Finding Common Ground with Native Landscaping

In the gardening off season now, you have a chance to think about the big picture of what you want for your landscape. Consider a plan that resonates with the general public by finding common ground with native landscaping. I will offer some suggestions that help keep your native landscaping from looking like a “weed patch”.

Let’s start with some perspective. Landscaping in the United States has many different influences and varies greatly from formal to wild/ecological. You have a whole spectrum of styles to consider.

Formal Gardening

Many of us were taught to appreciate the formal landscapes and garden designs made famous in Europe and France centuries ago featuring rectilinear lines with meticulously-trimmed lawns and hedges. Much of our society today still prefers this landscaping style as is evident in city codes and homeowner association regulations that encourage and even mandate manicured vegetation. With this style, we value leaves over flowers, vegetation simplicity, order, control and tidiness. Intensive use of mowers, trimmers, water, fertilizer, herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides, help efficiently maintain this style of landscaping that symbolizes human domination of nature.

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Gardens of Château de Villandry, France. Photo by Peter Dutton.

Ecological Restoration

On the other end of the landscaping spectrum is ecological restoration. Plant communities native to a place are used as the blueprint to reconstruct a functioning ecosystem. Seeds of that plant community (i.e., prairie grasses and wildflowers in South Central Kansas) are planted and disturbance vectors (i.e., fire and grazing) that originally maintained that plant community are restored. While intensive preparation and planning go into reconstructing a prairie, this style of landscaping is eventually low maintenance, requires only implementing/simulating occasional disturbance, and mostly embodies working in sync with nature.

Reconstructed Prairie at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains.

Reconstructed Prairie at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains.

Native landscaping advocates, promote many benefits of this latter landscaping style:

  • Colorful flowers and seed heads with varied shapes and textures
  • Diverse habitats with food and shelter that attract various forms of wildlife
  • Dynamic landscapes that provide year-round visual enjoyment
  • Long-term low input needs with regard to water, fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides
  • Adaptation to natural environmental conditions
  • A cultural connection to earlier inhabitants that used native vegetation for food, medicine, and ritual; building a “sense of place”

There are barriers, however, to landscaping this way in cities. Fires and grazing are not practical in urban areas. Annual mowing adequately simulates these activities, but dealing with that much biomass can still be cumbersome. Codes limiting vegetation height and social expectations driven by the formal garden mindset are hurdles for folks wanting to landscape with native plants. Native plantings are often seen as messy “weed patches”.

But you can still landscape with native plants in publicly palatable ways and enjoy many of the listed benefits. While my training and education are in ecological restoration and I used to be an advocate for restoring diverse prairies in urban areas, I realize that is not usually practical. I’ve moved towards the middle of the landscaping spectrum when it comes to recommendations on landscaping with native plants, to find common ground between formal and ecological styles.

With more than a decade of lessons learned from helping schools implement native plant gardens, I’d like to offer some of the following management practices to make native plant gardens more visually appealing to the general public.

Native Plant Garden Best Management Practices

  1. Define Garden Goals – Wildlife habitat in general? Single species habitat (e.g., monarch)? Rain garden? High profile or in backyard? Prairie or woodland?
  2. Start Small – Hand irrigation to establish plants in the first year is important as well as establishing a regular weeding routine takes time. Keep the workload manageable. You can always enlarge/add more gardens later.
  3. Prepare the Site – Eradicate existing perennials with a couple of Glyphosate treatments in summer, especially important for getting rid of weed enemy #1, Bermuda grass.
  4. Consider Height Proportions – Think about being able to see layers of plants. Island gardens are visually more appealing with shorter plants and there are many short to medium height native options to consider. Gardens against building walls do allow for taller vegetation in the back.

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    Be sure that plants are not too tall for the scale of small island plantings.

  5. Add Hardscaping – Include features such as bird baths, feeders, houses, artwork, and benches for human enjoyment.
  6. Get Edgy – Establish the boundary where weeding meets mowing. A flexible edge such as flat pieces of limestone is a favorite. A visible edge also conveys that this garden is purposeful.

