As I travel around the country speaking to various groups about Ecosystem Gardening, and how people can garden sustainably, conserve natural resources, and create welcoming habitat for wildlife in their gardens, the most frequent question I am asked is how to design a garden with native plants that will attract the most wildlife.
This question seems to come up a lot for many of us here at Team Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. Recently Susan J. Tweit was asked to create a “landscape concept plan. One that featured her passion for birds and wildlife habitat in urban places, and did not include any lawn, but would “wow” the McStain people.”
Designing a wildlife habitat garden with native plants is not that much different than designing any other garden, with a little bit of homework to get to know the native plants of your area.
In order to make this as easy as possible for you, I’ve gathered together some of the best tips to get you started.
Our team member Debbie Roberts has this to say about using structure in designing your wildlife garden, and gives a few suggestions for evergreens, most native to the eastern United States, that you may not have considered for adding structure to your garden:
Structure. It was agreed that the foundation of every garden, regardless of whether it’s style is formal, naturalistic or somewhere in between, is the balance, proportion and symmetry provided by the use of strong geometric shapes to provide year round interest and structure.
Hmm…the perfect opening. You see, there are plenty of native plants with distinct geometric shapes to add structure to your garden, regardless of your design style. Gardeners who prefer a more formal look will often take their pruners to the same plants that, left to ‘do their thing’, are also quite at home in more naturalistic gardens.
Plant in Masses
Genevieve Schmidt, a landscape designer in northern California, is writing an excellent series on design principles for the wildlife garden. Her first tip: plant in masses:
By using plants in drifts or masses, we set a scene that draws the eye through our landscape in an organized way and makes our home seem more in tune with the surroundings.
Drifts or masses of plants:
- Give natives instant design appeal
- Lead the eye through the garden
- Create a sense of flow and enhance the shapes in the landscape
- Have a billowing effect which is more like a grand, far-off view of nature than a close-up
- Move with the wind in a graceful way that is fun to watch
- Reflect the scale of the architecture
- Integrate home and garden
Use a Lot of Plants
Hand in hand with planting in masses is to use a lot of plants. Vincent Vizachero tells us to ignore the spacing information on the plant tag, and instead space your native plants closer together:
The farther apart you space your new perennials, the more you will find yourself battling weeds. The two feet that Walmart or White Flower Farm wants you to put between your Black-eyed susans is two feet of prime territory for weed seeds: lots of light, plenty of water, and no competition for soil nutrients.
Planting your perennials more densely has additional benefits: the garden or meadow will look “filled in” much more quickly and, more importantly, will begin supporting wildlife much more quickly. Many of the mammals, insects, birds, and amphibians that wildlife gardeners want to encourage depend on having relatively dense cover. These animals much prefer the cover of your carex or goldenrod to empty exposure of mulch that would result from placing the plants two feet apart.
Choose a Simple Color Palette
Also from Genevieve Schmidt, practice some restraint in your color selection when designing your wildlife habitat garden:
a simple color palette of no more than four colors works so well in pulling together the look of a garden. You can have a terrible eye for texture, make impulse purchases at the nursery, and do a one-of-this-one-of-that planting style, and as long as you stick within the same color family, your garden will look like it was designed by the most discerning of professionals. A garden with a defined palette also feels more like an extension of your home, because you can echo some of the themes you love indoors, in your outdoor setting.
Get Inspiration from Other Gardens
Debbie Roberts was inspired by visiting an “11-acre sanctuary, formerly used as a dumping ground by the city, has been transformed into an oasis for both native plant and native wildlife lovers.”
What she learned:
- Mix it up
- Plant in multiples
- Add some berried treasure
Focus on Shape
Genevieve Schmidt thinks that focusing on shape is critically important to wildlife gardeners:
When we’re gardening for wildlife, we’re often thinking about planting specific plants to host caterpillars/ butterflies or providing a certain type of shelter or habitat. Sometimes, we can get so focused on the details of attracting wildlife that we lose track of the bigger picture, design-wise. The shapes you use throughout your garden give it a sense of structure and beauty that allows even disparate garden elements to feel like they “fit”.
The shapes of what, you might ask? Well, when thinking about shape, I start by focusing on the “negative space” – the lawns and patios which work to highlight and create a staging place for our garden features and plants. Positive space is anything that could be considered a focal point- plants, fire pits, sculpture. Those are elements that by their very nature attract attention. In contrast, lawns and patios are usually noticed for their ability to make the things around them look good. Because of the role they play in enhancing the other elements of the garden, their shape plays an important part in how well your overall garden functions and looks.
Use the Best Resources
If you want to apply these principles of landscape design to your wildlife garden, one of the best resources I have found is Carolyn Summers’ Designing Gardens With Flora of the American East.
Carolyn Summers shows you how to choose native plants that are beautiful and also play a role in the local ecology for wildlife. Don’t limit yourself to non-functional plants, but work to choose multi-purpose plants which better support a wide diversity of wildlife.
Is your favorite garden style a formal garden? Did you know you can create this using native plants?
No matter what style of garden you are most comfortable with, you can design it using indigenous plants, including Italianate, knot, cottage, and even Japanese-style gardens.
I did a recorded interview with Carolyn Summers about the principles of design for wildlife gardeners, which you may find as fascinating as I did, so click through to listen now.
Carole Sevilla Brown lives in Philadelphia, PA, and she travels the country speaking about Ecosystem Gardening for Wildlife. Check out her new free online course Ecosystem Gardening Essentials, 15 free lessons delivered to your inbox every week.
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