Published: May 24, 2017
Apologies for formatting errors due to docx importing.
Curious about native plants? Interested in a beautiful, low-maintenance landscape? Concerned about health and water quality? Or did you just stumble on to this page by accident?
Regardless, we welcome you and hope we can satisfy or pique your curiosity. In the pages that follow, we will introduce some basic Concepts of landscaping with native plants, referred to by many as “naturescaping,” and follow that with Steps you can take to get started. Note that we will use the phrases “naturescaping” and “landscaping with native plants” interchangeably. You may also be familiar with the phrase “xeriscaping” which refers to landscaping with drought resistant plants, though not necessarily native plants.
In the Concepts below, we will discuss:
We have been taught through gardening magazines, radio and television programs, newspaper features and nursery advertising that the industrial plants are the plants to use and that if a place (soil, climate, etc.) does not support them, then we should change the place: remove existing soil, bring in new soil, add irrigation, top dress with an ornamental mulch, and use pesticides and fertilizers as needed. The result is a rather sterile landscape that looks the same regardless of where you live. It is also a landscape that unfortunately does not support our bird or beneficial insect populations.
We have also been taught to have a “weed” free lawn, to decrease biodiversity and to maintain our landscape through regular cuttings and the application of synthetic chemicals. It is interesting to note that radio gardening programs and other landscape “experts” often suggests a chemical solution to landscape “problems.” This practice is driven by advertisers who sell these products. Fortunately, there in an emerging shift towards organic yard care and many good groups are involved in the effort (including some master gardening programs), but there is a long way to go.
Thus, as we approach naturescaping, we have to purge a lot of the landscaping notions with which we grew up and be open to new ones. Some of those new ones are: selecting the plant that goes with the place and not changing the place for the plant; recognizing that we do not NEED all the lawn we have; and realizing that native plants take care of themselves because they evolved to grow in the place you want to plant them. Thus, we can let go of some of the old notions and rely more on practical or “common” sense.
Traditional Landscaping v. Naturescaping
Lastly, it is driven by homeowners and property managers who grew up learning one set of plants and understandably using those plants as a frame of reference as they move about the country. These and other forces have created an atmosphere that emphasizes using the same plants regardless of location and changing a site to accommodate these plants. As noted above, site changing often entails installing irrigation, removing the existing soil, bringing in new soil or a soil amendment, installing weed barrier, and applying synthetic chemicals. Plants are often planted in geometric patterns and maintained in a “static” look with frequent cutting or trimming. This is traditional landscaping.
Naturescaping, in contrast, emphasizes selecting the plant that grows naturally at the site. Since native plants evolved to grow under local conditions, they do not require that the site be changed. They do not need the life support of watering (except during establishment) or regular synthetic chemicals – they do not require fertilizer beyond that provided naturally and they are not prone to the diseases of many industrial plants.
Thus, in quick comparison, it can be said that traditional landscaping changes the place to accommodate the plant and naturescaping selects the plant that goes naturally with the place. Since we have been programmed for the former, it takes new thinking and perhaps some courage to consider the latter, though let us assure you that the latter is very rewarding … beautiful in its own way, wondrous in the critters it attracts, healthier for the homeowner and larger environment and, once established, easier and less expensive to maintain.
Twins v. Sibs
Native plants, however, are like siblings, they are often sexually propogated and hence, their DNA, while similar, is not identical. Like siblings in a family, some may be tall, others short, some red-headed, some blue-eyed, etc. In other words, native plants possess greater genetic diversity and, as a result, less predictability of shape and size. Some people consider this a benefit that adds to a natural look and to the excitement and wonder of seeing how a plant will look as it matures. Others, however, may consider the reduced predictability a drawback, particularly when implementing a landscape with a well-defined geometric pattern.
Dynamic landscapes change with the season, and in natural cycles. And natural cycles include death. To an eye trained for a static landscape, the presence of dead plant material may be “unsightly.” If this is the case, the dead material can be removed. To some extent, in a true natural setting, some of this material would be removed by deer and other browsers.
Removing the dead material can be onerous and in our view it is unnecessary. Instead, we suggest a change in the perspective of the observer, a change to recognize the natural beauty and seasonal significance of naturally dead material in a landscape. This dead material is an indicator of time and season and is from plants, alive underground, that will put forth new growth in the spring, renewing an age old natural cycle.
A dynamic look is different from a static one. A person starting a naturescape should be prepared for the look of natural cycles that will unfold before them.
Remember that there is no right or wrong in naturescaping. You can try something and if you don’t like it, consider it a learning experience and try something else. No matter what you do, in most instances, it is better than a turf lawn or a bed of industrial plants. Recall also that the underlying principle of naturescaping is to let natural systems work for you.
Good luck, have fun and keep that sense of humor! And send us your questions and/or suggestions so we know where the challenges lie.
Warm wishes from all of us at PN.