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What is Ecological Landscape Design?

This week we're talking about replacing the idea of wanting a low maintenance landscape with the idea of creating an ecological landscape system. So you may be wondering, what exactly is an ecological landscape?

Ecological landscape design is creating a system that serves both humans and wildlife. It takes into account the existing conditions including soil, water movement and accumulation, light, and location. The aim is to create a system that requires minimal inputs in terms of soil amendments, pesticides, herbicides, and other resources like water. We want to create a landscape using plants appropriate to the site that will grow together harmoniously, serving both your needs and those of local wildlife.

So what does that mean for the homeowner? That means no trucking in loads of compost or other soil amendments to create "perfect" growing conditions, no regular applications of herbicides, minimizing the need for pest and disease treatments, not to mention decreasing work over time in terms of repeated mulch applications, weeding, debris cleanup, etc. as your plants grow and fill in the space. There IS a higher up front cost in terms of the number of plants that will be required. But when you think of all the long-term savings in time, energy, and dollars in addition to the incredible benefits, it is well worth it.

What does an ecological design actually look like? Well, to those new to the idea, it might seem a little bit untidy or messy. That's because we are not plopping plants in with wide spaces between them and lots and lots of mulch. We want to cover the ground completely with plants. That includes trees, shrubs, perennials, and groundcover plants or "green mulch." The quantity of and placement of each is dependent on the needs and wishes of homeowner. The garden will change over time as plants fill in and start to compete with one another. At that point, it is the job of the gardener to edit -- choosing what they want to encourage or discourage. We do not expect this landscape to stay exactly the same as installed -- plants will move around, self-seed, and the garden will gradually change over time.

You can still have just about any style of garden you want, you can have a color scheme, you can even use non-native plants! But it is the job of the designer to encourage you to choose plants that fit the style of your home, are appropriate for the site, and to discourage you from using anything that is invasive. And nothing will get your designer more excited than saying you want to eliminate the lawn!

So what does garden maintenance look like? For the first few years you will be walking through the landscape maybe twice a month monitoring plants to make sure they have enough water to get established and cutting (not pulling!) any weed seedlings that have popped up. once the plants start to cover the ground, they will suppress weeds on their own. In late winter, you will cut back any spent plant debris, chopping up the pieces and leaving them in place as the current year's mulch application. Does that sound like high maintenance? I don't think so. In fact, it sounds like a lot less maintenance than a traditional landscape. No dead heading, no treatments, no truckloads of mulch to spread, minimal pruning, maybe even no lawn mowing.

Have questions? Let me know!

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