What’s in the Thicket? The Understory

Good question, quite a lot.


A healthy understory is very important in that it provides habitat essential for a wide variety of creatures. The understory includes, smaller trees, shrubs, thicket, perennials, grasses, and the smaller vegetation layers of moss and lichen.


So what’s in the thicket? Well, an awful lot of birds. In this post, I will show you how birds use dense vegetation.  The post is more about the bird’s habitat than it is the birds themselves.


It is not so much that the berry, seed and nut producers are providing necessary and nourishing food (which they are) but more importantly the mass of crisscross twigs provide safety and shelter. This is what most gardeners forget about. They are conscious of the food-producing plants, but many times don’t provide the shelter plants in any number if at all.


The wicked winter this year is trying on birds and staying out of the winter winds and hungry predator’s claws is of utmost importance. These are two reasons birds make gardens a home. With another foot of snow this past week, the winter rages on right into Spring. Leafy plants are later to bud, yet migrating birds are on their way back. They need conditions to keep them safe and provide needed sustenance.  So look for them tucked deep in your thickets.

With the exception of rain forests, the understory has a greater diversity of species compared to the canopy layer. The understory plants provide shelter and a rich food source to many beneficial insects along with small mammals, amphibians and birds.


The understory plays its role in maintaining the landscape by protecting the resources of water and soil. Plants, alive and those reduced to leaf litter, help prevent surface runoff, sustaining a healthy ground layer with a deep layer of good topsoil. Runoff takes with it the soil and organic matter, causing erosion, siltation of waterways and of course, decline in soil productivity. To read on creating this layer see, Leaf Mold Magic.


While most gardens cannot have a true forest understory, they can have the next best thing. Preserve any understory that remains on a property and plant in a way that mimics a natural understory, understanding that what one plants is never going to be natural in the same way it happens in wild nature.

In this type of landscaping, having typical garden cultivars of popular perennials is not the real goal. Wild species evaluated for garden use having similar competitive value are those typically used. We want the robust nature of these plants, but we also want them to create harmonious schemes. This is where this type of landscaping makes it more difficult to achieve for a typical gardener.

We want the experience of meadows, prairies, open fields and forests in our urban environments, but that just is not going to happen by what I mention in other posts. The space allocated to any of these environments created likely will not be sufficient.


We do what we can though. Sometimes just letting the perennials stand through winter adds shelter and food, but it also adds visual interest. Having a garden adjacent to woods is really a boon for wildlife. Planting a few native shrubs helps them as well.


Walking into the woods, one may not notice the understory shrubs as they blend seamlessly with the forest canvas. Part of the reason is that many are just seedlings and saplings of the canopy trees making it more difficult to differentiate what is actually there in all this growth. But, the shrubby layer and density is disappearing from forests around the country. Why?


The shrubs and thicket are a detriment to forest timber cutting and are often cleared. These plants are the ones adapted to growing in the shade, the herbaceous layer which includes all non-woody plants including annuals, perennials, grasses and sedges. Many of our forests are losing this precious and varied understory.

So how does this relate to conscientious landscape design?


It actually creates a more visually interesting landscape with interesting features as logs, stumps and standing perennials if taking cues from nature. I have three logs I incorporate in my own landscaping. Being a small city garden, I can not have fallen and dead trees, nor can I have a brush pile that you might find in a natural setting.


In the schematic above, you can see how the property is heavily planted, with numerous trees, and shrubs. The ground plane is densely planted with grasses and perennials. Grouping of plants benefit wildlife. Also many are food sources. I employ the benefit of fruiting plants and have many shelter plants, deciduous and numerous conifers. It saves money on fertilizer and water use. The leaf layer mitigates erosion of topsoil. Here I mulch the fallen leaves and use them as compost. Plants stay warm in winter and by Spring the leaves nourish new growth. Get and give, the way nature works.

Layers from this varied planting in the landscape intercept more water, preventing it from entering the storm sewers. I water my garden very little and only in long drought seasons. I don’t do it to save the plants, but to have the plants make food for the wildlife. My small garden has five trees and more shrubs (some as large as trees) than I even ever counted, all responsible for the wide variety of birds and insects you see in my garden on this blog. The wildlife means more to me than the plants. I can make new plants!

The key is variety and density. No, I could never have a forest here, but how I treat the ground layer makes a nod to the way one works. Taking clues from nature makes for responsible gardening.

See the first two posts of this series on Conservation Landscaping for more information.

About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at: http://gardenwalkgardentalk.com
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27 Responses to What’s in the Thicket? The Understory

  1. What a treat it is discovering these wonderful creatures! Once again beautifully captured, my dear Donna! 🙂 Have a great new week [and full moon!] 🙂

  2. Debra says:

    The other day I saw a google maps image of my house and realized that over the past three years there have been some big changes to the plants growing here — and I can only credit the birds. It seems people are not the only ones who modify habitats to suit their purposes. I now have several redbuds, mulberries and a variety of hollies all growing happily as understory trees. They have grown quickly because I don’t see them in the picture taken only three years ago but they are all are mature enough to bear fruit/seed. How do i know they were planted by birds? They are all along the fence and under high wires where birds like to perch. =D

  3. Another interesting post. I learn so much from you!

  4. We have several shrubs and hedges that support an amazing diversity of wildlife. I know the woods behind the house are treasures for wildlife, too. All of your birds are ones we see here, too–I’m keeping the feeders stocked! And I’ll wait to remove the plant seed heads until later in the spring. Great post, as always, Donna!

