My Thanksgiving Oak Forest

Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is a retail nursery located in Bryn Mawr, PA, specializing in showy, colorful, and unusual plants for shade.  The only plants that we ship are snowdrops and miniature hostas.  For catalogues and announcements of events, please send your full name, location, and phone number (for back up use only) to  Click here to get to the home page of our website for catalogues and information about our nursery and to subscribe to our blog.

You are probably wondering why I posted this picture of a red oak seedling that looks like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree.  It’s because this tree is the beginning of the oak forest that we are planting after reading Doug Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home.  In fact, I think we will name this new area of our gardens the Tallamy Copse in honor of the person who is doing the most to alert this country to the silent crisis facing our native plants and animals, and us.

Doug Tallamy, Chair of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, finally made me understand why native plants are crucial to our survival on this planet.  Yes, being a somewhat evolved horticulturalist, I knew native plants were desirable.  But I thought it was just because they were native and better adapted.  And the native plant movement really turned me off with its insistence on exclusively native plantings, not even approving of native cultivars.  But it was Tallamy’s simple and insightful analysis that brought the whole problem into focus.

Tallamy calls our home gardens “the last chance we have for sustaining plants and animals that were once common throughout the US.”  Biodiversity is no longer out there in undeveloped areas of the country, because out there no longer exists.  He gives these sobering statistics about the US:

  • as our population soars, 2 million acres of land are developed every year
  • we have paved 4 million miles of roads
  • we have planted 40 million acres of lawn, a non-native monoculture
  • 3,400 species of alien plants have invaded 100 million acres: this will double in five years
  • 54% of the continental US is cities or suburbs and 41% is agricultural, making 95% of US land unable to support native plants and animals

According to Tallamy, research shows that removing 95% of our land from nature will result in the extinction of 95% of the species that live there.  The result for Pennsylvania right now is dire: 800 plant and animal species listed as rare, threatened, or endangered, and 150 gone for good.  And, in case there were any doubts, biodiversity is what keeps us humans alive by generating oxygen, cleaning water, buffering extreme weather, recycling our garbage, etc.

What to do?  Tallamy identifies the answer as planting native plants to support native insects and allow them to pass biomass up the food chain.  The plants must be native because of their shared evolutionary history with native animals.  Native insects do not eat non-native plants.  For example, Kousa dogwood supports no native insects, while our native dogwood supports 117 species of moths and butterflies alone.

That’s where my red oak grove comes into play.  At a lecture I attended, Tallamy stated that if you were only going to do one thing, then plant an oak.  Native oak trees support 534 species of butterflies and moths.  For Thanksgiving, my husband cleared out an area at the bottom of our property that was filled with Japanese knotweed,  goutweed, lesser celandine, privet, bittersweet, multiflora rose, Norway maples, and burning bush—none of it planted by us—and moved five oak seedlings there.  It is the beginning of a native forest, and the only way I can deal with the enormity of what Tallamy has so eloquently described.  I hope you will join me by planting your own oak.

The statistics above are mostly paraphrased from a September 2007 article written by Tallamy for the Hardy Plant Society: Mid Atlantic Group (a great group of people who love plants—check out their website).  His book Bringing Nature Home is a must read, and his website has great information too.  If you ever get a chance to hear him lecture, take it—he’s excellent.


red oak seedling at Carolyn's Shade Gardens

This collage pictures the five native red oak trees my husband planted plus the mother oak.  December 30, 2010.

57 Responses to “My Thanksgiving Oak Forest”

  1. Hi Carolyn and Happy Thanksgiving! 

    How much space do you need for a native oak? And will you be selling seedlings this spring or next fall? 

    Very interesting information on the Kousa dogwood, which seems to have become very “fashionable” in recent years. I’ve heard of many people replacing their  older, dying, native dogwoods with Kousa’s. Glad to have this information to pass along to other gardening friends. 


    • Hi Betsy, You make a good point: large oaks are hard to fit into small gardens. A quick look through Michael Dirr’s “Manual of Woody Landscape Plants” did not turn up any small native oak trees. However, although oaks support more insects, all native trees support a lot of native insects. So plant a tree suited to your space, but make it native. Smaller trees include redbud, sweetbay magnolia, silverbell, dogwood, and many more. Kousa dogwoods are beautiful, but native is better. In my Longwood course, the instructor said plant native flowering dogwoods (Cornus florida) in the sun to prevent disease. I did this 18 years ago and so far so good. Of course, gardeners could always choose the beautiful and disease free native Pagoda dogwood (C. alternifolia). There are disease resistant native-Kousa hybrids developed by Rutgers–not sure where they stand with supporting native insects. Carolyn

  2. Carolyn

    I too was very impressed with Doug Tallamy’s book. Thanks for spreading the word.


