Are you considering adding a tree or trees to your lawn or landscape in the volunteer state? This list of the best trees for Tennessee will help you add a vertical dimension to your vegetation. The best tree for your landscaping needs will depend on your soil conditions and where you are in the state.
Also called Tulip tree or tulip poplar, Liriodendron tulipifera is the Tennessee State Tree, and it is easy to see why! It grows almost everywhere in the state. And while it is not a true poplar, it is one of the fastest growing trees for Tennessee. This is one of the tallest native hardwoods in the U.S. and is a fast growing tree. It performs best on sites that have deep, moist soil and full sun, but it is highly adaptable.
Eastern Red Cedar
Eastern Red Cedar is one of the most common trees found in Tennessee and across the Eastern U.S. It grows best in highly alkaline soils found in the Nashville Basin and on the Cumberland Plateau. It is an early successional species, so it is great for turning old fields into wildlife habitat. While it is not a true cedar, Juniperus virginiana is one of the best wildlife species in the Eastern U.S. This evergreen tree gets a bad reputation for showing up in unmowed lots and along fencerows, but this is due to its highly adaptable nature. This tree will grow almost anywhere, so it’s perfect for those without a green thumb who want to support wildlife habitat.
While weeping willow is valued for its unique aesthetic and dramatic foliage, black willow is a native willow species that doesn’t get enough credit. Unlike its short-lived Chinese cousin, the native black willow can survive for over 100 years. This tree requires very wet soil and prefers full sun, but can survive in shade. The black willow is a larval host to several species of butterfly, including viceroy and tiger swallowtail, making it ideal for rain gardens. Black willow trees have orange and red fall colors. Flowers grow only on the female trees.
White oak can refer to the species Quercus alba, or to a group of oaks that share some characteristics which are not found in the red oak group. While both red and white oaks are good choices to provide shade and support wildlife, white oaks tend to be preferred. When choosing trees from the oak genus Quercus, you are unlikely to find fast growing trees. What you will find is brilliant fall colors, drought tolerant trees with a heavy straight trunk. Oaks are some of the best trees in Tennessee for multiple land uses. And while they may take a few extra years to grow into their classic stately look, they pay it back with gorgeous yellow fall foliage and superb wildlife value. Other species in the white oak group include
Post Oak (Quercus stellata)
Chestnut Oak (Quercus montana – formerly Quercus prinus)
Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa)
Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor)
One of the most prized native trees in the volunteer state and across the South, Magnolia grandiflora is part of the rare class of broadleaf evergreen trees (most evergreens have needles). Southern magnolia will survive as far north as Maryland, but only in areas that have relatively mild winters. It may need to be protected from frost, especially as a seedling. Magnolia grows best in lowlands and wet areas, and is happy in partial shade. It grows tall quickly and casts very deep shade. The bright white flowers give way to unique soft cones with large red seeds.
The most common maple species in the southeastern U.S., Acer rubrum provides some of the best fall color in the South. Red maple prefers full sun, but grows well as an understory or mid-story tree around other trees with an established canopy. They are relatively fast growing trees and are fairly disease resistant. The largest red maple in the country lives in Tennessee – in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. In addition to fall color, the red maple provides springtime interest with its bright red buds in early spring, as well as red flowers on male trees and red fruits, called samaras, on the females in April and May. Red maple is tolerant of moist or dry soils.
Best Trees Tennessee Considerations
If you’re planting trees in Tennessee, your choices will depend on where you are located. In the Mississippi gulf coastal plain and Nashville Basin, wetland species like bald cypress and river birch may be better suited. Alternately, on the Highland Rim and Cumberland Plateau with steep slopes and shallower soils, the best trees may be sweet gum and red mulberry. The secret is to put the right tree in the right spot. For more localized recommendations, get in touch with an unlawning expert.
Are you wondering, how can I naturally fix my lawn without using chemicals like pesticides and herbicides? Did the previous owner leave you with dead grass or a lawn full of weeds? Is your existing lawn giving you anxiety? This guide will teach you how to fix your lawn naturally so you can enjoy an attractive lawn without using harmful chemicals.
Planning for your lawn’s future
Ultimately, you want your healthier lawn to exist in a low-maintenance state that looks nice. If you’re planning to hire a lawn service that offers organic lawn care or a similar specialty, you should watch out for greenwashing.
Greenwashing lawn care
Greenwashing is the practice of overemphasizing the “green” aspect of a business or product to mislead consumers. In the lawn care industry, there are companies that will try to greenwash their natural lawn care offerings. You may end up with a beautiful lawn, but that does not guarantee a healthy lawn or one that is good for the environment. Look for reputable companies that understand organic science.
Reduce the overall size of your lawn
If your lawn takes up most of your property, consider shrinking the size of it to areas that you will use. Even organic lawns are not as ecologically beneficial as native garden beds. Unlawn can help you plan what kind of replacement for your lawn is best for you. Grass is helpful to have in high foot traffic areas, but residential lawns tend to be much larger than they need to be.
Natural lawn care techniques
For the areas of grass that you want to keep, use techniques that can improve the health of your existing lawn, or remove it and start with grass seed if needed. You can purchase grass seed mixes that will give you a diverse and healthy lawn containing both warm season grass and cool season grasses.
Your lawn’s natural conditions
When planning for the future of your green lawn, you should consider the natural conditions. Natural lawn care is only possible by working with nature. So, pay attention to things like whether you have sandy soils or clay soils. The soil texture can be a very important factor in determining what kinds of grass will thrive.
Other important factors you should investigate include soil pH and other indicators of soil health. You can get a simple soil test kit online, and your local university extension office may offer soil testing.
You should make sure you know as many of the following items about your lawn as possible.
