Think About Layers

Often times our humanmade landscapes consist of only one or two vertical layers, for instance an expanse of short, green grass with maybe a couple of tall shade trees. However, this is rarely the case in a healthy, natural ecosystem. In a healthy, natural ecosystem there are all kinds of layers going from the ground to the sky.

Healthy, natural ecosystems include lots of layers. In a forest, this may mean a layer of vegetation near the ground consisting of ferns, shade tolerant wildflowers, and short seedlings, followed by a layer of shrubs and taller seedlings, followed by a layer of semi-tall trees, and finally a layer of tall canopy trees. Photo credit: Land Between the Lakes, public domain

Building from the ground up, forested areas will often have a layer of relatively short plants that are ankle to waist high (assuming this layer hasn’t been eaten by an overpopulation of deer), followed by a brushy / shrubby layer, possibly followed by a taller shrub layer, followed by a layer of semi-tall trees, and finally crowned by the tallest trees called the canopy layer. Grasslands and prairies also have multiple layers that include short grasses, wildflowers, and sedges, followed by taller wildflowers and grasses, then possibly followed by the occasional bush, shrub, or tree.

All of these different layers are important because they attract different types of pollinators, songbirds, and other wildlife. Towhees, wrens, and indigo buntings are just a few examples of songbirds that are more likely to be found closer to the ground. While tanagers, chickadees, and titmice are a few of the songbirds more likely to be found higher up in the trees. Even different species of butterflies can prefer different heights and when looking through a butterfly field guide it isn’t uncommon to read descriptions that include notes about whether that species tends to fly lower towards the ground or up higher.

Many species of pollinators and wildlife also rely on different layers during different stages of their life cycle or for different purposes. For example, the banded hairstreak is a butterfly that lays its eggs on the twigs of oaks, hickories, and walnuts because the caterpillars eat the foliage of those tall canopy trees. However, the adult butterflies are commonly found foraging on the nectar from plants like milkweed, New Jersey tea, and sumac – all taller wildflowers or small to medium sized shrubs. Low shrub and tree branches are also used by the males as places to perch while waiting for a female to fly by. Banded hairstreaks, therefore, need plants that grow in at least three different layers.

The banded hairstreak is a common butterfly in the eastern U.S. and relies on plants in at least three different layers. Photo credit: Shannon Trimboli, all rights reserved

Because different layers of plants play such an important role in the natural ecosystem, if you want to attract the most pollinators and wildlife to your yard, try to think about layers as you landscape your yard. A good, very basic rule of thumb is to try to plant a combination of short, medium, and tall plants so that you have at least three layers in each garden bed. Obviously, “short,” “medium,” and “tall” are relative terms and in some beds rose milkweed could be your tall plant, while in other beds an oak tree might be your tall plant. If you can incorporate some “in-between” layers so that you have more than the three basic layers, then even better. Complex, multi-layered habitats not only tend to be more attractive to pollinators and other wildlife, but also are often more aesthetically pleasing than less complex landscapes.

This article was part of Shannon’s original Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife blog which evolved into the blog for Backyard Ecology.

Backyard Ecology: Exploring Nature in Your Backyard
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at

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