    • Hi Chris, I own two copies of “Bringing Nature Home” (one for me and one for lending), but of course neither was here when I wanted to write my post. That’s why I used his article instead. Thanks, Carolyn

  3. Carolyn, Thank you so much for this tremendously important post! I know all the invasive plants your husband cleared . . . he will have to stay on top of them or the tiny mighty oaks will not have a chance. I am sure you already know this. My Oaks are like treasures and often friends have said “why not cut those trees to open your view more?” I tell them they are a part of that beautiful view and that they are important food for countless creatures. Thank you also for the introduction to Tallamy . . . I will check out each link you offer. I hope you are having a lovely time with family and friends this Thanksgiving!

    • Hi Carol, We have been staying on top of these plants in other areas for years–I have my methods for each one. For example, our native ostrich fern out competes Japanese knotweed. I am glad you treasure your oaks. We have one huge one in the middle of the lawn and, as you can tell, I hope to have a lot more. You will love Tallamy’s book. We are lazing around the house today, enjoying the time off. Thanks, Carolyn

  4. Hi Carolyn
    I will definitely pick up Doug Tallamy’s book as well as check out his web site – thank you! We also have tons of native oak trees on our property. This year must have been another mast year for the oaks, leaving us with too many acorns to count. I have piled up the acorns for the wildlife to enjoy this winter.
    For the last 10 years, we have been hand-pulling invasives from our fenced in back yard woods, allowing the return of many native plants that deer sprawl previously enjoyed. It is so rewqrding to see nature recouping, with a little help from friends!
    Dr. Seuss wrote one of the best books for children about saving trees called “The Lorax”. A favorite of our children and now our grandchildren.
    “I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees”!!! I still love that book!!!

    • Hi Cathy, Since you live in the area, you may be able to hear Tallamy lecture. Thanks for pointing out that another benefit of oaks is the acorns they supply to native wildlife. I think hand-pulling and digging are the only ways to remove invasives. Herbicides damage the environment and mostly don’t work on the invasives that are the worst problems. Thanks, Carolyn

  5. Hello Carolyn:
    Many thanks for your recent posting. I hope you will give us permission to post it on our local park’s message board as it is a message that we need to get out to our communities.


  6. We at the Harford Dog park in Radnor (Creutzburg Center for Main Line Night School) are looking for “tree tenders” or any willing volunteers to come and help remove grape vine and multi flora rose vines that are covering and killing the trees that surround the play ground for the dogs. I have been cutting and pulling the vines from the trees myself since last year so any help would be appreciated. I started pulling the vines off a very large tulip popular tree last year and can see a real difference in just one tree. An added bonus – I make low wattle fencing from the grape vines that hold in the shredded leaf mulch for my garden beds. A win/win for the trees, leaves and garden beds!! So bring your dog(s) for a romp and clippers for some vine cutting too.

  7. Another great book suggestion you may already have read but worth passing along is Last Child in the Woods – saving our children from nature-deficit disorder” by Richard Louv

  8. mike drennan Says:

    Hello Carolyn; you may want to mention that if someone has a red oak on their property that there’s a good chance that they are seedlings around that can be easily transplanted.
    They have been slow to loose their foliage so are very easy to identify this time of year.

    All of our transplants were healthy “foundlings.”


    • Good point. We found our oak seedlings by wandering around looking for bright red leaves. Our mature red oak had made little trees all over the place this year. We just moved them to our new “forest”.

  9. I would have loved to attend this lecture by Tallamy. The stats he gave are a bit alarming and I too though as you did. I never realized the impact that natives have on biodiversity and maintaining the insect population whose very habitat is their survival and the basis of the future generations of some species. Oaks and 534 species of butterflies and moth are an eye opener.

  10. Thank you for this great educative post! The facts are very important and remind me to plant more natives in my own garden. Hope you had a great Thanksgiving!

  11. Sobering post. I wasn’t aware that native insects won’t eat non-native plants. I, too, thought the emphasis on native plants was based on their ability to survive, not for the very survival of our environment. Good food for thought and motivation to focus on native plants.

  12. Beautiful! I had no idea oaks were so important, I might need to revise my wish list of trees to have in the future
    Happy Thanksgiving!

  13. Thank you Carolyn, for making the case in such an engaging and non aggressive way. That is certainly the best method for changing minds. Including my own. Although I have been on board the Native train for some time, I will now think twice about pulling those oak seedlings that pop up. The native dogwoods are already welcome, as the seedlings appear.

    • Thank you Frances! It is actually Tallamy who should get the credit. He comes at the problem from an inclusive point of view—his message is we can do something about this together. I have predominantly native plants in quantity, but this time of year it’s hard to write about them because they are mostly dormant here in PA where it was once nothing but forest. My posts are all about non-natives right now but that will change in spring. Anyone who hasn’t checked out Frances’s blog Fairegarden should do so–it’s amazing. Carolyn

  14. Pauline Candaux Says:

    Carolyn, My community garden in Center City has recently started a website : and we would love to post this article on it. May we? Also, perhaps we could link to your blog? Thanks! Pauline

  15. Yup, it sure makes sense and is most insightful. The whole purpose of my garden is biodiversity to attract more critters. Now I know why it is good not only for me but all of us. I only wish I had a few acres to really make a difference. That being said we have tons of oak on our property and boy did they have a grand year judging by all the acorns. Come spring if you want some seedlings do come my way! That is one bright oak!