USDA Hardiness Zone
Region/ecoregion (especially if adding native plants)
Soil texture including soil compaction
Soil depth and rockiness
Choose the right kind of grass
There are several alternatives when it comes to the actual species of grass that will make up your lawn. From Bermuda grass to Kikuyu grass, the correct choice of species will depend on your geographic location and your lawn’s conditions. In many parts of the country, Bermuda grass and Kikuyu grass are considered invasive, and you should not put them in your lawn. St. Augustine grass will not grow in most zones. Achieving a turf grass look in an organic lawn can be tricky.
Your lawn can also contain non-grass plants like clover. In fact, adding clover to your lawn is one of the best ways to improve soil health and support pollinators while keeping a traditional lawn appearance.
The best approach is to have a mix of grasses, or a grass seed blend, when establishing your lawn. Blends that contain both warm season grass and cool season grasses are best for year-round appeal in your lawn. Garden centers don’t always have mixes like this, but there are specialty providers online.
Best practices for a natural healthy lawn
Most lawns are managed with synthetic lawn fertilizers, lawn pesticides, and frequent mowing and watering. A natural lawn can be achieved through:
Organic fertilizers are preferable to synthetic fertilizers, since they are less concentrated and break down slowly. This means there is a lower chance of runoff when they are properly applied, and they supply a more steady flow of nutrients to the grass roots.
Focusing on developing healthy soil will pay off with green grass. Soil compaction is a major problem in most lawns and can create conditions favorable to weeds. Lawn soil naturally becomes compacted over time as people walk or drive on it, especially during home construction and maintenance. Aeration is one way to ameliorate compacted soil.
Mow at the right height
Many homeowners and lawn care companies set the mower blade close to the ground each week. This keeps grass clippings manageable and creates a very neat and tidy appearance. However, a healthy grass blade should be left at least three inches high after mowing. Grass blades are the leaves of the plant, and they produce the food that sustains your lawn.
Watering lawns is a sore subject among environmentalists, especially in areas where water conservation rules have been put into effect during droughts. The fact is that your lawn should only need a moderate amount of water, applied in the morning and infrequently.
Ditch the pesticides and herbicides
If you have issues with weeds, it is probably due to soil issues or bad mowing practices. That said, weed seeds are aggressive, so you might find them even if you do everything right. Some organic lawn care experts suggest using corn gluten meal to prevent weed seeds from establishing a root system. But beware, corn gluten meal application needs to be timed correctly in early spring, or it will only help the weed infestations!
When the entire lawn needs to go
In some cases, a lawn is in such terrible condition that the area needs to be completely reevaluated. Maybe the problem is constantly wet grass. Or maybe it’s difficult to establish turf grass because of a shallow root system. In any case, you should be willing to adapt to the natural conditions.
If you need to kill your grass
Killing grass can be more challenging than you think. In those cases when it is already struggling to survive, it can be easier. Your lawn might be telling you that it can’t survive in the place where it’s been asked to grow.
Whether it’s to re-seed the area or to replace the lawn with something else, if you need to kill your grass, you can do so naturally. There are three proven methods for killing grass naturally that work even if it has deep roots.
Natural chemical pesticide
Solarizing – bake it
Solarizing takes advantage of the Sun’s energy to basically bake the grass roots and blades. It usually takes a few weeks for this process to work, and it only works at certain times of year. Plus, it is limited in size to as much area as you can cover with a tarp or plastic.
Sheet mulching – smother it
Sheet mulching is a little more labor intensive than solarizing, but it works immediately. There are numerous ways to sheet mulch, but all of them smother grass to death.
Chemicals – poison it
Natural chemicals do not need to be synthesized. For example, lemon juice or vinegar. Organic agricultural and environmental sciences are largely focused on the various effects of natural chemicals. Some natural chemicals can be mixed together to form potent herbicides.
The flip side of natural chemical pesticides and herbicides
Organic science has also given us alternatives to synthetic fertilizers. Many are made at home, like compost tea. This technique can take advantage of yard waste that would otherwise need to be tidied up for a beautiful lawn.
Organic lawn care beyond chemical inputs
Establishing an organic lawn frequently requires alternatives to lawn chemicals. But the ultimate goal of a low-maintenance organic lawn has to be reached through the soil. Soil structure is important, as discussed above. And you should get a soil test. But soil particles are only part of the picture.
Your soil also contains microorganisms that play an important role in an organic lawn. Fungi and bacteria are essential to the movement of nutrients from plants, to soil, and back to plants. Without this living soil, your land will consistently lose nutrients. This is why composting is so widely considered an essential practice for organic lawn care and gardening.
When you have a good soil biome, you improve the conditions for your grass seed to succeed. And continuing to add compost tea to established lawns can help to keep nutrient levels high. It’s a good idea to perform a soil test for nutrients before and after treatments, as well.
Organic lawn care can seem like a lot
If you feel overwhelmed at the idea of organic lawn care, don’t worry. It can seem like a lot! But it’s much easier than it seems. It all starts with your idea of what a lawn should look like. You can work hard and do the research required to maintain your lawn’s current appearance (or something close to it). Or, you can see how having a natural lawn feels.
Your lawn might end up looking a little messier, or more diverse – it’s true. If it’s important to you to have the best lawn on the street, I’m not able to offer you much advice. But your lawn could stand out for another reason – the amount of nature in it. That doesn’t mean it will look wild!
Having a eco-friendly lawn can be more than just organic lawn care practices. Your lawn doesn’t necessarily need to be a lawn. Part of it could just as easily be a prairie or meadow. Unlawning is even easier than going organic. You’ll be glad that you invited nature into your space when you enjoy your pollinator garden or pocket-prairie.
Looking for a natural way to remove turf from part of your property? Establishing a pollinator habitat or a garden bed means getting rid of the existing lawn. So, how can you kill grass permanently without using nasty chemicals?
Natural ways to kill grass
These three methods are sure to eliminate grass with no harsh chemicals. Which one is right depends on your situation, including how much grass you need to kill, how fast you want it to happen, and how much labor you’re willing to do.
