When people think of creating a native garden the first thing that typically comes to mind is plant material. Images of specific varieties pop up in the mind’s eye along with characteristic flower color, aroma, foliage texture and ability to attract one’s favorite garden-friendly wildlife. Rounding out the general idea is how said plants will fill in the space putting the final touch on the mental image of a dream garden.
These are exciting aspects that all of us who enjoy gardening look forward to. Yet there is a critical step that precedes this vision, one that requires careful attention that is often overlooked. That aspect is hardscape.
Hardscape is the physical foundation that your new native landscape will be built on. In the native garden the hardscape is every bit as important as the plant material that is eventually chosen. It is equal part aesthetic and functional and is intrinsic to a successful wildlife garden.
Elements like paths, and mounds (whether the topography will be flat or rolling), swales and/or dry creek beds; rocks, boulders, and even snags and mulch, all play a critical role in a functional, healthy, and aesthetically pleasing, natural landscape.
For example, consider what looks good to your eye when out walking in nature. Usually when a person stumbles upon that ‘Kodak moment’, a combination of the aforementioned working together with plant material creates the image that is aesthetically pleasing.
Consider paths. Paths are the access routes deciding traffic patterns around the home and through the garden. They serve both an aesthetic and utilitarian purpose. Paths created with permeable surface materials such as DG (decomposed granite) lend more to a casual, natural feel when compared to traditional concrete. Inlaid flagstone, pavers or decorative gravel can add more of a formal style to the natural garden. Consider which camp your overall vision falls into prior to choosing paving materials.
Mounded soil in the landscape creates vertical interest, employs the principle of focalization, and evokes curiosity in the eye of the person viewing the garden. It invites one to explore the paths that flow between the varying elevations and curve out of the line of site. Creating an undulating foundation emulates the natural topography of our native landscapes with their rolling hills, canyons, and valleys.
There are functional aspects to consider as well. Perhaps you have poorly draining clay or compacted soil on site. By mounding existing soil one can now include plants that require better drainage. In addition, mitigating the environmental impact of the project by reusing excavated soil and retaining existing materials on-site is important and follows right in line with an eco-friendly landscape design.
Snags, and dead wood create habitat and beauty in the natural garden. They provide critical habitat as well providing food, shelter, and nesting places for many birds and other garden-friendly critters. Perhaps you’ve noticed that hummingbirds, phoebes and other birds usually perch on dead limbs as opposed to ones that are foliated? Deadwood provides insect-eating birds with added food sources and can double as garden sculpture and/or eco-art.
Tuck a piece between a rock and a naturally occurring plant group. Leave a little open space around it for wildflowers to pop up through in the spring. An old piece of driftwood looks great in a dry creek bed or pond as well. Find one that resonates with your eye and place it according to taste.
Consider including water in the plans. Water will provide an important resource to wildlife and not only attract birds, but will also keep your garden lively with a variety of butterflies and other beneficial backyard critters. Put rocks or stones in birdbaths to give butterflies and birds a supportive landing area.
Utilizing rocks, boulders and cobble in your design is beneficial aesthetically as well as functionally.
I can remember hiking as a kid and turning over a pretty good sized granite boulder, noticing all the life forms living underneath. Even though it was the middle of summer and there hadn’t been rain for months, the imprint provided a cool, moist micro-climate.
Not only do rocks in the landscape provide a beneficial micro-climate for good garden bugs and your plants, from a design perspective they offer transition between the architecture of your home and garden. In addition native plants typically don’t get a lot of water during the hot months. By including a decent sized rock strategically placed within a plant grouping (like you would see in nature) a lasting source of moisture is provided assisting plants through extended dry periods.
Unlike traditional planting design which is typically based solely on the physical appearance of plant material, native garden design should be approached from a broader perspective. When planning your wildlife-friendly garden, consider how the plants and hardscape elements will work together as opposed to individually.
Emulating the relationship between native plants and their hardscape counterparts will give your garden the look of authenticity. It will provide a solid foundation that will all but ensure a long-lived natural landscape. A garden that will thrive and evolve into a ecologically balanced example that can be enjoyed by all.
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