YOUR SITE, YOURSELF AND YOUR PLANTS
OK! … Are your sleeves rolled up?
… Ready to start? … Good!
by recognizing that each of us has a slightly different
background and, therefore, a different experience or
comfort level with plants and landscaping. That’s
to be expected. To accommodate people of all backgrounds
and to not make assumptions, we intend to start
at the beginning – the initial design phase –
and work our way, step by step, to a functional naturescape.
The Steps we will take are:
- Investigating Your Site ... (this page);
- Making a Plan;
- Site Preparation;
For those of you who have already completed
some of these steps (i.e., investigated your site, prepared
a plan, etc.), we invite you to jump ahead. For all,
we suggest that you use these Steps
merely to the extent you find them helpful, recognizing
that there is often more than one way to accomplish
anything. We suggest that you don’t get too caught
up in the process, but just go for it! Remember
that the ultimate goal is to have native plants on your
site and to let natural systems work for you, as opposed
to you spending your time, money and energy fighting
against those systems.
Prairie and Desert
In the U.S., the northern Pacific rim, parts of the
Rockies and the Mississippi Valley and parts east are
forest land, while the plains have prairie and the arid
southwest has desert. The text that follows is written
with a slight bent towards naturescaping in a forest
zone and to a lesser extent in a prairie zone.
While the text is relevant to all three landscape zones, we include separate pages for Prairie and Desert
that address the unique concerns of those areas.
Your Site, Yourself and Your
We will begin the journey by having
you ask (and answer) three threshold questions.
The first two questions would be asked in any landscaping
project, regardless of whether native plants are involved.
These three questions are:
- What do you have?
- What do you want to do with it?
- What are the right native plants?
do you have?
Assessing what you have or, in other words, recognizing
the "lay of your land" is the essential starting point.
From this base, you can go forward deciding what to
keep, what to change and where things will go. To accomplish
this, it is necessary to investigate your site
and ask and answer some questions - you will notice
that asking and answering questions is a "basic
theme" of the design phase. While the questions
to ask may vary slightly based on where you live, they
will typically including the following:
- Is your site sunny or shady?
- What is the path of the sun across your site (in
winter and summer)?
- Is the site flat or sloped or both?
- What is the soil like - a denser clay or a looser
- How is soil drainage – good, fair, poor (i.e.,
is there standing water at times during the year)?
- Where are buildings, power lines and property lines
- Would the building(s) benefit from a shade tree
or trees, and where would those trees be located?
Can you think of others?
It is typically helpful to walk your property
(and at different times of the day/year) with pen, paper
and tape measure in hand. Consider making a sketch or
map of your site (or, at a minimum, the areas you'd
like to naturescape). Note the location of immovable
structures (houses, driveways, sidewalks, etc.) and
plants you would like to keep. Make an indication of
slope, wetter areas and sunny/shady areas, etc., as
appropriate. Investigate the downspouts - where are
they, and are they tied to the local storm sewer? Could
downspout out flow be used to water plants or create
a "rain garden"? Noting these and related
details gives you a written record of what you have.
This record may be referred to as your "baseline
do YOU want to do with it?
To assist in addressing this second question, we would
like to introduce the idea of "outdoor living
space." Inside a house, people often plan
the use of each room and the arrangement of items in
the rooms - this creates "indoor
living space." If you do the same
for your outside space, i.e., plan the use of various
areas and what is in those areas - structures, furniture, patio/deck, turf, beds, etc., you are defining your "outdoor
living space." The enhancement of
your outdoor living space effectively increases the
total amount of living space on your
In designing your outdoor living space the questions
you might consider become more introspective - this
is the investigating yourself
part of this step. Since your living space is rather
personal, the questions will vary from person to person,
but representative questions include:
- Do you like to entertain, and what space or structures
would you like for that?
- Do you want to create a sanctuary?
- What views do you want to maintain,
create or block?
- What areas will be used for
recreation or the dog or for a grill or swing or bench?