Solarizing takes advantage of the sun’s energy to essentially cook your grass to death. In most of North America, this process takes about two weeks. In hot, sunny locations less time is needed.
How solarizing kills grass
Solarizing takes advantage of the sun’s energy, usually by covering the ground with a transparent tarp. The sun heats up the soil to extreme temperatures. This can kill turf roots, and can also be damaging to bacteria and fungi. In fact, solarizing can even destroy weed seeds and insects, leaving the area almost totally free of life for a clean-slate.
Solarizing produces steam in the soil, which can quickly reach high temperatures and damage most forms of life, killing your turf. Sandy soil can be difficult to solarize because the steam escapes more easily.
How to solarize your grass
The first step of solarizing is to remove as much of the grass as you can. Mowing it very low is ok, but for the best results you should till and pull all the clumps you can get.
Next, water the soil deeply. Then apply the tarp or plastic. Clear painters’ plastic is the best option. Remember, you want sunlight to get in as much as possible!
The tarp should be buried along the edges to trap in heat and steam. This should also be done during the hottest part of the summer for the best effects.
Solarizing can take four weeks or longer, so be patient before removing the plastic. You may need to add water throughout the process if your area is in a dry spell.
This process will kill ALL seeds in the area. So, don’t count on an ecosystem springing to life when you pull away the plastic. You may need to add compost to replenish the biota in the soil.
2. Sheet composting
This approach takes the most labor of the three, but is also the fastest and most effective way to unturf. With this approach, your grass is smothered instead of being cooked.
How sheet composting kills grass
Sheet composting is sometimes called lasagna composting, because it is done in layers. Frequently, yard debris or tilled grass is considered the bottom layer of the lasagna, while topsoil or composted soil is added as a top layer. A barrier, such as a sheet of cardboard, is the lasagna noodle.
To kill grass, sheet composting relies on the concept of smothering. Your grass should be covered by something that it cannot grow through or around. If it can’t get to sunlight, it will die. People sometimes attempt to smother grass with an opaque tarp on the soil surface, similar to solarizing. This is not effective and will not unturf your lawn.
To smother grass effectively, the barrier needs to be left in the soil. But leaving your tarp underground is probably not a great plan. Cardboard and newspaper make a decent biodegradable barrier. And that barrier will last long enough to establish new plants above it – especially with the addition of topsoil and compost.
It is also a good idea to till or disturb the grass before beginning. And you can add more soil in the second and third years.
If you need a precise touch to kill grass showing up where it shouldn’t, this approach is best. Instead of using harsh chemicals to kill the unruly grass (or other weeds), use a mixture of natural products that damage the grass.
How natural chemicals work and how to use them
Different chemicals work in different ways, and some may be more potent than you expect. So, be careful and do some research before mixing anything too noxious in your lab (or kitchen).
Some common natural approaches to weed-control that you can consider include:
acidic natural compounds (like vinegar or citrus)
salt or dissolved minerals
extreme heat (boiling water or torches)
Organic science can get very complicated when it comes to chemical alternatives. Find something that works for you and your conditions. It can be very helpful to find local organic groups.
The best way to kill grass
Each of these three methods has its place in getting grass out of our landscape. Combine these three approaches to ensure success with any grass-removal project. The best way to kill grass is to replace it with a native ecosystem! Over time, grass will not survive where it is not competitive. So, create the conditions for native plants and they will thrive.
For a garden that supports birds, wildlife, and the food web, choose plants that are native to your area. Science has shown us that these can support more life than ornamental species from other regions.
What are native plants?
Native plants are those which naturally occur in a region. The opposite of a native plant is one from a different part of the world. Many people garden with species that are ornamental, rather than using natives.
Why are native plants important?
Many people wonder why native plants are better for the environment. All kinds of plants can produce oxygen. And many are attractive to pollinators. So what makes natives so important?
The answer has to do with ecology. Native birds, wildlife, butterflies, and bees rely on your garden. And preserving these native animals requires gardening with plants that match their needs. Gardening with ornamental plants from other parts of the world can provide some food for local wildlife. But natives can support the most forms of life.
You can also check with your state or local university extension office to connect with other gardeners. Join local garden groups and explore opportunities for education related to sustainable gardening.
Where can I get native plants?
If you’re ready to add natives to your garden, shop at a nursery that specializes in native plants. You can also shop online nurseries that serve your area. Choose natives has a list of nurseries that do mail-order as well.
Your soil probably contains seeds from many native species. If you’re adventurous and can learn to identify seedlings, try letting a section of your lawn grow out. Chances are, many of the naturally occurring sprouts will be natives.
Another way to acquire natives is to grow them from seeds. You can collect seeds in the spring and fall from areas around your home. And your local library or university extension office may host a seed-exchange program.
Choosing the right plants for the right place
You’ll need to consider factors like light levels, wet and dry areas, and the pH of your soil when choosing what species of plants to buy. If you need help, unlawn experts can create a plan for you.
How to take the wet spot in your lawn from a muddy mess to a healthy habitat. Eliminate wet grass by embracing a different use for your soggy spots.
The wet grass headache
Mowing wet grass is a pain. And it’s bad for your grass and lawnmower. You’re more likely to stain your clothes and shoes when you mow wet grass. And it’s even worse if your grass is long overdue for a trim but it just keeps raining! Why do so many of us put up with the hassle of cutting wet grass? It seems like there’s no other option. But there is. Get rid of that section of grass! It’s easier than you think and it will look good. Plus, it can do some good for the Earth.
Replacements for grass in wet areas
If you want to keep that lawn appearance, or if HOA rules require you to keep the appearance of your lawn consistent(ly boring), then consider replacing the wet part of your lawn with a no-mow alternative. Grass alternatives let you continue to use your lawn in dry times and reduce the amount you need to mow.
