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.’