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My Clients Want to Support Wildlife, But Don’t Want a Messy Landscape

Question:

My clients want to leave their landscape natural, to support wildlife, but don’t want it to look like a mess.  Help!

Answer:

Thanks for your question.  There can be a lot of confusion with clients about native landscapes and what they can or “should” look like.  First, as with food labeling, the word “natural” is not really useful.  “Natural” is frequently used to describe a landscape that is unmanaged or “let go” such as a turf lawn that has been allowed to grow un-mowed.  The result is simply an unmanaged lawn, not a native meadow.  With the pressure from invasive plants present in most landscapes, “unmanaged” really doesn’t work any more. At a minimum we have to manage invasives and tip the scales in favor of native plants that are competitive.

When trying to improve the ecological health of a landscape there are many issues to consider beyond managing invasives, such as increasing the percentage of regional natives, increasing the biodiversity of native plantings – which directly results in diversity of animal species, planting in layers to provide habitat and other resources to different species, providing resources for generalist species (like bumble bees) as well as specialists (some native bees), providing host plants, etc.

Aesthetics are another matter to consider.  With clients that are fixated on having a perfect “green desert” (chemically-fueled turf lawn), you have your work cut out for you.  If the client has children, pets that go outside, or has had cancer in the family, you can start the conversation with a myriad of scary facts. The websites for the Great Healthy Yard Project and Beyond Pesticides are two good sources of information. Convince your client to start by reducing the lawn and manage it organically for their safety and well-being.  Replace lawn with a diverse planting of natives – don’t replace one monoculture with another.

Native landscapes don’t have to look like a big mess. A well designed native landscape with thoughtful groupings of plants, masses of colors, textures and forms can be breathtaking. The days of overly-manicured yards with perfect lawns, shrubs pruned into little balls, and every leaf toted off like toxic waste, need to become a thing of the past.  So many of our traditional landscaping practices are actually harmful to the environment that we depend upon.  It’s a cultural change and a mindset change where we feel connected to the environment as opposed to simply ruling over it.  Leaving native perennials and grasses standing through winter as a resource for wildlife is far more interesting to look at than bare soil.  Most clients have the capacity to appreciate the beauty of an overwintering bird feeding on the seeds of a native grass.  It’s a matter of expanding what you think of as beautiful.  I call this “finding the beauty in ecological function” – it’s not just what a plant looks like, it’s also what a plant does in nature.

Ecological landscapes can be just as beautiful as ecologically-damaged ones.  Good design is still important.  Take a look at this video to see what a gorgeous native landscape can look like:  http://www.ecobeneficial.com/videos/interview-carolyn-summers-flying-trillium-gardens-preserve/

From Kim Eierman at EcoBeneficial!