    Limestone edging helps define this garden.

    Limestone edging helps define this garden.

  7. Clumping of Species – When a garden has high visibility for the public, choose fewer species and plant them in clumps or waves to convey that this garden is intentional. Too many species planted will appear random and thrown together over time.

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    Suggestions for planting in waves or clumps.

  8. Don’t Fertilize – Native plants will survive fine without fertilizer. Extra nutrients benefit weeds and only make native plants taller (and more wild looking).
  9. Mulch Is Your Friend – One or two applications (2”-4” deep) of free wood chip mulch from the municipal pile or delivered by a tree trimmer keeps the native garden looking good and helps control weeds. A layer or two of newspaper under the mulch also minimizes weeds.
  10. Signage Educates – Whether a wildlife certification sign or species identification labels, signage helps convey that this garden is intended to be there. Education leads to acceptance.
  11. Weeding Is Mandatory –Weeding regularly and often minimizes the need for a long backbreaking weeding session that will make you hate your garden. It is therapeutic and good exercise. Plus, a high frequency of visits to your garden will add to your appreciation and enjoyment.

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    Weeding can be fun!

Now, resume your planning and consider going native. Do so in a visually pleasing way and maybe your neighbors will follow suit.

Photo Credits

Landscaping with Native Plants – One Small Step at a Time

I am an enthusiastic advocate for landscaping with native plants. I preach this message at our spring and fall plant sales, talk about it in presentations, plan and promote lectures and symposia around this and other related topics, and run an Earth Partnership for Schools Program that has planted prairie pocket gardens at more than 60 schools in Kansas over the last 10 years.

But when it comes to my home landscape, I have been TERRIBLE historically at practicing what I preach. The saying “the cobbler’s children have no shoes” has certainly applied to me when it comes to my landscaping. For a majority of my home ownership years, I have hypocritically landscaped mostly with a lawnmower.

Such actions were not intentional as I knew and desired better. I love aesthetically-rich native plant communities that offer a variety of flowers and seeds throughout the year and I love all the different types of wildlife that they attract. I know the ecological principle that greater plant diversity in my yard will lead to greater wildlife diversity of insects, birds, amphibians, mammals, and reptiles. I know that trying to grow a thick monoculture of grass requires regular inputs of water, fertilizer, herbicides, and sometimes even pesticides – none of which are in sync with environmental stewardship or human health. I know that it takes thousands of caterpillars to feed a nest of young birds and that plant monocultures do not host many caterpillars.

I’ve always known better, but have used the excuses of a lack of time and money to keep from doing better.

A few years ago, I decided to try to make some incremental changes…baby steps even. Sara and I started digging up small square-footage sections of our lawn each spring and fall, covering them with newspapers and mulch, and putting in 10, 20, or 30 plants at a time. The time commitment and $ outlay to plant and establish each of these native plant beds was manageable. We’d lose a few plants here and there, but the majority would survive with regular watering in the first year to get those soon-to-be deep, perennial maintenance-free roots established.

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New applications of mulch from the free municipal mulch pile in Newton once per year and weekly regular visits throughout each week were not only manageable time allotments, but provided welcome forms of exercise and reflection. Weeding, when done in regular and short repetitions, has actually become enjoyable and therapeutic for me.

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As plants become established and more profuse in their flowering each year, my enjoyment of these native plant gardens has grown. And the wildlife has seemed to enjoy the plants too. There are loads of insects pollinating flowers, and more species of butterflies and birds appear to be visiting our yard. I haven’t seen snakes yet, but have seen toads and a salamander. There has even been a pair of brown bats in my bat house the last couple of years that for many years was empty.

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My home landscape is far from perfect and it may never meet my grandest expectations. Not all of the species I bring in are native and there is always more weeding to do than I will give time. Soccer, croquet, and wiffleball games still require that a chunk of lawn remain. But baby steps forward progress is being made.