  5. Great points Donna. I have continued to work on the understory as we inherited land with very large mature trees with no understory. It continues to develop and it is one thing I will be adding to as I redesign some spots.

  6. patricksgarden1 says:

    Way to go, Donna! This has to be one of your most inspiring posts in recent memory and, to boot, it has a very relevant message. Can’t imagine how many shots you take to deliver this quality level of images. I am in awe, my friend.

  7. alesiablogs says:

    I am actually getting really excited watching the birds coming closer to my kitchen window as I rethink my backyard and place plants out in the next few weeks or so. Thank you for all your ideas!

  8. We provide brush piles and dead trees at the bottom of our property but of course we have a lot of room. The reason there is no understory here is because of invasive plants like japanese knotweed and deer working together.

  9. jclaughter says:

    I have been trying to regain control of our overgrown yard. But now I am rethinking cutting too much back. Thank you for this good information. Love the photos.

  10. I do not know how you do it! Love, love, love. Margie

  11. Thank you for the very valuable information here. It makes you re-think your annual garden chores and plantings. And the photos were lovely as usual. Thanks for your inspiration, Donna.

  12. My Heartsong says:

    So many birds live there or take shelter there in the thickets; I scrolled through your photos a couple of times just to see the variety.

  13. mariekeates says:

    My garden is small but planted densely with shrubs. As you say, some are the suez of small trees. We have birds nesting most years and I leave the seed heads on the perennials and as much in the way of cut branches as I can. I have a miniature log pile made from large pruned branches and lots of variety in berries and seeds.

  14. acuriousgal says:

    Excellent post, Donna

  15. I’m envious of those lovely bird feeders! And the plump happy-looking birds in the thicket!

  16. Thanks for another fantastic post! Quick, semi-related question: with this brutal winter, we’ve been pretty conscientious about keeping our bird feeders full. But lately, these huge groups of starlings have discovered our feeders and are hogging all the seed! We’d always get a few starlings with the other birds, but this winter it seems they come in droves. Any tips or suggestions for how to keep starlings away so that there’s some seed left for the other guys?

    • I wish I had the answer too. I am battling the same issue with many, a flock of about 70. For some strange reason, so many stayed the winter and with the heavy snow cover, I guess they could not get enough food in their natural habitats. I have not seen one starling in my hiking travels, only at my bird feeders. A friend of mine has been going outside to scare them away each time they show up, but if I go outside they just keep feeding, even if I am only a few feet away, so her method did not work for me. They even have figured out how to access the feeders with the tiny perches. I have just accepted that they are hungry too and with Spring right around the corner, need all the nourishment they can get for breeding season. I wish I could help you, but heard of no way to discourage them since they seem to eat anything that is put outside.

      • Thx — live and let live, I guess. Don’t actually mind the starlings so much . . . just that there are so many of them and they really seem to hog most of the seed that we put out there.

  17. The birds have been hiding most of this winter in the dense evergreen shrubs I have all over the property and the first robins just arrived in the past week. Now I look at their bright red colors and wonder what they ate to get that way (from one of your previous posts). The wildlife need a place to feel safe and warm and I am glad that I can provide that for them. Nice post Donna.

  18. Phil Lanoue says:

    Wonderful finds in the snowy scenes!

  19. curbstonevalley says:

    Living in a fire-prone woodland setting here, I often see the ‘understory’ annihilated in the name of fire-prevention, especially near homes. It is unfortunate that here the understory is more commonly known as a ‘fire-ladder’. It is actually a thriving part of the ecosystem when it’s intact. In the areas of woodland here that the understory does grow and thrive, you can stand even for just a few minutes, and note a tremendous variety of plants, birds, insects, and mammals, that depend on it. As much as I love living in a woodland now, I do very much miss being able to garden in layers, and intentionally plant thicket areas in the garden.

  20. Indie says:

    I love woodpeckers, but their habitat of dead trees are also usually cleared away along with brush. With gardening for wildlife, it is important to keep some of that natural habitat or at least mimic it as much as possible! It is impressive how much you can fit in a little lot, especially when you are gardening at different layers.

  21. Alistair says:

    Very interesting, we have a true thicket but its just at the opposite side of the fence. I will have to find a way to gain access and claim it.

  22. We leave dead and fallen trees for the critters, but I was planning to clear the ‘mess’ from under some trees in the Woodland Walk and plant native ferns and shrubs there. Now I’m not sure what to do. Great posting! P. x

  23. A.M.B. says:

    I love the photos of birds. Thanks for reminding us of why a layered landscape is so important.

  24. Fossillady says:

    I just never thought about how important the under story for animals and erosion till I read your article Donna, the forest which pretty much surrounds my 2.5 acres has heavy underbrush which I usually complain about cause it’s hard to walk through. I have more appreciation now, but I can’t stop complaining about the thorn bushes . .. yikes! They’re brutal.

  25. lucindalines says:

    Such pretty shots of pretty birds. I just want to hug them.

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