Tips For Naturalizing Your Yard

It really is a great idea, you know. To naturalize your yard and make it more in tune with the natural environment there in your neck of the woods. It means less maintenance and expense in the long run and it promotes a healthy outdoor environment that nurtures rather than robs. You won’t have to mow as often or not at all, depending on how far you decide to go. You can make it a haven for small animals, butterflies and birds, bringing color and music into your life.

A natural yard also allows for more outdoor activity. More areas the kids can play in, more places you can bbq and relax, less “turf” to worry about, whether it’s the fear of tumbling or tripping over unseen obstacles under a bed of grass or a worry about “stampeding” the yard and that it might not “look so green and plush”. Not to mention the weekly mowing in the summer. This is all a headache you just don’t need. If you give a look around and locate some naturalized yards (not junk piles full of weeds, truly naturalized yards) you will realize just how beautiful, functional and sensible they truly are. So let me give you some tips to get started and some ideas on how you can tackle the project over the long run.

One of the first things you can do is introduce small animals. You can attract butterflies, bees and birds later when you get around to planting new stuff. But you can get the frogs, toads and natural predators right away. The frogs and toads will eat the insects that crawl into your home and even those that eat some of your valuable plants. You can attract them by placing clay pots upside down in shady spots near clumps of foliage. They like the shade and they will make a house out of the pot. Ship out a piece of the pot along the outer rim and watch the tiny critters hop right in! You could also leave decorative bowls or pots full of water in sandy areas nearby. They will love taking a swim after eating all the bugs they can stuff! They will take care of flies and slugs.

To take care of plant eating insects you should buy and release natural predators. They are inexpensive and if your yard is fairly closed off, inclusive of a lot of foliage and plants, they will hang around and have a bunch of babies. You can buy live lady beetles, lacewing eggs, mealy bug destroyer larvae (and live bugs), brachonid wasps, damsel bugs, minute pirate bugs and predatory mites. You can order these live or in egg form over the net, through mail order catalogs or at your local nursery. Ask about their effects and follow instructions carefully when releasing the live insects or laying out their eggs.

Assassin bugs are already present in your yard, they are everywhere. You help them along by not using pesticides. They kill just about every bug out there.

Bumble bees and honeybees will also be present in your yard already. You encourage them by not using pesticides. Plant tall plants with pollinating flowers and plants that bloom tubular flowers with nectar.

Ground beetles are also present in the garden. They eat a ton of plant bugs, including cutworms, slugs, cabbage root maggots, snails and lots of other uglies. Plant white clover as a groundcover around trees; make permanent stone or clover pathways for refuge. Plant some permanent beds of perennials to provide them with a permanent home.

Ichneumon wasps will fool you at times and you’ll think it’s a wasp that will sting you. But they have long tails (depositors) but no stingers. Look closely before killing wasps. This guy will eat caterpillars, sawflies and beetle larvae. Just plant flower and nectar plants in your garden (same as for bees) and grow flowering cover crops around trees to provide nesting space for females.

Other insects to encourage and not kill: praying mantid, soldier beetles, spined soldier bug, tachinid flies or tiger beetles. You will find all of these critters hanging out in your yard to start with. Don’t use pesticides and watch carefully when you see an insect, to be sure it’s a baddie and not one of these guys. If you leave things alone and naturalize your yard you will find that the good guys take care of the bad.

And last but not least: yellow jackets. Yes, I know, they scare the poopie out of people because they sting. But if the nest is kept out the way, they are really good for the garden. They will knock off flies and caterpillars. Keep them around by planting fruit trees and/or plants like strawberries or raspberries. However, plant these away from any bbq spots or outside tables or you will have them hanging around the food when you eat and entertain guests.

It’s true; the grass is “greener” on the other side. The pristine, manicured lawns that are the pride of the neighborhood, the epitome of suburban life, aren’t so lush for animals or the environment. Actually, you don’t have much fun on a plush, manicured yard. Chairs don’t sit level, tables wobble, you are not comfortable walking on it and you worry about wrecking the “look” of it. Try naturalizing the lawn first and find out the creative avenues you open up by doing this. Consider some of the following suggestions.

Plant ground cover plants instead of grass. This is easiest of course if your yard is already rubble and full of weeds. It would be hard to pull a yard full of lush, green grass up by the roots and perhaps not a feasible idea. But if your yard is scroungy, sandy, balding, full of weeds or just not pretty, then consider switching. Here are some great ideas for new ground cover, depending upon your area.

In cold areas with temperatures that lower to -40 degrees F, your choices include ajuga, bugleweed, crown vetch, goutweed, bishops’ weed, juniper and peppermint. All of these choices will survive the cold and the snow, coming back year after year. Juniper might need to be mowed from time to time but the delicious scent it releases is just delectable and the shade of green it becomes is exotic, lush and eye catching. However, juniper can be prickly so don’t plant it in areas where people often walk barefoot.

