Stalking the sustainable landscape

Ever wonder what would happen if you stopped mowing the grass or weeding the garden and just let nature take its course? Would the neighbors complain first, or would the bittersweet take over?

Sometimes, when the work seems overwhelming or my need to dominate suddenly surrenders to the natural flow of things, I find it tempting to simply let go. And judging by the amount of talk I’m hearing about low-maintenance design and sustainable landscape development, a lot of other folks are thinking the same way. Many homeowners, I suspect, are hungry to learn how to design and manage their gardens and landscapes in a more natural and ecologically sound manner.

These approaches offer an impressive list of long-term benefits: reducing the amount of money, water, chemicals and labor required to maintain the landscape, and creating a wildlife habitat. In a truly sustainable landscape, the very nature of the plants used — adaptable, drought-tolerant, insect- and disease-resistant — helps ensure a strong foundation that invites other wild plants to come in and grow. Ultimately, such approaches help foster a self-sustaining system that doesn’t require a lot of effort or input on the gardener’s part — something everyone can enjoy.

Sometimes, letting nature take its course is the best way to garden. If you have an existing landscape and you’d like to go this route, shifting to a low-maintenance approach is a good first step. Consider where most of your time and energy are going now, and begin by making changes there. Trade out plants that demand a lot of attention (such as insect-and-disease control or frequent pruning), substituting plants that seem to do well on their own. Reduce the amount of turf, plant more ground covers and shrubs, and freely apply abundant amounts of mulch and composted leaves.

Building a healthy soil and bringing more plant diversity into the garden attract beneficial insects, reduce pressures from problematic pests, and help achieve a more balanced state requiring less human intervention. Loosening up the design will also lighten your management load. Whereas the order of a marching row of trees or shrubs falls apart if one or two die, a scattered and more naturally sweeping planting will hold up, simply allowing room for neighboring plants to fill in.

To see how sustainable landscape development takes its cue from nature, take a look at roadsides and pastures that aren’t mowed. Notice the predominance of grasses dotted with small groupings of butterfly weed or goldenrod, an occasional thicket of sumac or sassafras, a few scattered pines, and even a big maple tree or two. With occasional management of aggressive plants, this is a landscape that does quite well on its own.

Over the years, the horticultural staff at The North Carolina Arboretum has taken various approaches to developing sustainable landscapes along roadsides, on difficult slopes, and in the areas between the cultivated gardens and natural woodlands. In these transition zones, the management requirements have been reduced, and the zones themselves have softened, helping to more naturally blend the wild and human-made landscapes.

These sites make excellent demonstrations of how to start sustainable landscapes and how they might look in various stages of development. Attending a program or visiting with arboretum staff is a good way to get some ideas. One approach is just to stop mowing a small area of lawn or field, let it grow, and see what comes up. Unbeknownst to you, there may be perennials and annuals lurking beneath the grass, just waiting to be set free. Plugging additional native grasses, sedges, perennials, shrubs and small bulbs can help jump-start the process. If you have a thick cover of tall fescue, you may have to remove it in sections, since it will heavily compete with other plants. On the other hand, if you can plant a thick stand of fine fescue (or, better yet, plant plugs of a native grass or sedge), you can establish a thick cover that, in turn, will provide a good barrier for weed suppression. Expect to weed the first year. But with each subsequent year, the amount of weeding will be reduced. Eventually, as wild plants begin seed in on their own, the decision to weed becomes difficult, and it will be up to the weeder to determine what’s desirable and what is not.

To some, this approach to gardening may seem totally wild and out of control. But taking a few things into consideration in the planning stage will help keep your property looking like a garden. As you would in any situation, study the site carefully and choose plants that will do well in the predominant soil conditions. A wet, heavy clay supports different species than a dry, sandy soil. A small grass edge at the base of the planting helps passersby know that someone lives there and is caring for the area. Have fun laying out the plants, but also consider a few basic design principles (such as putting tall plants in back and short ones up front, and using fine grass textures against the bold textures of perennials). Instead of the usual 80:20 ratio of grasses to perennials along the roadside, consider a 50:50 ratio to step up the visual intensity in the early years.

Although low maintenance/sustainable landscaping requires the same amount of thought and up-front effort as any other approach, it yields results that will benefit both you and the wild plants and creatures that will make their homes there. Start looking with new eyes, and see what you can learn from nature about designing and caring for your garden. Beginning with a few of these ideas, you’ll find that working with, rather than against, the landscape can bring more harmony and balance into your life and the environment around you.

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