May, the layers, from ground to canopy level, fill in very rapidly.  The only thing to complain about is the amount of pollen that gets dropped.

Let's explore the ground layer, shrub layer, sub canopy layer and canopy layer around my home.   

Ground Layer
The ground layer consists of many crucial plants and vegetation.  Thick grass, moss, herbs, plants and flowers play a vital role in our woodland.  The hundreds of bees and butterflies that forage our herbs, wildflowers and perennials need these in order to exist.  They in turn pollinate countless other flora.  Many other invertebrates use these low-lying areas for their day-to-day existence, which then get consumed by countless woodland birds, such as bluejays, robins, crows, mourning doves, cardinals, woodpeckers, finches and wrens.  

I'm standing at the bottom of the hill, right on our driveway, looking up toward the meadow.  This is one of my favorite spots to take notice of what's going on around us.  Besides the humming of those busy bumblebees, I love to hear the cheerful chirping of the robins and the distinct calls of woodpeckers.

A freshly mown meadow gives you a clear picture of the various woodland layers.  Those large deciduous trees on the horizon, wind their way around the field.  Let me assure you, they are quite majestic to behold up close.

The meadow is dotted with clusters of wildflowers which range in color, from whites and yellows, to light mauves and pinks.

This short video is really meant to be listened to.  There is quite a lot happening here.  Do you hear the crickets?

Let's not forget the herbs and beautiful ostrich ferns which thrive enthusiastically.  The flowering herbs (I do let them flower) are very popular with the bees and butterflies.  Nothing gives me greater pleasure than watching them buzz from flower to flower when the weather gets warmer.

The proliferating ostrich ferns provide a lot of shelter to smaller animals, such as woodchucks, squirrels, chipmunks and foxes.  

At the moment, we have a fox with her kits taking refuge behind a hill of ferns and forsythia.  We've spotted them on the lawn next to our house (photo above taken on Mother's Day), so it's only a matter of time before they become bolder and venture out beyond the surrounding acres.

Shrub Layer
Shrub layers provide a number of benefits to the woodland and one's property. Not only do they serve as windbreaks and barriers for privacy, but they also have the added advantage of providing shelter and food to the wildlife (look at the fawn standing next to those raspberry shrubs).  Some of our favorite shrubs here at home include: rhododendron, viburnum, azaleas, forsythia, holly, and of course, raspberry.

You know it's May when the azaleas are in full bloom.  They seem to punctuate the landscape with glorious colors this time of year, and they aren't shy to show just how beautiful they are.

Every single year I harvest some raspberries for our consumption and am thrilled at their tart, full-flavored juiciness.  More often than not, we eat them as is, but if I'm feeling especially decadent, then I add them to tarts and other desserts.  I never tire of these berries and neither do the wildlife!

Looking down our driveway, you can see the various woodland layers.  We have a lot of shrubs that line this steep path, and yet, the dense canopy of trees provide most of the shade here.  Even on very hot days, this area stays cool.  This photo was taken in the thick of summer. 

Sub Canopy Layer
It is the sub canopy layer that really garners so much attention during the months of April and May.  The crabapples have been glorious!  So fragrant, infinitely beautiful and very colorful, it's nice walking up to one.

Dogwoods are among my favorite trees.  You can always count on their flower show in May.  Although we have mostly white dogwoods here, I noticed a few pink and coral-colored ones in a wooded area behind the barn.

Canopy Layer
The canopy layer is perhaps the most important layer for any woodland, property or area.  These tall trees are useful in so many ways by providing shade and thus lowering surrounding temperatures, supplying oxygen, removing greenhouse gases and smog, protecting structures from high wind, reducing noise pollution and minimizing flooding.  If that weren't enough, the trees are home to a number of wildlife.  It's good to have large trees on one's property.

Our trees include:
  • Eastern Hemlock
  • Eastern White Pine
  • Pitch Pine
  • Black Ash
  • Catalpa
  • Flowering Dogwood
  • Norway Maple
  • Silver Maple
  • American Beech
  • American Chestnut
  • American Linden
  • Black Locust
  • Black Walnut
  • Black Oak
  • Magnolia
  • Sycamore
  • Tulip Tree
  • White Oak
  • Yellow Birch

Over the course of the past 5-6 years, bare areas of land have slowly but surely been replanted with native trees in an effort to benefit the landscape.  It's been very successful as you can see from the photo above.  I can only imagine what this will look like in another 5 years.

Standing at the western end of the meadow, you can hear how much activity there is on this particular afternoon.  

Note: If your speakers are on high, I suggest you lower them a bit, because of the birds.  They can be loud!

Layers in the Woodland

Improving one's landscape by planting trees, shrubs, flowers, herbs or reseeding lawns is always a wise thing to do.  Knowing how each of these layers works and recognizing the importance of biodiversity will help guide your choices when planting.  As stewards of the land which surrounds us, how we treat our woodlands, properties and landscapes today, will have a tremendous impact on what we leave behind for generations to come.


  1. Gosh David - I have had my eyes open for all these decades and have never really noticed the layers. You are so knowledgeable and observant - I could have just kept reading this type of post for ever.

  2. Thanks so much, Phil! It's always good to learn something new. :)

  3. David, how often do you walk around that meadow? I think I would want to camp out up there and never leave if I could. Oh one more thing. What about the deer--do you have deer fencing or netting to keep them out of the areas? Curious.

  4. Jean, I try to take my walks around the meadow on a daily basis, but there are times when I simply can't.

    Regarding the deer: we do not have any fencing to keep them out like most of our neighbors. There is so much for them to forage here that we just let them take refuge in the area if they want to. That isn't to say that I like when they eat some of our flowers, but that's another story!

    Some years the deer are more prolific and other years we hardly see them at all.

  5. So very pretty! Those baby fox are adorable too!

  6. The foxes are SUPER CUTE, Coco. I'm going to show a video of them playing for my next post! :)


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