Learn to be an ‘educated naturalist’ at conference

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News

If, like many homeowners and gardeners, you’re looking at the patch of land you steward in a new light and you want to create a landscape that nourishes the environment and attracts birds, bees, butterflies and other beneficials, you may be frustrated not knowing quite where to begin.

Or maybe you’d like to gaze out from your home office window or your patio and view not an expanse of grass, a tall fence or those ubiquitous yews that screen your neighbor’s drive, but a vignette that replicates the look of a lush northern woodland — an elegant tapestry of texture and cooling greens possible only by integrating a rich mix of trees, shrubs and plants. Or possibly you’ve read or heard about the native plant movement and would like to find out what it’s all about and what part of it might work for you.

Well, this year’s St. Clair Master Gardener Conference on March 18 in Port Huron, “Be the Educated Naturalist,” is the perfect place to begin your quest. It will feature speakers Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy, authors of the widely acclaimed book “The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden” (Timber Press $39.95).

Darke and Tallamy explain that in nature, a deciduous forest grows in layers — a canopy of tall trees followed by a subcanopy of shorter ones. Next come the understory trees, followed by shrubs. Beneath the shrubs are the herbaceous and ephemeral perennials, sitting in leaf litter and organic materials in various stages of decay, and they all support life that in turn supports our beloved butterflies, birds and other animals. In their book and programs, Darke and Tallamy provide an understanding of these living layers and strategies for creating beautiful ways to adapt them into our green spaces.

Don’t worry that either the book or the programs are based on the “my way or the highway” philosophy of the strict use of only native species and the destruction of all lawn. The east Asian, Korean spice viburnum (Viburnum carlesii), often chosen for its incredible fragrance, is among Darke’s picks of attractive shrubs for layering. And Tallamy agrees turf is the best planting to walk and play football on.

For more information and to obtain a brochure about the St. Clair Master Gardeners’ Symposium, Be the Educated Naturalist, contact Lisa Sharrow at (810) 329-3722 or email her at

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question go to and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at