Plant a “Soft Landing” Under an Oak Tree to Create Vital Pollinator Habitat


A member of the Environmental Commission recently converted an area of lawn under an oak tree to a bed of native plants. His goal was to create a “soft landing” for wildlife.

This article explains what a soft landing is and why it’s so critical for the lifecycle of moths, butterflies, and other beneficial insects, which in turn feed birds and other wildlife. It will also demonstrate, step-by-step, how you can plant soft landings in your own yard.

It starts with keystone trees

The majority of insects are specialized to feed, breed, and live on specific host plants. In fact, 14% of the plants in our local ecosystem support 90% of butterfly and moth caterpillars. We call these “keystone” plants.

Black oaks and white oaks, which are found in most resident yards throughout our area, are universally recognized as the top keystone tree. More than 436 types of caterpillars feed on oaks locally. Other top keystone trees include native species of plum, black cherry, birch, and cottonwood.

What is a soft landing?

Imagine what happens on an undisturbed forest floor. After caterpillars feed on a keystone tree, many species complete their lifecycle in the plants, duff, and leaf litter under the tree. This a soft landing.

By contrast, a neatly manicured lawn under a tree is a “hard landing” — a wasteland for wildlife. The larvae and pupae of butterflies, moths, fireflies and other beneficial insects can not complete their lifecycle due to lack of food and shelter.

You can create soft landings in your landscape by planting diverse native species and leaving leaf litter undisturbed under keystone trees.

Enclose the area with a temporary barrier

First, the homeowner used inexpensive garden-border wire to enclose a circular area at the base of a front-yard oak tree. This 12-inch high fencing defined the area and contained the leaves, sticks, and mulch used later.

Ideally, a soft landing would extend to a tree’s drip line, but any size of area can be started today and expanded later.

Sheet mulch using recycled cardboard or newspaper


Sheet mulching may be the easiest and fastest way to convert grass lawns to garden beds. The homeowner laid cardboard on top of grass and then it covered with dead leaves and sticks from last fall. Finally, he layered an inch or two of mulch (obtained for free from the MCMUA County Composting Facility) to fill any open spaces.


Plant native groundcover that tolerates shade

After researching native plants that tolerate shade, the homeowner planted the area with Virginia Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana), also know as “wild strawberry.” The ground-hugging plants spread easily by runners to forms patches.

Wild strawberry supports 75 different species of butterflies and moths (Lepidopterans) throughout their life cycles, supplying food for caterpillars and nectar for adult insects. It also supports numerous other types of insects, and the fruits attract chipmunks, squirrels, and birds.

Other suitable native plants include Green-and-Gold (Chrysogonum virginianum), Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense), Woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata), and wild geranium (Geranium maculatum).

Next steps: observe, enhance, and expand

With less lawn to mow, the soft landing is already paying dividends for this gardener. Next spring, he will add more plants from the list above. Currently, he is reusing the same wire border to lay out a soft landing under a second oak. He will fill it with leaves and sticks for the winter, and then plant natives in early 2023.

Lawns, I am convinced, are a symptom of, and a metaphor for, our skewed relationship to the land. They teach us that, with the help of petrochemicals and technology, we can bend nature to our will. Lawns stoke our hubris with regard to the land. What is the alternative? To turn them into gardens. I’m not suggesting that there is no place for lawns in these gardens or that gardens by themselves will right our relationship to the land, but the habits of thought they foster can take us some way in that direction.” — Michael Pollan 

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