Soft Landings

by Guest blogger Erin Garrett, Energy and Environmental Stewardship Educator, Illinois Extension

IN THE WOODS
My two favorite times of year to hike in the woods are fall and spring – fall to see the changing colors, a multitude of mushrooms, and colorful berries; and spring to see the spring ephemerals. When I walk in the woods, most of my time is spent looking at the ground – that may just be the botanist in me, but I am always intrigued to search for what plants I can find growing below the trees on the forest floor. The intermingling patches of flowers, ferns, sedges, and shrubs is always a fun adventure.

In the woods, I’m often on the hunt to find one of my favorite insects – caterpillars! Caterpillars come in so many different shapes and sizes. With over 11,000 species of moths found in North America and at least 750 butterfly species, there are thousands of different caterpillars to be found! I’ve seen my fair share – from the io moth caterpillar (look don’t touch!) to the spiny oak slug caterpillar, to clymene moth caterpillar (pictured), these critters are marvelous to behold.

But besides their variety of spines, tails, and other adornments, I have a huge appreciation for what caterpillars do! They are an essential piece in the food web – what critter wouldn’t want to eat a delicious soft packet of protein and fat?

A Clymene Moth caterpillar. Photo by Erin Garrett.

You may have heard about the importance of providing food for caterpillars, and the right food – caterpillars for the most part eat the plants with which they have coevolved. That means native caterpillars need native plants. Woody plants are the highest producers of caterpillars – with oak trees able to support over 900 species of caterpillars across North America. So if we want to support caterpillars, we should plant native plants.

That’s it, right?

Let’s think about it a little more. Caterpillars enter their pupal life stage, which can last as little as 1-2 weeks or can take months. Where do these pupae complete this life stage? Most of them drop from a tree into the leaf litter below, or the caterpillar drops from the tree and burrows under leaves or underground before becoming a pupa.

Picture those forests I talked about enjoying hiking in – what do you see below the trees? A diversity of different plant species, forming a thriving habitat with cover and protection from predators.

WHAT MOST OF US HAVE
Now picture the habitat around one of the trees in your home landscape. Let me guess – it’s surrounded by lawn grass? I know most of my trees at home are surrounded by grass. Is a lawn a safe space to be? No! With leaves raked up or mowed, and lawn grass mowed weekly, those caterpillars do not have a safe space to develop.

In our lawns, we usually have grass surrounding our trees. Photo by Erin Garrett.

It’s no longer enough just to plant the right plants, we also need to provide something called a soft landing.

A soft landing is a safe habitat for these developing pupae to drop to underneath a tree. If we are able to plant native, herbaceous plants that tolerate shade underneath our trees, we will provide a safe space. Letting leaves gather in these landscape beds will mimic the forest floor in the woods, and will add rich organic matter to your garden as well.

THE RED OAK RAIN GARDEN HAS SOFT LANDINGS!
Need some examples? The Red Oak Rain Garden has prime examples of soft landings! Look underneath the red oak – native plants provide a safe space for pupating caterpillars to complete their life cycle.

The Red Oak Rain Garden is a perfect example of a soft landing. Photo by Layne Knoche.

Shade tolerant plants to think about planting under your trees include our spring ephemerals, like Virginia Bluebells and Dutchman’s Breeches; ferns like Christmas Fern and Sensitive Fern; sedges like Pennsylvania Sedge and Rosy Sedge; and shrubs like Winterberry.

I have big plans to add landscape beds underneath my trees in my lawn – will you join me in this effort?


For about shade gardens and planting under trees, check out my Everyday Environment webinar.

For more information about soft landings, visit https://www.pollinatorsnativeplants.com/softlandings.html.

To learn more about the importance of planting natives for caterpillars, check out https://homegrownnationalpark.org/tallamys-hub-1.


Erin Garrett is the Energy and Environmental Stewardship Extension Educator for University of Illinois Extension in the southernmost five counties in Illinois. In this role, Erin develops and delivers high impact programming to local and statewide audiences to help them develop an appreciation for natural resources and to empower them to make small changes to positively impact the environment. Her interests include planting native plants to support pollinators, grass identification, and prairies. Erin earned her Master’s degree in Plant Biology from Southern Illinois University in 2017, and her Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies from the College of Saint Benedict in 2015.

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