Habitat types for wet areas
If you’re going to get rid of your wet grass for good, consider replacing it with something that will benefit wildlife and local ecology. By swapping your wet grass for wet habitat, you’ll turn your problem into a source of beauty.
This wet grass replacement allows native bees and butterflies to take refuge in your lawn. You can create a mini-meadow or a pocket prairie to support a diverse array of native pollinators that are facing habitat loss and population decline.
Converting your wet lawn to a pollinator habitat can be as simple as planting some bunches of Joe-pye weed, swamp milkweed, and bee balm. Plant your native plants together in groups a few feet apart. For less weeding, spread some cardboard or newspaper in between bunches, and cover it with mulch.
If your lawn gets wet enough to turn into a muddy mess, consider adding a rain garden. Adding a depression to collect water can help to mitigate flooding during wet seasons. And a water source on your property can support local bird and pollinator populations.
A rain garden is a little more involved than a simple pollinator habitat. It involves some digging, which means you should call 811 before you dig. Rain gardens can be enhanced if shrubs or small trees, like witch-hazel, are planted on the banks. Use the pollinator plants from above for a bonus ecological benefit.
If your wet spot stays wet for most of the year, it can support some unique and beautiful tree species. Cypress, black willow, and river birch only grow in the wettest spots. These trees act as a filtration system for groundwater, which benefits wildlife and your community. Plus, they all have medicinal uses.
Planting a grove of trees is the easiest option on this list, but can take up a weekend day or two. And trees can be expensive. But if you can get your hands on enough of these trees, you can plant them 8 to 12 feet apart. In between, add shrubs and native pollinator plants.
Say goodbye to clumping, staining, and squelching
If you’re ready to be done mowing wet grass forever, make a plan to unlawn that spot. Wet spots in your lawn are hard to use and a pain to maintain. Instead, switch to a lower-maintenance option that benefits nature locally. Unlawning is easy, cheap, and attractive!
Deforestation is one of the primary global threats to biodiversity. Forests improve our air and water quality, and support diverse ecosystems. But growing a forest requires more than just planting trees. To grow forest like a pro, you’ll need to think like a forester.
Steps to grow a forest
During my time as a professional forester, I would grow hundreds of acres of new forest each year. But even if you only have half an acre, following these steps will ensure you end up with a healthy mature forest on your property.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make when creating a forest is to just start planting trees. This can lead to damage to the trees and other common mistakes like over-mulching and root compaction. But it’s easy to avoid this mistake by considering what your trees need to grow.
Trees grow if they get a combination of sunlight, water, nutrients, and air. That’s all. Air is probably not going to be a limiting factor for your trees, so let’s talk about the other three: sunlight, water, and nutrients. Sunlight comes from above. But plants get water and nutrients from below, in the soil.
So, competition above (older trees) will restrict a tree’s access to sunlight. And competition below (smaller plants and younger trees) will restrict access to water and nutrients.
Set your forest up for success
Site-prep is the method foresters use to increase access sunlight, water, and nutrients just before planting trees. Unfortunately, in the world of commercial forestry this often involves spraying herbicides and plowing soil. Burning debris or existing vegetation is also considered a site-prep technique, and is appropriate in some cases.
Site-prep is an issue of scale. If you are planting a few individual trees for a mini-forest, you can site prep by hand in the area immediately surrounding them. But, if you want to convert a 10-acre field to a forest, you might need a tractor.
It’s important to use the right site-prep technique for your project to avoid unnecessary damage to the environment. Common forestry site-prep techniques include:
Chemical herbicide use
Broadcast or debris burning
Raking and piling
Plowing or bedding
Some of these techniques only affect vegetation, while others move around debris or the soil. For converting grass, surface-level tilling to break up the grass root-mat is a good technique. If the area is small enough, covering the tilled soil with newspaper or cardboard can prevent erosion and keep weeds down.
How to pick the right site prep technique
Answering a few questions can help you figure out what kind of site prep to use.
Is there debris on the site that will make it hard to plant trees? If so, you will need to either clear it away or speed up the decomposition process by burning it. You don’t need to clear all of it, though, because your trees will need some space between them. We’ll revisit this idea in the planting step.
Is there woody competition? For seedlings of most tree species, dense woody vegetation is a major problem. You will need to kill or clear away some of the existing vegetation to create space for your trees. The more competition you kill, the more sunlight, water, and nutrients are available for your trees. But it comes with a financial cost and environmental impact.
Are there nonnative invasive plants on the site? This is when chemical herbicide can start to look like a good idea for some sites. Nonnative invasive plants can do irreparable harm to a forest if left unchecked.
Some other considerations that will impact your choice of site prep technique include
need for future actions (e.g. burning more than once may be needed)
equipment and labor availability
a need to manipulate the water table (this is only common along the coast)
a need to break through a rock or hard-pan layer
The best site-prep technique for mini-forests and lawns
If you’re growing a mini-forest or converting your lawn to a forest, this is the best site-prep technique. Use this technique at least 3 weeks up to 3 months before planting.
Till the top 2 inches of soil using a roto-tiller or farm tractor to disturb the grass’s root-mat across your planting area
Cover the exposed soil with cardboard, newspaper, or another biodegradable material
Optional: add mulch or topsoil to hold everything down
Planting trees is a crucial step in establishing your forest, for obvious reasons. But, some forest regeneration can happen naturally if nearby trees drop fruit and nuts into the area. Planting offers a few advantages over natural regeneration, such as:
control over tree spacing (to manage competition and get even coverage)
control over genetic stock
a head start after site-prep
Natural regeneration is made more difficult due to the prevalence of nonnative invasive species today. And even strictly managed forests are prone to invasive plants, except in the most remote locations.
Planting is, like site-prep, an issue of scale. If you are planting 10 or 20 acres, it is doable by hand or with a tractor. If you are planting 200 or 1,000 acres, you will need professional help that can be expensive and hard to find.
