A Coastal Woodland – My Vision

I garden on a 2-acre plot about a mile from the ocean. The site itself has two components.  The front half-acre is a typical suburban lot, located on a quiet cul-de-sac that was once farmland. When it was sold, a developer built our house there in the late 1970’s. Behind our street was another long strip, owned by neighbors, which was landlocked and unused, but kept at least partially rough-mowed.  When the neighbors retired, we bought the 1.5-acre strip, which became the second component of our property.

Although we continued the partial rough-mowing, invasives were proliferating on that back property.  We had the trifecta – bittersweet, porcelain-berry, and Japanese honeysuckle. To combat them, we hired professionals to come in and remove invasives one section at a time to reclaim the land.  We are making progress – of the 1.5 acres, about two-thirds of the invasive have been cleared.

But what to do with the reclaimed land?  As expected, some early-succession plants had already moved in.  We had red cedars, black cherry, Norway spruce, sumacs, arrowwood, and bayberry.  Then black oak, white oak, and swamp oak made an appearance, and a single lonely pitch pine.  This land was clearly reverting itself back to a woodland.

At this point, I had two options:  I could do nothing but keep the invasives in check and let the nature do what it wanted; or I could take an active hand.  Of course, I chose to take an active hand, with a goal of accelerating the transformation into a coastal woodland habitat, but in a way that also led to an interesting, lightly-designed coastal woodland garden with pathways to wander.

Before getting started, though, I needed to do some research into what a native coastal woodland actually consists of, as a basis for my design.  The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, through their Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program (part of the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife) has done the tremendous work of defining and describing dozens of specific and unique habitats for the state. To see their work, go to www.mass.gov, and search for Natural Communities Fact Sheet, and the first item in the search results is what you want. Or just use this link:


Scrolling down the list I found a Coastal Forest/Woodlands entry and clicked on that. A wealth of information appeared, describing my site perfectly: trees shorter than upland forests but a site less exposed than maritime forests; coastally moderated and moist habitat with salt and wind from storms. Here also was a good list of the native species likely to be found in this habitat.

In summary, a coastal woodland is predominantly trees, mostly oaks and pines. Other trees, such as red maple, white pine, black cherry, and beech, may occur in lower numbers. Some smaller trees may exist, such as American holly, black gum, and sassafras.  The shrub layer is almost always low, with low-bush blueberry and black huckleberry colonies. In moister areas and on the edges some larger shrubs, such as sweet pepperbush (and bayberry and sweet fern) may appear. The herbaceous layer is typically scattered, with Pennsylvania sedge, bracken fern, wintergreen, and vines such as poison ivy and Virginia creeper.

Okay, that information is great, and gives me a solid starting point for designing my coastal woodland.  The strategy will be to concentrate on these species, add in some additional species for extra variety and interest, and keep the invasives out. More to come in a later blog post.