- What areas will be used for
a vegetable garden, turf lawn, compost pile or shed?
- What area will be used for ______
(you fill in the blank)?
Is this fun, or too much to think about?
While we hope and suspect that it is fun, we recognize
that it can also be a lot to think about. If you are
beginning to feel that it might be too much, remember
that you can always pear things down and focus just
on the areas you know you want to naturescape. Alternatively,
you can hire some design assistance. There are landscape
design professionals who help people design outdoor
living spaces on a daily basis. Should you be interested
in elliciting their assistance, please check out our
Landscape Professionals Directory
or consult another reference in your local area.
With answers to the personal questions
above, we now suggest that you create a "bubble
diagram," by drawing shapes, e.g., bubbles,
on your baseline plan that indicate the various
areas and how they will be used vegetable garden,
turf area, deck, dog space, etc.). Then
indicate how people will move from one
area to the next. Potential movement corridors
include inorganic pathways (stone, cement), organic
pathways (woodchips, bark mulch), lawn (turf or
other), lawn alternatives (i.e., "steppable" plants),
patios, decks, driveways, etc. What you have now
created is a plan that shows not only your outdoor
living space, but (1) the areas you have that
are available for naturescaping and (2) the conditions
at those areas - sunny/shady, wet/dry, sloped/flat,
etc. Not surprisingly, it is this condition information
that will be used to select the right native plants.
are the right native plants?
Alright! We’re making progress! From Questions
1 and 2, you now know the areas you want to naturescape
and the conditions at those areas. … So
how do we figure out what are the right plants
for those areas and where to plant them? The second
part of this question, "Where to plant them?"
will be dealt with in the next Step - Making a
Plan. The first part of the question, figuring
out what the right native plants are, we will
deal with now.
|[native plant photo]|
While learning something new, like how to speak
a language or use a computer, could seem daunting
at times, learning one's native plants is actually
fun and can be easy (depending on where you live
and what resources available to you). It also
seems to be best done in stages. There are several
ways to become familiar with your natives and
you can decide what works best for you. Some suggestions
we have include:
|[jpg of pdf of regional plant list]|
- Use Regional Plant List. ... ;
- Visit a local native plant nursery and ask
“What is that?” and “Where does
it grow?” “What other plants grow
with it?” Native plant nurseries close to
you are listed in our Native
Plant Nursery Directory. Remember that nurseries
are in business to make a profit so they will
likely be helpful in educating you about plants,
and that their business may be in part a labor
of love – meaning they truly enjoy it and
want to share;
- Contact a local organization, nonprofit or
governmental, that is concerned with native plants
and/or environmental health issues. The Native
Plant Society of your state is a good place to
start. although in some areas the Native Plant
Societies focus more on saving rare and endangered
plants and not on common or commerically available
plants. Audubon Society chapters and other local
organizations might also offer classes, workshops
or field trips. Inquire in your community or consult
Service Directory to find such organizations
in your area. In some communities, native plant
and ecological landscaping classes are offered
by community colleges, soil and water conservation
districts, municipal water boards, etc.;
- Visit a local natural area that is relatively
undisturbed or has been restored. While this is
almost impossible after a couple centuries of
“settlement,” it does exist in some
places and is extremely valuable because it will
illustrate “plant communities.” Unfortunately,
plants are not labeled in natural areas so while
you will see them you might not know what they
are. If, however, the natural area is in a park,
then there might be tours or other information
available from the park management;
- Peruse one or more of the books listed in our
- Try a Google search
for anything you can find; and
- If you live in the Pacific NW, look at our
Native Plants section.
Lastly, as you become familiar with native plants
- and you will! - it is helpful to also recognize
which plants tend to grow together - both horizontally
(what grows next to) and vertically (what grows
above or below). A collection of different plants
species that naturally grow together is oftern
referred to as a “plant community.”
There is merit in planting plant communities because
you will be planting plants that are used to growing
with one another and as a result get along and,
well, "play fair." PN
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