Different species of trees are planted with different spacing and techniques. And site conditions can also dictate which technique is appropriate. But the most important factor for choosing a planting technique is definitely the cost.
Planting trees is expensive! Hand planting pine trees will cost at least $50 per acre (with higher costs for smaller jobs), if you can even find anyone to do the difficult labor. Planting machines can be used on some sites for improved survival and more accurate spacing. But they are more expensive.
If you want to plant the trees yourself to save money, expect to cover less than an acre per day until you get the hang of it. You’ll need a tool like a dibble bar or a hoedad (or just a shovel) to open and close your planting holes. Tree roots need to be kept wet or they’ll die off, killing the tree.
If you don’t have the budget to pay for planting over your whole project area and can’t do it yourself, you might want to consider natural regeneration. You can always supplement with a few older seedlings, especially if you aren’t trying to grow timber.
How to make natural regeneration work
To grow a forest while planting no (or just a few) trees, you need two things to happen. One is a seed source. Often a nearby forest can drop or blow in seeds, and sometimes seeds can remain dormant in soil for decades. So, if your land was formerly a forest, you might luck out. But if your future forest is located somewhere with no trees and no seeds, natural regeneration might not be right. Spreading purchased or collected seeds to grow a forest might work, but it will probably take a lot of babysitting, weeding, and luck.
The second requirement for natural regeneration is competition management. In the natural process of forest development, forests colonize grassland very slowly. A gradual shift in light levels and soil makeup allows tree species to move into an area in stages. To speed this process up (to happen in less than a human lifetime), you’ll need to control competition.
Controlling your trees’ competition is important whether you are planting or using natural regeneration. First, you need to be able to identify and decide which plants are competition and which ones are trees. But not all trees are “trees.” If 3 trees pop up within a few inches of each other, only one of those is considered a tree, and the others are its competition and should be removed. And you may want to select for desired species. So, marking your “crop trees” early on is a good idea.
Culling the weeds
Next, you should apply control techniques to individuals or groups of competing plants. The correct control technique will vary depending on the type of competition. For example, if invasive tree species are competing with your crop trees, using the “hack-and-squirt” method to apply herbicide will kill them without impacting other plants. But if fast growing vines are climbing your trees, herbicide would do more harm than good. Using clippers or loppers to cut and manually remove the vines would be more effective. Herbaceous plants competing for water and soil (space and nutrients) can be mowed or trampled.
On larger and more remote tracts, fire might be an effective tool for managing competition, if your crop trees can survive a low-intensity burn. But use caution! Fire is dangerous, and some species are not adapted to fire and will die. Bush hogging is also effective for covering a lot of ground, but your crop trees are at risk of accidental chopping. Common techniques for controlling competition are:
selective herbicide use
prescribed fire (for some species)
manual removal using machetes or other tools
Thankfully, you don’t need to be very diligent about controlling competition, especially if you did site prep. For the first year, you will want to check your crop trees and “release” them from competition once in the spring and again in fall. The second year, repeat your spring and fall evaluation and release treatments. For the greatest survival and growth, continue to evaluate and release your trees for the first five years.
As your forest grows taller than you, your role in keeping it healthy shrinks. But there are still some situations that can call for intervention to keep your forest healthy. Specifically, there are threats to mitigate and opportunities to seize.
Threats to your forest
Your trees are always vulnerable to individual diseases, pests, and weather. But your forest should be able to survive the loss of a few individuals thanks to the natural resistances it has to these threats. Trees tend to be most resistant to these dangerous forces when they are growing vigorously.
Most mortality will happen when one stressor causes growth to slow down, then another comes in for the kill. The clearest example is during a drought or flood, when trees are vulnerable to insects or pathogenic fungi. The stress caused by having too much or too little water forces your trees to lower their defenses, and a beetle infestation or root rot finishes them off.
Defending your forest
You can’t do much to protect your forest from bad weather. Choosing native species that are well suited to your site and using good planting techniques gives your forest the best chance of surviving. So, plan accordingly. Don’t plant a dry-site species in a swampy area, or vice-versa.
Some other threats to your trees include:
damage from wildlife (especially deer)
invasive nonnative insects and diseases
severe storms including ice and wind
You should expect your forest to experience some tree mortality, even when everything goes smoothly. The reason for this is straightforward: older trees take up more space than younger trees. So, as your trees age they will start to bump into one another and compete for sunlight and resources. Individuals that grow slower or are in a worse spot will become suppressed and lose out on vital resources and eventually die. Culling diseased or suppressed trees is called thinning.
Thinning is one of the most effective tools at your disposal for growing a healthy forest. It promotes increased growth of the remaining trees, and reduces the overall susceptibility of your forest to threats like insects and fire.
It may seem counterintuitive to cut trees down to benefit the forest. But if you want your forest to reach a mature state, you’ll have to see plenty of trees die along the way. Deciding which ones will take the hit and beating nature to it is a powerful strategy.
Speeding up selection
Part of the reason thinning works so well is because of the pattern of growth that forests exhibit. To summarize: young forests have lots of little stems, old forests have a few big stems. If all of the trees in the forest are the same age or age-class, then a few of them will die over the years to make space for the remaining ones to grow larger. If the forest is grown with two or more age classes, then a few of the older trees will die every few years to make room for younger trees to grow. Of course, some of the younger trees may also die before reaching maturity.
Thinning is a way to speed up the process by identifying individual trees that are unlikely to survive long enough to meet your goals – whether that means sexual maturity for a self-sustaining forest habitat or commercial viability as timber. Removing these trees at the correct time keeps your crop trees growing vigorously and reduces competition. This can be enough of a leg-up to protect them from diseases and droughts.
