Designs, Tricks, and Schemes, Gardening on the Planet

Designer Puts Tallamy’s Advice into Practice


New England-area garden designer Matthew Cunningham will be speaking in Silver Spring, Maryland for the local chapter of APLD on Saturday February 11 from 10 to noon. His topic: “Stone, Wood, & Metal in Landscape Design.” (Reserve a spot here.) To bring attention to his talk, we were offered the chance to pick his brain about native plants in the landscape and demand a slew of gorgeous photos. He obliged us.

GardenRant: On the mind of many eco-minded gardeners regards Doug Tallamy’s directive to Plant Oaks! That works for people with large lots but what’s a gardener with less than a quarter acre to do?

Cunningham: My first response is that we should definitely plant oaks. Even on small lots. That’s my “designing in a bubble” reaction to your question.


(GardenRant: What’s that? Cunningham: “Designing in a bubble” to me means working on a project that does not take context or client’s goals into consideration.  It’s very easy to be be a purist about planting only natives, but there are some finite realities about working with the public that require a great deal of flexibility.)

That said, over the years, we’ve had difficulties convincing clients to plant oaks within the context of smaller, urban and suburban gardens for a number of reasons. Part of the issue is that many of our clients want to get as much “bang for their buck” as possible, so cheaper, faster-growing species such as birch and maple tend to win them over—especially when you show them species with exceptional fall color like a sugar or red maple! I’ve also found that oaks can be a little more difficult to source, and somewhat temperamental to establish.


Regardless of how strongly we advocate for adding legacy trees like oaks and beech, it seems to me that many homeowners have a cultural perception of them as being very messy trees. People tend to go for trees that don’t shed acorns, produce massive leaf debris, or attract rodents. Given that urban and suburban gardens hinge on maximizing usable outdoor space as thoughtfully as possible, it becomes a difficult process to convince a client that they should plant an oak over a terrace, driveway, deck, or pool. Acorns can be impossible to walk on and they can leach/stain porous stones, dent car roofs, and frankly be dangerous.

These are all weak arguments against planting oaks, but nonetheless, the discussions are had regularly with our clients. Given how long it takes an oak to mature, it seems unlikely that a homeowner will ever suffer from these problems in the course of their ownership—especially since it can take decades before an oak actually produces acorns.


All things considered, we advocate for adding canopy trees whenever possible and the majority of our clients trust our judgment to pick the right species that will blend well with their overriding goals. We tend to plant substantial and robust privacy buffers between people’s properties, and this presents a perfect opportunity to enhance micro and macro wildlife corridors, and gives us a chance to show our clients what thoughtful and creative planting design can do to enhance their outdoor experiences.


GardenRant: So in order to get more large trees growing, should we be working outside our small lots to get our towns and suburban communities to create wildlife corridors, to preserve woodlands, or other big-picture solutions?

Cunningham: Many different kinds of oaks make great street trees, especially in suburban areas, and in my opinion, planting street trees should be a major priority for our municipalities. Unfortunately, most communities have limited funds to spend on adding trees, and their budgets are allocated more towards preserving existing trees rather than adding to their collections. A good mixture of species and cultivars (with as many natives as possible) is a great way to enhance biodiversity.


Here in Massachusetts, a lot of excellent work has been done to preserve riparian corridors and to enhance wildlife habitat—but there is much more to be done. Unfortunately, preserving and enhancing parcels of land for habitat takes much more than a tree and a shovel, and relies heavily on public advocacy, and electing politicians who actually give a damn about the environment. Given the current political movements happening, it seems we have a responsibility as practitioners, educators, community members, and homeowners to preserve, protect, and promote the values of canopy trees!

Major trees in photos:  Amerlanchier canadensis, Acer rubrum ‘October Glory,’ Betula nigra ‘Heritage,’ Acer rubrum ‘Red Sunset.’ 

Posted by on February 3, 2017 at 8:39 am, in the category Designs, Tricks, and Schemes, Gardening on the Planet.

9 responses to “Designer Puts Tallamy’s Advice into Practice”

  1. Karen says:

    I could plant an oak or 6. I am new to this idea, what are good choices for the northwest corner of NC?

  2. Camille Bathurst says:

    I would love to see a Garden Rant discussing the large trees best suited to replace the ash trees in this world of the Emerald Ash Borer and the Asian Longhorn Beetle. The clock is ticking on the remaining ash trees, and those of us with a dying ash canopy need to get planting.

  3. Marcia says:

    Personally, I’m not a big fan of stone, unless it’s reclaimed, as quarrying is very bad for the environment. From what I have read, Cunningham likes to use reclaimed stone for his clients. I prefer an Oudolf native look of large and small perennials with little stone in the landscape. (Blooming plants mask the stone anyway.) It’s just as beneficial for wildlife, too.

  4. Luckily, I have the space for an oak or three and some 10 years ago, I planted a Scarlet Oak with thoughts for inhabitants of the future. Then about 2 feet high, it now stands around 8 feet tall and is just beginning to have any kind of impact on the garden’s fall ambiance. “Slow growth” doesn’t begin to cover it, but someday people could come from miles around to view it, standing out on the edge of a hillside.

  5. Karl Miller says:

    Everyone thinks of oaks as large and slow growing but there are a lot of smaller and even shrub oaks. They have a wide variety of leaf shapes including small non traditional shapes like the willow leaf oak. Being native to north America there are regional species that will do great in your part of the country.
    Try Quercus marilandica, muehlenbergi, prinoides or stellata in the east; gambelii, turbinella, oblongifolia or mohriana in Texas and the southwest; lobata, garryana, agrifolia, douglasii or engelmannii on the west coast.
    These may not be regular plants at the garden centers but will be found at the native plant groups and supporters.
    Karl Miller … Lark Label

  6. anne says:

    Beautiful photos, but where are the photos featuring oak trees in smaller landscapes? Also, while I understand Matthew Cunningham’s point about property owners not suffering some of the downsides to living with oaks, it seems so shortsighted, and I hope these trees are planted/situated with the next 200 years in mind. Oak trees are an investment in hope for the future, and when they get old they are a bridge to the past.

  7. Chris N says:

    We live in Madison, WI on a standard city lot – about 1/10th of an acre. 20 years ago, we transplanted a 1 foot tall seedling bur oak to our back yard into what was then a small prairie garden. It is now a savanna garden and the tree is taller than our house. Since I deliberately put it to the southwest it provides welcome summer shade to the house. It is no messier than the ash or honeylocust street trees and a lot less messy than the neighbor’s silver maple. And even at it’s relatively young age, it has a majestic shape.

    So yes, plant an oak. You will be pleasantly surprised.

  8. Laura Munoz says:

    Wish I could hear Cunningham speak, especially since his topic isn’t regionally related. His designs are indeed beautiful.

    I’m on one-third acre in an old house. I hear the tree call, but I think my yard is booked since I already have one post oak, one water oak, three live oaks, three pecans, a hackberry, and two crape myrtles, all of which are huge (+/-80 y/o) , I’m going to concentrate on under-story trees and native shade-tolerant plants.

    My neighbors across the street have also commandeered every square foot of their front yard with newly planted trees including a few oaks. Guess they got the message.

  9. Mary Gray says:

    Gorgeous designs. The effect of the native plants is especially enhanced by the tens of thousands of dollars worth of stonework installed by the homeowner. :-)

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