Naturescaping: Transforming Your Lawn Into an Eco-Friendly Oasis!
A lot of what we’ve talked about in regards to adopting the habit of creating an eco-friendly home has been related to the house itself and what’s inside. But what about the outside? In your own backyard? I know you might be thinking, “it’s nature. Isn’t it already eco-friendly?” But how many of us go to the local box stores and buy plants and flowers to put in our yards without considering whether they should ACTUALLY be there? Or mow and water and fertilize just because we think that is what we’re supposed to do? A lot of these practices are harmful to our planet, use too many natural resources, and just take up a lot of time that we could be using to appreciate our landscape.
Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to create a beautiful yard on your own that won’t require a lot of maintenance and will lend a hand in repairing our earth. This episode will cover some tips for natural landscaping (or naturescaping) to make your yard beautiful, biodiverse, and eco-friendly!
If you looked at the episode title and thought, what the heck is naturescaping – you wouldn’t be alone. The Missouri Botanical Garden defines naturescaping as “a landscaping approach that focuses on working with the natural character of the land, rather than trying to transplant species that are not native or adapted to the natural conditions. In short, naturescaping is the arrangement of native plants in the garden in a way similar to their arrangement in nature. Naturescaping provides many benefits to the home gardener, including the opportunity to integrate nature into our daily lives and bring conservation closer to home. By recreating the prairie, meadow, or woodland which once characterized your region, you can rediscover the past, promoting a “sense of place” and a tie to the land where you live.”
So naturescaping involves planting native plants – but what are those?
Native plants are “part of the balance of nature that has developed over hundreds or thousands of years in a particular region or ecosystem,” according to the USDA. They say that if you use the word native, you should always use it with a geographic qualifier. Because actually, only plants found in this country before European settlement are considered to be native to the United States!
On the flip side – a non-native plant is a “plant introduced with human help (intentionally or accidentally) to a new place or new type of habitat where it was not previously found.” They need human help to stay alive and thrive (think ornamental plants like sansevieria, monstera, or other common house plants).
So what happens when a non-native plant actually harms the environment? That makes it invasive!
Invasive plants are non-native plants that multiply quickly, spreading and disrupting plant communities or ecosystems. So, for instance, an invasive species in Missouri where I live are the invasive bush honeysuckles. Researchers found that bush honeysuckle infestation has;
- increased human exposure to Lyme disease,
- effected plant biodiversity in the areas they occupy because they reduce the growth of mature canopy trees in our forests and other native plants,
- as well as affecting insects, pollinators, and birds because of the disruption to native plants that they require for nutrition and lifecycle completion.
(Those are just three main types of plants, but there are many more!)
Benefits of Native Plants
Naturescaping reflects nature with native plants – and I’m sure you can see why. Native plants make excellent landscape plants because they:
- Adapt to the local weather and soil conditions.
- Require little or no fertilizer.
- Are relatively low maintenance.
- Help conserve scarce resources such as water and energy.
- Are more likely to be naturally pollinated by local insects, which need them to complete their life cycle.
- Are less likely to attract pests and diseases that could harm them.
It’s been said that Native plants can often support 10 to 50 times as many species of native wildlife as non-native plants!
And on top of that, they are better equipped to handle and evolve with our changing climate.
Finding Native Plants
As you choose plants for your garden, consider whether the species is native or not before adding them to the landscape. You can find lists of native trees, shrubs, flowers, and grasses online or at your local nursery; these resources will help guide you toward the right choices for your area’s climate and terrain conditions.
Usually, a quick google search of “Native plants in my state” will come up with your state’s conservation department with resources. And the best part is that most natural conservation agencies can connect you with incredibly cheap options since their job is to help spread native plants and conserve the area.
But what if you want to take naturescaping to the next level? The goal is to work with the natural character of the land. That doesn’t mean we will all tear out our man-made structures, but we can still work with the natural water flows. So the perfect solution to this could be a rain garden!
Rain gardens are shallow depressions that allow rainwater to collect, filter and slowly infiltrate the soil. They can help reduce runoff that causes flooding and add interest and beauty to your property.
