Fitting Natural Landscapes into a Modern World

If your HOA covenants, city codes, or neighbors disparage wildlife habitat, make the natural landscape easily recognized as a 'garden' and more intentional. Some tips for success:

  • Borders – This can be a mowed edge, fence, or an edge of low plants. (I like prairie dropseed as a transition from lawn to a natural garden) A bordering device frames the planted area and lends it a tended look.
  • Curved lines – nature tends toward curves as do we humans. (Being part of nature ourselves) Make your borders curve, but not excessively. Random bumps and bends can become excessive.
  • Blocks of plants – In public spaces like Lurie Garden, designers are installing swaths of plants in sweeping shapes of bold color, texture, and form.
  • Right Plant, Right Place – Match your site conditions with appropriate plants. Installing sun loving plants in full shade will prove unsuccessful and the result will be unattractive. Select plants that will thrive in your existing conditions.
  • Use native plants – Every plant is native to somewhere, so it can be helpful to do a bit of research on what the historic vegetation was in your area. Contact your local Extension for more resources. This can help reinforce a local identity versus installing non-native landscape ornamentals that can be found anywhere in the world.
  • Dress up Native Plants during the Establishment Phase – Native plants (notably tallgrass prairie in Central Illinois where I am located) take time to become established. The first year or two, prairie plants will concentrate on root growth, which may lead to the frustration of the gardener unaware of what is happening below the soil surface. Consider dressing up the natural garden those first two years with containers of annuals or seeding native annuals in the garden along with the perennials. Purchasing larger native perennial forbs or grasses will lessen establishment time, but will increase the price tag.
  • Manage the Weeds – Yes even natural landscapes have their weeds. Namely, species on the Illinois Noxious weed list. Cool season lawn grasses can become a nuisance if they creep into the natural garden. Even some of the desirable prairie grasses such as yellow Indian grass or big bluestem can be bullies to the native wildflowers. Pull, dig out, and trim where necessary. Use herbicides as a last resort and be very careful of surrounding plants. Always read and follow pesticide labels.
  • The Personal Touch – Make this your garden and welcome others to experience it with you. Include pathways through the garden, benches for relaxing, birdfeeders and birdbaths for entertainment. Sculpture and statuary certainly has a place in a natural landscape and gives an intentional look.
  • Educate – Signs are great methods to entice those passing by to stop and learn about natural landscapes. You can certify your site with a conservation organization (which usually comes with your own sign). Install a decorative box in front of the garden containing a map of the habitat you created, along with additional educational materials on the how's and why's.