4. Age-class establishment
In the world of forestry, research time and money tends to go towards one particular goal: growing as much timber as possible as quickly as possible. To that end, most commercial forests are usually made up of one cohort of trees. All the trees are planted within a few days of one another, thinned once or twice as they mature, and then clearcut when they have grown large enough to do so. The process is then repeated.
I’m going to assume that some readers will have different goals in mind from the timber industry. How can you sustain the forest you grow so that it will always be a forest? If individual trees die off over time, where does that leave your forest long-term? To remain sustainable in a forested state, your forest will need diverse cohorts (groups of around the same age) of trees. This is called uneven-aged management.
In an uneven-aged stand, you will have lots of small stems, AND a few big stems. So, parts of your forest appear young, and other parts appear old. Of course, these terms are relative. Your forest doesn’t need to always have trees in the 0-3 years age-class. Generally speaking, having cohorts separated by 10 or 20 years is sufficient to achieve a sustainable population. But it can depend on the species and site.
Achieving an uneven-aged state is tricky. Younger cohorts are shaded by older cohorts, and they are usually isolated in dense, small groups. So, they can be vulnerable to threats. And planting trees in the middle of a forest is much more labor-intensive, because site-prep may not be possible.
Creating an uneven-aged forest
To get your forest in a state that will support multiple cohorts, you’ll need to cut trees selectively. Thinning is one type of selective cut. But select cuts can be dangerous for the forest. And irresponsible select cutting has led to major problems for the timber industry across much of the Eastern U.S. High-grading is the practice of removing only the largest and most valuable trees. This practice allows loggers to extract the most value from a forest, but it can jeopardize the future of the forest. High-grading removes the best genetic material for future generations. The trees that are left tend to be slower growing and more susceptible to pests and diseases. Not the best genetic stock for the next cohort.
The opposite approach is usually the most desirable in terms of forest health. By removing ONLY the diseased and slow-growing trees, so-called “thinning from below” creates space for the offspring of the best trees to sprout. But, as usual, some degree of compromise is typically needed to make the project worthwhile for a logger while also improving the overall health and genetics of the forest.
Other types of select cut
Select cutting does not necessarily need to be a form of thinning, though. Other approaches, such as the patch or group clearcut and shelterwood, can be effective methods for growing multiple cohorts. But the bottom line is that you’ll need to remove some of your older trees to make room for younger trees. Some sunlight needs to reach the forest floor for seedlings to grow.
5. Long term management
Finally, we need to put it all together. Your forest should outlive you, and your kids, and your grandkids, unless someone along the way decides to cut it down. Those crucial early years get a lot of attention. And it’s hard to overstate the importance of starting your forest off on the right foot. But long-term management of the forest is just as important for keeping your forest healthy and sustainable over decades or even centuries.
Watch for weeds
Keeping nonnative invasive plants at bay is a constant battle in many forests. The earlier you spot and eradicate an infestation of these noxious weeds, the cheaper and more effective your treatment will be. Full eradication of invasive weeds is often a multi-year project (if it’s possible at all) once they get established in a forest. So walk your forest often and be ruthless with these pests.
Grow your soil
Growing a forest is more than growing some trees together. A rich soil ecology can support and enhance the health of your forest. Healthy soil will also sequester carbon from the atmosphere and improve the water quality of nearby streams and rivers. Avoid soil compaction by limiting heaving equipment use, especially during wet weather. And prevent erosion by following your state’s best management practices (BMPs) for any silvicultural management. Having a healthy O-layer (organic layer) on your soil’s surface will help your soil grow, hold more nutrients, and resist floods and droughts. Thankfully, you don’t need to add compost to create an O-layer. Just let leaves, twigs, needles, and roots decompose without too much disturbance.
As you walk your forest, keep an eye out for the future generations of trees. Try not to trample the knee-high saplings that appear when an older tree dies and a new patch of sunlight appears on the forest floor. And try not to trample the ankle-high sprouts that grow in the shade of mature trees. These seedlings are the offspring of your oldest trees, and are poised to spring up if an older tree dies. In fact, scientists have found that the mother tree will often send nutrients to its offspring through their shared root network during times of stress.
Listen: bugs happen. Floods happen. Ice storms, tornadoes, droughts, and fires can all seriously harm your forest. But growing a forest often requires you to step back and be patient. See how your forest responds to these disturbances over the following growing season or two. Often, these types of disturbances end up significantly improving the long-term health of your forest. They not only create opportunities for new cohorts to spring up, they also cull the weakest members of the gene pool. Of course, if you’re only interested in timber value, the best response to a major event might be to salvage harvest and start over.
What kind of forest should you grow?
Forests come in all shapes and sizes. Your site is going to determine what kinds of forest are feasible on your property, but your vision and goals will ultimately determine what kind of forest you grow.
What are your priorities?
Are you growing a forest for financial gain? For scenic beauty? For wildlife habitat? Write down your priorities to help guide your forest planning. You will need to research forest issues in your state or region. If you’re interested in selling timber, find out what mills are near you and what species they accept. If you’re going for wildlife habitat, find out what kinds of forest habitat are disappearing from your area.
Types of forest
Forests are grown in a few broad categories. Deciduous forest is more prevalent in the temperate Eastern U.S. and in some wetlands. But conifers dominate in more extreme climates, both cold and hot. The deep south is excellent pine habitat. Pines also thrive in the high altitudes of the rocky mountains. In central and eastern Canada and the lake states, spruce performs well, although deciduous forests also make an appearance. Along the west coast, unique forests types like redwood and sequoias, as well as western hemlock (all conifers) find their niche.
The U.S. is also home to several temperate rainforests. The Great Smoky Mountains area of Tennessee and North Carolina, and the Olympic peninsula in Washington are home to rainforests.
