Natural design for landscapes sounds like a contradiction, an oxymoron. If a property’s grounds are designed, how can they be natural at the same time?

Larry Weaner, a renowned landscaper in Pennsylvania and author of “Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change,” explained natural landscape design to a group of  landscape professionals in an online lecture in December. He showed that the term isn’t a contradiction.

For starters, natural design is different from a naturalistic landscape, which was a trend about three decades ago. Naturalistic landscapes involved getting rid of straight lines and sheared shrubs, giving gardens a less formal look while continuing to use the same plant species, mostly non-natives.

“Natural landscape ecology is based on the idea that a landscape has a broader reason to be than just to look pretty,” Weaner said.

He said the concept takes a lot from Doug Tallamy, author of the seminal book “Bringing Nature Home.” Tallamy recommends using native plants, which have developed over thousands of years alongside the area’s native wildlife, so that the two have adapted to and supported each other.

Research has shown that using more native plants – meaning both more plants and more different species of natives – will result in more breeding birds and butterflies, again both in the number of species and the total number showing up in the landscape.

But simply planting more natives is not enough, Weaner said. How those natives are planted also matters.

In nature, the standard progression of plants over years is a grassland or meadow, to what Weaner called shrubland or thicket, and finally woods. But most developed landscapes don’t reflect this natural cycle.

“Shrubland is usually left out,” Weaner said. “It is not looked at as a plant community type or component in the big picture of a landscape.”

The ground-covering sweetfern serves well as part of the woods-bordering “shrubland” in your natural landscape garden. Shutterstock/Nancy J. Ondra

A couple of plants Weaner mentioned as part of this transitional area between a meadow – around a home that could be the lawn or a garden of herbaceous perennials – and the nearby woods are fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) and sweetfern (Comptonia peregrina). He said other plants that spread through a clonal root system (meaning they spread underground through roots rather than by seed) will also work as shrubland, because a clonal thicket is the most stable part of a landscape.

Though many of the landscapes he creates aren’t on large properties, they have large gardens, and that’s because none of the property is “wasted” on things like lawn. And while the gardens he designs are meant to be low maintenance, he said, they won’t be low maintenance immediately. The reason? He designs them in four dimensions, and the fourth dimension is time. The look of the landscape will change over the years, and some plants will grow faster than others.

The approach also affects weeding. Weaner-designed gardens require a lot of weeding in the first year, a bit less in the second year and almost none from the third year on. Weaner suggests you carry a bunch of popsicle sticks with you while weeding a garden, and replace every weed you pull with a popsicle stick. Later, you add groundcovers in the areas with a lot of popsicle sticks.

But you’ll want aggressive plants. A lot of homeowners like plants like trillium, which eventually will colonize and cover a significant area. Use aggressive native plants instead. Weaner listed white wood aster, eupatorium, ferns and grasses as good options for keeping the weeds at bay.

He also mentioned Little Bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium, a short ornamental grass that is native to most of the United States and Canada. A lot of gardeners dislike it because it flops. But if it has the right environment, he said, it will be fine. The plant grows wild in dry, infertile plains, and flops over is the soil is too wet and fertile. Overfed, it also grows taller than it should.

The secret – as many have said before – is that you need the right plant in the right place.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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