The best way to start incorporating rain gardens into your landscape is by looking at your home’s roof or other areas like gutters and driveways that generate large amounts of storm runoff during heavy rains. A good place for a rain garden is where the water would naturally flow off these surfaces anyway. This may be directly into another landscaped area, such as a lawn or flowerbed, or it could be directed toward an open area where rainfall will seep downward through mulch and plants before infiltrating the ground. So this is perfect for people who have flooded yards! (like mine!)
Rain gardens usually utilize native plants because they have much deeper, extensive root systems than non-native plants, which helps with water absorption. Michigan State says, “Native plants are often selected as they do not need special care, are resistant to most insects and diseases, and attract beneficial insects. Non-native plants can also be used, as long as they are not invasive.”
To create a rain garden, you essentially create a berm (or barrier) in a low spot in your yard with a channel that allows that water to go into the garden full of deep-rooted plants! Here’s a complete tutorial on rain gardens! It really isn’t that hard. It just takes some forethought!
And one of the last pieces of this naturescaping puzzle is grass.
A grassy lawn is one of the most common features found in yards. However, it can also be one of the worst for the environment because it requires frequent mowing, fertilization, and watering.
Let’s put our lawns in perspective. The MDC reports that
- A lawn mower pollutes as much in one hour as driving a car 20 miles.
- Lawn mowers use 580 million gallons of gasoline each year.
- Thirty to 60 percent of urban fresh water is used for watering lawns.
- About 67 million pounds of pesticides are used on U.S. lawns each year!
Luckily for you, there are plenty of alternatives to traditional grass that can suit your needs and help protect our planet at the same time!
- Native Grasses like buffalo grass are a good option that has all of the benefits of native plants and only grows 4-6 inches, so you don’t have to mow at all (or mow less if you want a more manicured look!)
- Ground cover is a low-growing plant that calls for no mowing and fertilizer! Just make sure you don’t plant an invasive ground cover. Always check locally to be sure!
- If you’ve got enough time and space, you could consider a Wildflower Meadow that incorporates native grasses and beautiful wildflowers perfect for pollinators.
- No Mow or Low Mow grass species can also be helpful to reduce your impact – like Buffalo Grass or fescue.
- Some other non-planting options include gravel, pebbles, mulch, bark chips, or straw to reduce erosion, prevent weeds, and improve drainage and water retention.
And I will always encourage a push mower or electric mower if you mow. I have a push mower that I love, and every time people pass me when I’m using it, I usually get a remark about how they know someone who lived well into their 80s and 90s still push mowing!
Create a yard that works with your soil and climate naturally
I want you to create a yard that naturally works with your soil and climate. Incorporate plants that help with our water scarcity problems and reduce gas and emissions to upkeep them. Ditch the fertilizers and pesticides that only harm and add toxic substances to the earth. Use compost instead! I want you to embrace the ants, spiders, bugs, bees, and butterflies! The birds that come to sing and drink from your yard. The bunnies and frogs, and other creatures that come to join the biodiversity party. THAT is a sign of an eco-friendly yard oasis.
Overall, transforming your lawn into this eco-friendly oasis will take some research on what you’ve got and where you need to go – but it will be so worth it when you are surrounded by beautiful plants, thriving wildlife and insects, and little maintenance, so you can enjoy it all!
Something to grow on
For this week’s something to grow on – I want to leave you with two quotes that I’ve strung together by American entomologist, ecologist, and conservationist Douglas Tallamy.
“In the past, we have asked one thing of our gardens: that they be pretty. Now they have to support life, sequester carbon, feed pollinators, and manage water.”
“Because life is fueled by the energy captured from the sun by plants, it will be the plants that we use in our gardens that determine what nature will be like 10, 20, and 50 years from now.”
So what do you want nature from your backyard to look like? Manicured lawns devoid of insects and wildlife? Or eco powerhouses that allow nature to thrive?
It’s up to us to help protect our planet – one yard at a time.
Until next time, thanks for joining me, neighbor.
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