    • Hi Tina, I think Doug Tallamy would say it doesn’t matter how big your property is, we all need to do this so the suburbs become one big native plant support system. I have heard from others that it is a good year for acorns. Carolyn

  16. It is incredibly sad to me that there are many people who don’t mind a completely treeless landscape. And there are those who will cut down native oaks and pines because they want sunny open expanses of lawn. We have numerous native oaks and pines on our property.
    Great post – thanks for spreading the word.

    • Thanks Ginny. People have not been educated to appreciate trees. They cut down trees older than they are without a second thought. I still remember where all those trees were in our neighborhood and feel the empty space. Sometimes I wish I didn’t. It’s similar to going to the local parks–all I see are invasive plants. Carolyn

  17. Hi Carolyn, my collages use Picasa. There is a link in this post Those collages get addictive. I like to show – the plant – the leaf – the flower – the habitat. Makes for a good plant portrait. And I can cheat by packing in more photos ;>)

  18. Excellent post! I am fortunate to have many mature oak trees and native dogwoods on our property. They are a joy for the wildlife they support, as well as the lovely structure and shade they give to my gardens. I can’t imagine my world without them. Congratulations on your new oak forest; may it grow and prosper to bless future generations.

  19. This should be emulated around the world. In our case i plant Dipterocarp hardwood in our spare undomesticated property and on marginal areas. I love planting trees and generating lots of oxygen in the process. Thanks for people like you who heeds the call of mother earth.

  20. Sometimes I think I’ve studied a subject so much that I’m saturated, and therefore stop paying attention to new materials. You’ve made me want to run out and get “Bringing Nature Home” as soon as possible. It sounds excellent! I really enjoyed reading about your oak tree planting (especially preparing its new home by removing the privet and its nonnative friends).

    • Hi Eliza, I think you will really enjoy Doug Tallamy’s non-aggressive and inclusive approach to this important topic. Let me know what you think after you read his book. I am so happy that my message has been so positively received by so many people. Carolyn

  21. It is truly heartwarming to see that a blogger, who is relatively new to Blotanical, should post an article that immediately attracts and engages such a wide readership. The impressive number of comments left here as well as the high praise from other Blotanical members, is an attestation that you have done something marvelous.
    This has been a most illuminating blog.. I have clicked back to it several times since it was first posted to re re read its content – it is that crucial. Thank you for sharing.
    My wish is that you will have much more success with your seedling tree than Charlie Brown had with his. I’ll bet he is very proud of you, as are all of your readers.

    • Thank you so much for your heart-felt encouragement. I have gotten a huge response. I am glad that gardeners are interested in Doug Tallamy’s message. Obviously I think it is of the utmost importance, and others seem to agree! I will have to frame your comment to look at when I get discouraged with blogging. So far, so good though. Carolyn

  22. Carolyn,

    I hope your oak tree gets some roots and provides all those insects some food. Thanks for highlighting Douglas Tallamy’s work and the importance of native plants.


  23. Oh yes thank you! This is exactly in the spirit of my 12 Days of Christmas, and our mutual style of wildlife gardening across the great pond ;>)

  24. hillsmom Says:

    My DH has been growing seedlings in pots within an enclosure so the deer won’t browse them down. This spring he has planted some back in the woods. Unfortunately, we had to take down a 113 year old red oak which was 47″ at the base. Something is killing them as they are dying from the top down. I suspect “bacterial leaf scorch”. All in all we lost 5 dead or dying oaks which might have damaged the house if they would fall. Very sad.

  25. Mary Douglas Says:

    I treasure the oak trees on my property! Have a small grove of large post oaks, white oaks, southern red oaks near the house. Our trees are so endangered from development and ignorance. Harmful topping practices and removal for lawns. Thank you for this important information. I’ll spread the word.

  26. Hi, I wondered how your oak grove is doing 8 years along? Planting oaks is a long term commitment! Good for you! I just came across the website & am enthralled. Betsy M

    • Betsy, We have three trees surviving. One is thriving and 12′ tall, and the other two are doing well at 6′. Thanks for asking. Glad you enjoy the blog. Carolyn

      • Hi Carolyn,

        I enjoy your site and appreciate your work to educate your followers. I am curious how the three oaks you mentioned in 2018 are doing now and their height. Our area of St Charles Illinois was once an oak and hickory forest. We have lost a few of the dozens of majestic oaks we have, so I planted a few saplings to replace them. Would you mind emailing or posting a photo of your three oaks?

        Thank you!

      • The three oaks are still going strong. They are are all 12 to 15′ tall.

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