Conifers evolved earlier than their deciduous cousins, and they behave a little differently. Conifers will generally grow straight and narrow in an effort to occupy the highest spot in the canopy. Many conifers also develop a taproot – a wide, tough root that penetrates straight down to seek the water table. Conifers are typically “soft” wood (as opposed to hardwoods). Additionally, conifers tend to grow needles instead of broad leaves. On pine trees, these needles fall off periodically, but never all at once, causing the soil pH to slightly decrease (become more acidic).
Conifer forests can be dense, like the Black Forest in Germany. They can also be very sparse, like the longleaf pine savannas in Florida. Softwood conifers dominate the timber market in much of North America, but most of that timber comes from commercial plantations. Conifer forests are on average less diverse than deciduous forests.
Deciduous forests are made up of trees that lose their leaves during the dormant season. There are conifers which aren’t evergreen, and there are broadleaf species that retain their leaves (like Magnolias). So, there is some overlap. However, deciduous forests are generally composed of a diverse mix of species working together.
Deciduous trees differ from conifers in that they will often spread their canopy horizontally at the top, rather than forming a Christmas-tree shape. Their roots will also spread horizontally under the soil surface, rather than penetrating straight downward. Because of this characteristic, hardwood forests tend to have an upper limit on stem density. They can still be very dense, though. Layers of vegetation under the canopy are usually full of shade-happy shrubs and trees.
Because of the high level of diversity in a deciduous forest, they are prone to changing cover types over time. For example, across the Eastern U.S. white oak forests are in decline. The reason for this is that shade-happy maples make up most of the understory in existing white oak forests, and slowly replace the oaks as individuals die out.
Forests are largely defined by the dominant species in the overstory. The forest canopy and its characteristics can often define what other plants grow there and how the forest functions as a habitat. Some desirable species compositions, or forest types, include:
There are many other types of forest native to the U.S. like pinyon-juniper and maple. No forest type is “bad,” but they all have different characteristics. Forests that are dominated by mast-producing species like hickories will support more and different types of wildlife than those that don’t, like maple.
Visit local forests and see what appeals to you and your priorities.
How many trees make a forest?
Where is the line between a grove of trees and a forest? Does it have to do with acreage or the number of trees? Some forests have as few as 10 adult trees per acre, while others can have hundreds.
There is probably some academic, research-based way to make a distinction between a group of trees and a forest. But for the purposes of an average landowner, it isn’t about size or the number of trees. The characteristic that defines a forest (in my mind at least) is that nature shapes a forest. While groves are intensively managed with pruning, mowing, fertilizing, and irrigation, forests are mostly left alone.
Don’t get me wrong – foresters frequently use techniques like fertilization, pruning, and passive irrigation in different parts of the world. But human intervention in forests is limited. In a given year, a forest might be burned and fertilized, resulting in obvious signs of human activity. But that activity takes place in an environment that is largely shaped by nature. In a grove, offending branches are removed. Infrastructure is built to support and enhance the purpose of the grove. Humans are needed to keep the system working. Not so in a forest.
Because forests are defined more by their character than their size, the concept of mini-forests is often asked about. The invention and spread of Miyawaki Forests is redefining how human society sees forests. Many of these forests are a few hundred square meters or less.
Of course, a mini-forest lacks some of the benefits of a larger forest. Generally speaking, connections between good habitat are incredibly important ecologically. When a forest is larger, it is much easier to chart connections between the ideal habitat for a given species within that area and nearby forests. If a mini-forest is isolated from other habitat, its effect is limited.
Can you grow an old-growth forest?
Ask any forester about old-growth forests and you’ll probably get an eye-roll and a long explanation. Old-growth forests are some of the most important and rare resources on the planet, but misconceptions and myths about them abound.
Old-growth forest is a “climax community,” meaning it is a stable ecological state. This means that the forest will not undergo significant changes to its species composition or its ecological function unless some outside force causes a change.
Trees still die in an old-growth forest, and so young trees still sprout to keep the system stable. An old-growth forest is not just old trees. It is also many young and middle-aged trees, plus (usually) plenty of shrubs and herbaceous plants. So, if you want to grow an old-growth forest, you will need to plan carefully and get the right species composition.
How not to grow an old-growth forest
Many environmentalists I know believe that if landowners would just leave forests alone for a long time, it would result in plentiful old-growth forest. This is true, if by “a long time” they mean 500 years or longer. But because of introduced pests, many of the tree species that dominated old-growth forests when North America was re-discovered by Europeans are now extinct or in decline.
Since we cannot reproduce the old-growth that previously grew in America, we will need a different approach to growing forests if our goal is to create stable systems. Forests need to be evaluated regularly, and when problems arise they should be addressed. Leaving forests alone can result in overcrowding and homogenization, leaving the forest less stable. It can also invite unintended species composition shifts, as shade-tolerant species become dominant and prevent sunlight from reaching the forest floor.
Grow a forest at home
Even if you don’t have a few hundred acres in the country to play around with, you can still grow a forest. Start with a small planting, following The Unlawning Guide. Getting neighbors involved can expand your forest across property lines. And if your property backs up to stream or existing forest, the ecological benefits of planting trees will be enhanced.
More and more homeowners are recognizing the impact their land can have on the planet’s health when they unlawn. But some of the benefits of unlawning aren’t obvious. Here are 5 surprising reasons to unlawn. You can start to enjoy benefits right away by inviting nature onto part of your property.
1. Protection from Floods
The science is clear: the more vegetation on a piece of land, the less likely it is to flood. There are a few reasons why unlawning protects you from flooding:
Roots create channels through soil, allowing better infiltration of groundwater and increasing soil’s capacity to hold water
Plants drink excess water to perform photosynthesis
Plants disrupt falling water before it reaches the soil, slowing the rushing flow
Plant roots hold soil in place, preventing erosion that would otherwise worsen future floods
So, the more plants that exist on a piece of land, the more protected it (and all the land downstream) is from flooding. But doesn’t your lawn count as vegetation that covers your land? Yes, your grass is definitely better than bare soil. But adding layers of plants on top of the grass lawn amplifies the benefits.
