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
In the Concepts
below, we will discuss:
This is followed by the Steps,
which are in turn followed by Designing
for Wildlife, Special Considerations
(new home, hedges, bio-swales, etc.) and some Examples.
... Ready? Here we go!
There is an element of "relearning"
involved in naturescaping because throughout most of
our lives we have been taught the opposite. We have
been taught to remove native plants (often viewed as
"weeds") and to replace them with plants that
are common in the nursery industry - plants that
we will refer to as "industrial plants." The industrial include the standard ornamental shrubs and perennials and are promoted based on the function they provide
(hedge, groundcover, etc.) and/or the aesthetic they exhibit,
yet not for ecological reasons. They are mass produced
and distributed widely, the same way consumer goods
are mass produced and distributed. As a result, landscapes, whether residential
or commercial, typically have the same plants and the same appearance, regardless of where located - Maine, Texas, Oregon or some place in
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
benificial insect populations.
Maine? Texas? Oregon?
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.
Landscaping v. Naturescaping
Traditional landscaping attempts
to create a landscape that "looks" the same regardless
of location. This is, in part, pushed by nurseries or
developers who want to sell the same plant or product
across wide markets, maximizing revenue through efficiencies
of scale. It is also driven by landscape designers and
contractors who tend to use the same palette of plants
regardless of location. This is particularly true of
designers and contractors who move during their career.
It may be seen as easier to change the site rather than
learn which plants grow their naturally and how to install
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.
Land Change Brigade - on the charge!
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
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.
Kalmia - A Native
Naturescaping sounds good, eh? Where do I sign up? ...
Well, for your due diligence and our full disclosure,
it is important to mention some of the challenges that
one may face.
Twins v. Sibs
Most industrial plants are asexually propagated, i.e.,
grown from cuttings, etc., and, therefore, have identical
genetic material. They will have similar shapes and
height, the same way that to two identical human twins
will grow in the same manner. If you see one, you could
pick the other out of a police line-up (i.e., you have
a good idea what the other will look like).
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.
Gardening Diva says "Try naturescaping!
You'll love it!"
Native landscapes are dynamic. Conventional landscapes are static. Static landscapes are characterized by a high percentage of evergreen plants and a maintenance regime that involves frequent cutting and trimming to maintain the desired "static" look.
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
There are many benefits to naturescaping, whether practiced
in place of or in addition to traditional landscaping.
The benefits include, but are not limited to, the following
which are expanded upon on our Benefits Page:
1. Low Maintenance
- Native plants evolved to grow
in local conditions and to predictable sizes. They
do not require watering (except during establishment),
chemical pesticides and fertilizers, or frequent cutting.
2. Public Health (lowers
cancer rates) - Traditional
landscaping uses large amounts of synthetic pesticides
and fertilizers, some of which are suspected carcinogens.
During rains, these chemicals often run off into public
water supplies. Traditional landscaping also contributes
to air and noise pollution.
3. Saves you Money -
The cost of maintaining a naturescape
is dramatically less than that of a traditional landscape
because a naturescape essentially takes care of itself.
Naturescapes also save you time - and how valuable
is your time?
4. Water - In
the West, 60% of consumed water goes to lawns; in
the East, 30%. This water diversion harms the environment,
kills fish, and returns polluted water to our streams
and rivers. It also costs you - on irrigation
system installation and maintenance, and on your water
5. Song Birds - Our
song bird populations having dropped steadily - 5-10%,
per year!, depending on the species
- for the last several decades, and there is no end
in sight. The loss is primarily due to habitat loss.
Adopting naturescaping is critical if song birds are
6. Enhances Livability
- An ecologically functional
landscape offers so much more than a sterile, static
landscape. It offers imagination to our children,
and color, sound and wonder to all of us. It is cleaner,
quieter and healthier, and may increase property values.
Song Bird - Black Headed Grosbeak
In the text that follows we may refer
to two different "camps" or "approaches"
to naturescaping. These may be referred to as conventional-appearance
and restoration, herein referred
to as NS-conventional and NS-restoration, respectively.
NS-conventional attempts to follow conventional landscape
design principles (geometric patterns, monoculture or
less diverse groundcover) and simply substitutes native
plants for the industrial species. NS-restoration attempts
to create a more natural looking space, planting plant
communities as opposed to individual plant species and
creating a look that reflects how the site may have
looked prior to human disturbance. We encourage you
to try both and even mix the two, depending on your
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.
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