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Designing with Native Plants

Last week on socials I asked you what kind of content would be helpful to you. You all gave me some excellent feedback! Many want seasonal gardening tips. You also want garden design strategies. These two things go hand in hand -- a well-designed garden should be less maintenance in the long run. Some of you want to know how to make native plants look less "messy", some wanted to know how to make a traditional garden look more "natural" or "wild".

So maybe we should talk about traditional design rules, how and whether they work with native plants, and maybe shift our thinking a bit about what makes a garden beautiful.

Most importantly, design matters.

There is a home I drive past daily that has a perfect irrigated lawn (lawn irrigation is rare in my area) and evergreen shrubs in a straight line across the front of the house pruned within an inch of their life. Trees along the borders are planted in perfectly straight lines. Once this would have been seen as an ideal, well-kempt landscape. To me it feels sterile and lifeless; I can sense the OCD of the owner when I look at it and it makes me uncomfortable. They have been caring for (no, controlling) that landscape in the exact same way for decades. It is completely lifeless.

On the other hand, there are gardeners out there with lots of love for pollinators and wildlife. They have planted plenty of native plants and enjoy their gardens immensely. But the neighbors are unhappy. The garden looks too "messy", against the rules. The message of the garden's intention is lost because it is too far from the expected. It says native plants are unattractive and weedy, and unless you fill your landscape with tidy non-native cultivars, a sea of mulch, and cut everything back the moment it's done blooming, you're doing it wrong.

Design matters.

You can implement most design styles using native plants instead of the non-natives that have been traditionally used, within reason. But should we? For me, a well-designed landscape should be appropriate for the style of your home, reflect the part of the world you live in, replace some of the ecological value the land held before it was built or farmed on, and be enjoyable and functional for those who live there. For most of us, that means the landscape needs to be designed to largely take care of itself. Less mowing, pruning, deadheading, and weeding. More bee and bird watching. It doesn't mean it will look like we have just let it go. It does mean it may be different from what many expect a landscape to look like. Looser. Less rules. No OCD.

I could easily digress on topics such as how natives help create a "sense of place" rather than just be a generic American yard or the unnecessary resource drain of exotic plants. Let's try some do's and don'ts and save those topics for another day.

Design Rules to Throw Out

  • You must have evergreens or your landscape will be too bland in the winter: Winter interest in your landscaping can come from grasses, perennial seed heads, colorful stems, or interesting bark texture. Evergreens are not a must-have. There are few native evergreen shrubs to choose from here in the Mid-Atlantic to begin with.

  • Planting in straight lines: Unless you have a formal hedge or very specific design strategy, straight lines are boring and very unnatural looking.

  • Planting monocultures: Masses or too much repetition of the same plant reduce the diversity of your landscape and leave plants susceptible to pests and disease (if one gets infected, they will all be infected).

  • Shrubs must be pruned to maintain size or shape: Nu uh. Most trees and shrubs are healthier and look better without pruning. Install plants appropriate for the site and ditch those hedge pruners.

Try This Instead

  • Year-round interest can be found in things you perhaps haven't thought of or have previously cut out of your landscape each fall - the peeling bark of a river birch is beautiful every day of the year; perennial seed heads feed birds and look lovely in the snow.

  • Stagger your plantings and un-mass large groupings of plants. Let them intermingle with each other a bit more like they do in nature. Have you ever thought the woods or a meadow looked too messy?

  • Make your perennial groupings a bit smaller, let them intermingle, incorporate more diversity, plant densely.

  • Allow your plants to reproduce themselves. In fact, use that as a design strategy as well as a maintenance strategy. Thoughtfully edit your planting rather than trying to control it.

  • Remember plants are not furniture. They change from one season to the next and year to year. Continual change can be a good thing.

Worried about messiness in your perennial gardens? A few things will help your native planting look more acceptable to the neighbors and help you push the limits of what you and they are comfortable with:

  • Crisp garden edges go a long way to convey intentionality. Leave a strip of grass between the garden and the sidewalk.

  • Use plants with great long-lasting foliage in the front of the bed.

  • Add a piece of artwork.

  • Include a tasteful sign stating you are planting for pollinators. Please, I beg you, do not use one that says "Pardon the weeds, we're gardening for the bees"... You are not tending weeds, and we want to spread the idea that this looser garden style and native plants are beautiful as well as beneficial. They are not weeds.

This may be more relevant to my fellow designers out there.... I have a personal "tidiness" 1 through 5 scale when it comes to plantings. (1) is a landscape with individual shrubs surrounded by mulch or perennials in large groupings of odd numbers (I never give anyone a design at level (1), but it's what most people have, especially us rule followers). A the other end of the scale, (5) is a completely randomly seeded meadow planting. Maybe I'll go into more details on my scale another day, but for now the other levels are (2) early Oudolf, (3) Diblik "Know Maintenance Gardening" and (4) matrix-style planting ala Norris / Vogt / Dunnet / Kingsbury, etc. I always like to nudge my clients to move a step down the scale, get comfortable with a more naturalistic style of planting. We need more examples of this in regular residential landscapes. Let's shift what is considered normal in home landscaping. Break some of those rules.

Need some deeper advice on making your traditional landscape more naturalistic or your wilder landscape tidier? I'd love to help. #WeGotThis🌿

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