Repristinating My Surroundings

I’ve designed landscapes for the past twenty five years based on what plants grew in my gardening zone and, if I could find a native plant, it was always incorporated. When I moved to Atlanta five years ago, my designs evolved using only US natives plant that grew in my gardening zone. But, in the past year, I had an awakening. Only native plants based in my ecoregion will be used use in my landscape designs from here on out!

monarch on milkweed

Atlanta is in the piedmont region of Georgia. The plateau stretches from New York to Alabama on the eastern side of the Appalachian mountain range and is home to some very specific flora. 

Piedmont native plants are low-maintenance and who doesn’t want that?

Map of the Piedmont

Prior to the arrival of European settlers, the piedmont was at it’s climax.  Hardwood trees reached the skyline as far as the eye could see.  River cane, our native bamboo, grew in thickets along the creeks and rivers and plants native to the region flourished.  

When the settlers arrived, the forests were cut down to make way for farming.  Eventually, some areas were abandoned, others sold off to developers.  Either way, the forest readied itself to start all over again because that’s what a forest does.  

Legend has it, before my yard belonged to a neighborhood, and after the “Trail of Tears” (1838-39) most the trees were cut down and the land was used for farming.  After some time, the property was sectioned off and sold.  In the early fifties, the owners  decided to turn their horse farm into a neighborhood.

The most common tree in my neighborhood is Pinus taeda, the loblolly pine, which totally makes sense according to the succession timeline below. A few mature hardwoods also made the cut. A stand of Liriodendron tulipifera (tulip poplar) rain their exotic flower all over my patio.  My neighbor has a huge Quercus alba (white oak) on the corner of their lot shading their entire yard and some of mine.  I’m not sure exactly how old their oak is but I would guess it’s over 200 years.  Referring to this succession timeline (found of the Duke Forest website) my front yard is probably somewhere around the 70th year and my pine trees probably won’t live much longer.  Note to self: add some hardwoods as soon as possible.

the piedmont forest succession
Succession of the Piedmont Forest

You don’t see this everyday in your backyard. A century old two foot wide heavy duty granite retaining wall that borders my yard, turns and runs about one hundred and fifty feet to the southfork of the Peachtree Creek.  In my neighbor’s yard, it reaches over ten feet high. Maybe it was built to level the area for planting crops.

When I moved in, the fence was damaged by a few Acer negundo (box elder) growing at the base of the wall.  In order to preserve and highlight this grand structure, we had the trees and fence removed. Box elders are native but they’re everywhere, grow fast and are short lived.   Plus, I’ve been able to start removing the invasives on top of the wall.  We just took out a gigantic mahonia and a few cherry laurel last week and now’s a good time to tackle the Hedera helix (English ivy) since  it’s cold and the snakes are brumating.

One of the biggest problems in the forests around Atlanta (and much of the country) is the infestation of invasive and non-native plants.  They hinder the growth of  native hardwood seedlings, vines, ferns and ephemerals by taking up space for them to mature. One exception may be Cercis canadensis (eastern redbud) evident by their abundance in ivy covered areas near my home. Unfortunately, I have yet to see Cornus florida (native dogwood) anywhere in my neighborhood or the forest near my house.  A fungal disease is more to blame than lack of space.

These mature Pinus taeda (loblolly pine) pictured in my front yard tower over a non-native, Magnolia grandiflora (southern magnolia.) I know what you’re thinking, I thought the same.  Southern magnolias are native but, not to the piedmont.  Throughout the season they drop their gigantic leaves – and when it rains, they hold enough water to propagate mosquitos.  I’m trying to convince my husband to remove it and plant beech trees.  Wouldn’t that look lovely?

Speaking of beech trees, Fagus grandifolia (american beech tree) is hidden behind ivy and another coastal native,  Prunus caroliniana (cherry laurel.)  In this neglected area bordering my yard, ivy covers the forest floor and climbs up the trunks of the trees.  We got in there this week and cut the ivy from the tree bases and yanked out at least 20 small cherry laurels and chinese privet.  By next winter, she should stand out nicely. It’s hard to believe you can still buy English ivy in many nurseries around the city. 

This is what dead ivy looks like on a tree.  My new neighbors had the ivy cut at the base of this mature pine tree about two years ago.  Even though its an eyesore, Bignonia capreolata L. (crossvine) has weaved it’s way through the dead ivy branches and into the full sun where it should give off a spectacular display in the spring. I’m also curious how long it takes for the ivy to completely fall off.

Repristinated Piedmont Forest

  I took these pictures at the Mary-Scott Nature Park in early January.  A determined group of volunteers spend much of their time restoring this ten acre forest. (Volunteer days are the first Saturdays of the month. The times change for the season. To help volunteer, send an email to to get on their mailing list).

It became a park in the early 2000’s and you couldn’t walk through it without a machete. 

Look at those beech in all their winter glory.  What a beautiful site!  The Ilex opaca (American holly) dots the landscape now that it has room to grow. 

This is the look I’m striving for in my yard.

Here’s a shot of one of the many Quercus (oak) seedlings sprouting in my yard now that the ivy is gone.  Carya (hickory) has been sprouting up as well.

I also recently discovered a couple grape fern, Botrychium dissectum, in my front yard. Extraordinary!  If it wasn’t for volunteering at local parks, I would have never known what this was. 

A few trillium faithfully erupt every spring.  The front yard still has about 150 sq ft of  lirope.  Can’t wait to see if more pop up once its all removed!  Lirope is very aggressive and has spread into the urban forests of Atlanta.  If you must have it, please remove the flowers after it blooms because once it berries, it travels.  Better yet, check out sedges.  They’re way prettier and benefit our ecosystem. I just ordered piedmont native, Carex cephalophora  (oval-headed sedge) seeds to spread in my lawn area in the back.

With most the invasive plants gone, space is ample. After a few native plant rescues,  Ilex opaca (American holly),  Polystichum acrostichoides (Christmas fern),  Juniperus virginiana (Eastern Red Cedar) and  Vaccinium arboreum (sparkleberry) have found a new home.  

I love where my yard is going and am looking forward to watching it grow.