By Anna Johansen, JMMDS
Following Julie’s jubilant call to action citing the teachings of Doug Tallamy to incorporate native plants in our landscapes, you may be wondering just how to take the next step. If so, read on!
Two gorgeous native plants with different environmental requirements. L: Chelone lyonii (pink turtlehead) loves wet feet. Photo: North Creek Nurseries. R: Lupinus perennis (sundial lupine) thrives in poor, dry soil. Photo: Wikimedia.
Imagine a front meadow rather than a front lawn, a woodland filled with native wildflowers rather than invasive honeysuckle and buckthorn—a home landscape that is resource-efficient, manageable, ecologically supportive, and beautiful. Last month I was fortunate to attend the New Directions in the American Landscape (NDAL)’s 3-day course, “Natural Landscape Design: Meadows & Woods,” whose subject matter was just that.
The course, headed by Larry Weaner (natural landscape designer and founder of NDAL) and supported by botanist and designer Ian Canton, forest ecologist, author and founder of Antioch’s Conservation Biology master’s degree program Tom Wessels, and Henry Art, Professor of Biology and Ecology at Williams College, left me brimming with its practical implications and a whole new perspective on human relationships with landscapes: What if instead of trying to control every detail of our landscapes we become facilitators, helping nature to establish sustainable plant communities in our yards? While the material was tailored to landscape design and management professionals, the overarching concepts are invaluable to every homeowner with a few blades of grass.
Mowing, mulching and weeding… if these words bring joy into your heart, then it’s probably best to stop reading here. But if, like me, you think of lost time and futility, then you might also be ready to shift your perspective. We can think like ecologists as we work in our gardens by observing natural processes and site conditions, nurturing plant relationships, being facilitators of change, and letting go.
Determining your ecoregion is the first step to identifying plants native to your area. Map of Terrestrial and Marine Ecoregions of the United States: The Nature Conservancy.
Observation. Identify the existing plants in your landscape. Are they native or invasive? Are there native (or specialist) species that are thriving? Knowing that your hillside has a strong population of lowbush blueberries (which love acid soil) or that your woods have stands of maidenhair fern (which thrives in alkaline soil) takes the guesswork out of your soil type and pH, for example. If your land is overrun with invasives, or if you’re looking to plant a bare newly-constructed site with natives, you might get a soil test or find out from your neighbors which native plants are doing well in their yards. You can also determine your ecoregion and do some research to identify your target plant community.
L: Vaccinium angustifolium (lowbush blueberry), an acid loving plant. Photo: MSUE. R: Adiatum pedatum (maidenhair fern), a calciphile. Photo: Bosky Dell Natives.
Site Conditions. If there are bone-dry areas of your yard and saturated sections, use the opportunity to establish plants that will benefit from those conditions. Matching the plant’s needs to your site, rather than trying to amend your site to suit a plant, will conserve resources and possibly lead you to discover plant varieties much more interesting than your nursery’s usual offerings. Use your state’s Natural Heritage Program to determine which native plants thrive in your existing conditions.
Plant Relationships. Natural species have evolved together for many millennia. We may never be able to understand fully the complexity of these relationships, but observation and emulation lead to stability of the system. Think of a garden bed or your front lawn as a microcosm of succession. If you were to seed an area with r-selection species like columbine, which is known for being short-lived and reseeding vigorously, while also plugging it with young echinacea plants and other K-selection species, which will be around for the long haul, the columbine will grow quickly and fill in (no mulch!), while the echinacea more slowly establishes, eventually shading out the columbine and creating a strong weed-less stand.
L: Look closely, and you’ll see all the little seedlings at the base of this Aquilegia canadensis (columbine). Photo: GardenWeb. R: A strong stand of Echinacea pallida (pale purple coneflower). Photo: Missouriplants.com.
Natural (or native) garden establishment utilizes larger natural processes while capitalizing on specific traits of specific species. With this understanding, transforming your lawn into an annually mown and beautiful meadow or targeting the Achilles heel of invasive plants in your woods to restore wildlife habitat is completely attainable. I am not suggesting that we all become ecologists and horticulturalists, but those of use who shift our perspective from controller to facilitator are taking the first step.
To read more, check out articles by Larry Weaner.
For seeds and resources, look to Ernst Conservation Seeds.