While having grass is better than having no plants, it’s still pretty pathetic compared to other types of vegetation for preventing floods. Grass forms a root mat just under the soil surface. And this does more to prevent water infiltration than to encourage it. Trees and shrubs that reach deep into the soil with their roots are significantly more effective at controlling floodwater. And even herbaceous plants will tend to grow roots deeper into the soil than grass lawns.
Unlawn by adding native plants to suck up more rainwater and increase your soil’s capacity to hold excess water. You’ll also be protecting your soil and slowing down the rush of floodwaters.
2. Protection from Droughts
It may seem counterintuitive that unlawning can solve opposite problems, but it’s true! Remember how vegetation increases the soil’s ability to store water? It turns out that storing more water becomes really important when water is scarce. Adding native plants can have several other effects that may lessen the impact of floods:
Shade from trees and shrubs cools the air, slowing water loss below the canopy
Plants performing photosynthesis put water into the air (transpiration) steadily during the day, rather than all at once. And this helps stabilize local humidity
Leaves and stalks that are damaged or killed by droughts drop onto the soil surface. This protects it from the drying effects of direct sunlight even more (but in a smaller area) than the shade of a living plant would
When it comes to drought, we’re talking about an unlawning benefit that a grass lawn doesn’t mimic at all. Grass provides virtually no shade and performs very little transpiration compared to larger plants. During a drought, many homeowners choose to water their grass lawn to keep it green. But this makes the drought worse for everyone. Those who don’t water are left with short brown blades that do nothing to protect the soil from intense sunlight.
If you unlawn by adding trees and shrubs; or even just let your grass and wildflowers grow into a meadow, you’ll be better protected from droughts. Shade and transpiration slowly release water from the soil into the air, resulting in a more stable local atmosphere. Plus, your soil will store more water prior to the flood. That could keep their roots alive so plants that succumb can resprout when it rains again.
We have all heard of the many benefits native pollinators have on our ecosystem health. And pollinators enhance our ability to grow food and medicine. They are indispensable! But they continue to face threats like habitat loss and poisoning by pesticides.
While some places benefit from beekeepers with nearby hives, every ecosystem has native pollinators. But native pollinators are specifically adapted to the local plants. When you unlawn with native plants, you can reverse the loss of a resource that native pollinator species depend on. For these species, the alternative to finding the right kind of plants is extinction.
For some of these native pollinators, the native plant they need to survive might not even have a flower that they like to visit. Some species depend on hollow plant stalks to protect their offspring through the winter before they emerge in the spring. Others need small bits of exposed soil to burrow down to form an underground nest. There are no pollinator species that benefit from an all-grass lawn.
When you unlawn, you can provide specific plants that native pollinators depend on for survival. These few plant species will also draw in generalist pollinators that are happy to visit any kind of flower. Before you know it, your property will be home to hundreds of species of butterflies, moths, bees, and other pollinators. And once you have caterpillars chewing on leaves and shoots, birds are bound to come and snatch some of their favorite food off your plants.
4. Secret Pathways
Remember all those kids’ books about traveling to magical lands? The wardrobe that leads to Narnia, the Hogwarts Express on Platform 9 3/4, and the Bridge to Terabithia were all secret ways to enter another world. These fantastical versions of leaving everyday life aren’t as far from reality as you might think.
Instead of traveling away from your home into a magical land, you can bring some magic home when you unlawn. Or rather, you can invite some of the wonders of nature to inch closer toward your daily life.
It may not be obvious, but your lawn is connected to the natural world all around you. Even if you’re in the middle of the city, animals are always poking their noses in. They want to see if there’s a suitable place for them to live or eat before moving on. If you can provide even a few square yards of natural space by unlawning, those animals are much more likely to stop by to find food, water, or shelter. If you are mindful about how you unlawn, you can encourage pollinators, birds, small mammals, or even larger animals like foxes to visit your land or call it home for the winter without accidentally inviting skunks and ticks too close to home.
As more and more species face the challenge of habitat loss, connectivity is becoming critical. And when you unlawn a patch of habitat, you increase your yard’s connectivity. The connectivity of any nearby forests, parks, and streams is directly impacted by your lawn. With good connections to other wild places, your land can become a secret pathway. And you could become a wildlife photographer!
5. Be Happier
I know, I know. Every blog post promoting a new trend goes on and on about how it can “boost your mood!” or “cut down on stress.” But there are some serious mental health benefits you get to enjoy when you unlawn.
Did you know that patients heal faster in hospital rooms with a view of vegetation? It’s true, the healing power of nature is scientifically proven! And even if you’re not recovering from surgery, being around natural spaces can positively affect your mindset and overall health. You don’t even need to plan out a perfectly shaped garden to enjoy these benefits. Simply add a few native plants near the edge of your property. Or let part of your lawn grow into a meadow and you’ll start to enjoy the health benefits of being close to nature.
For most of us, nature is a far away place that we like to visit on weekends when the weather is nice. The rest of the time, we’re in the house, the office, or the car. Even people who work outside are mostly focused on maximizing the efficiency of our world, rather than observing the existing value of nature around us.
Nature, in reality, is everywhere. Even in our suburbs and cities, nature is ready to spring up between cracks in the sidewalk. Or on steep lots that don’t get mowed regularly. We can get more people to recognize that we aren’t separate from nature. And that we’re lucky to have nature nearby. We can invite nature to heal right in our backyards (and front yards). And we will start to heal too as a result.
Your reason to unlawn
All of these benefits of unlawning are immediate as soon as you start. But the larger you unlawn, the bigger the impact. And over time, these benefits grow with your plants! There is so much to learn and discover, but The Unlawning Guide has everything you need to know to begin. If you’re on the fence, read about Rewilding Myths to make sure you aren’t needlessly worried.