In cold areas with temperatures that lower to -20 degrees F, you choices include cotoneaster, ivy, pachysandra, periwinkle, wild strawberry and creeping thyme. Some of these you might have to mow from time to time, sending wonderful scents into your garden. All of them will survive the winter. Creeping thyme is not over-thick and has a low lying mat. When you walk on it, you release it’s scent and that is lovely. Also, it makes a great herb for cooking so you can trim and pluck as you wish.

In areas where the lowest cold temperature is 0 degrees F, your choices include all of the above and lilyturf, as well. Lilyturf is a really deep green and is a sturdy perennial. It dots with purplish flowers and tiny blue fruits, making your yard look decorative and colorful. As areas lose growth, simply divide and transplant from areas that are lush.

And in the really warm areas which don’t get below 25 degrees F, you can choose just about any ground cover but you must be careful about watering and sun exposure. You have the luxury of choosing from any mint, from peppermint to applemint, with peppermint having the hardest time with the heat. All of the others should grow madly and invasively, covering the yard at a rapid pace. From my own personal experience here in Florida, I would say that creeping thyme is lovely and heat resistant and ivy is another lovely choice for areas that are shady and cooler than the rest.

Also, in the hotter regions where lawns are mostly brown and scraggly, a great alternative is xerascaping. This is a type of landscaping that lessens the need for water and naturalizes the area to native landscapes. This entails replacing the grass with sand and rocks, planting dry plants like cacti and succulents and watering on a limited schedule. This is a water conservation plan and does not create lush areas for birds, butterflies or bees, as well it’s not as “comfy” for people, either. However, it does return the yard to a sustainable, natural environment.

Now that you have your new turf and have brought in the good bugs, then you need to consider some other details before actually planting in natural plants. At this point you will need to answer the question of what natural habitat you are seeking to emulate or recreate. The type of plants you choose to scape your yard with will depend upon your overall plan. If you wish to return it to the native topography of your regional area, then you should buy only local plants grown from local seeds. You can even travel through the region and take plants from open lots and fields, transport them back and transplant them in your yard.

Most naturalized yards feature native plants arranged to mimic a naturally occurring local habitat, such as A forest, wetlands or a meadow. A native plant is one which was common to your local area and was not imported from Europe or other countries during settlement. I am sure it is difficult in your area to determine which of the plants around you are native; I know it is here in Florida. We have a lot of swamp plants that have been here since the Indians came and most of these even have Indian names. But then we also have plants like “spanish needles” or “brazilian pepper”, which indicates these plants are not native even though they cover our landscapes like a scourge.

However, you do not have to choose a local landscape theme and you do not have to restrict yourself to those plants considered “native”. If you choose to emulate a swamp or a forest, it’s up to you, and the plants you use will differ. Remember, however, that if you choose to emulate a “non native” outline then you are looking forward to more maintenance and upkeep than you would have with a natural layout.

In many cases, true naturalization requires research, planning and hard work. But this is true only if you demand an aesthetic yard which demands too much conformity or artistry. The simple act of not caring for your yard at all, just letting it go to the “dogs”, so to speak., is one way of naturalization. The natural plants of your region will just take it over and so be it. But you can end up with a mess this way, with weeds growing like wildfire and no place for you to stretch out and relax. Trees and shrubs may exhibit reduced growth rates due to competition from noxious weeds and far more of the ugly bugs will take over your yard than the good guys are capable of eating. So a little planning and work is really worth the results: a lush, natural environment full of birds and butterflies, overflowing with naturalized plants and soft under the foot. Imagine your world full of mint and lavender.

Earlier, I discussed the attracting the wildlife. By naturalizing your local park or backyard, you can provide habitat for many plant and wildlife species. The kinds of wildlife will depend on the location, size and type of habitat you create. If you live close to a ravine, woodlot, field or park, you can attract a wide range of species. On the other hand, if your property is an isolated island of green space within an urban environment, you will draw fewer species. You can tailor your design to attract specific species of wildlife by creating different habitats (food and cover).

For example, a forest habitat full of tall trees such as oaks provide an upper story canopy for orioles and acorns for squirrels. Ground cover or low shrub plantings can provide habitat for song sparrows. Wildflower meadows provide habitat for butterflies. Try planting Buddlejia and watch them swarm! In some cases, you may experience conflict with some wildlife as a result of your naturalization project. For instance, you may attract species that actually end up eating each other! You can try to tailor your efforts to selectively attract species of wildlife that you like. Like planting nectar plants for hummingbirds and honeybees or planting low shade bushes to harbor frogs and lizards. However, in general, you should be prepared to be tolerant of most urban wildlife including birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians before undertaking a naturalization project.

To help you in your decision making as far as ground cover, wildlife and plants, I want to address the question of native vs non-native plants. By naturalizing your yard you promote native species, which have been beat back by invasive introduced species like kudzo, tree of heaven or purple loosestrife. It allows these native plants to compete for space and nutrition, resulting in a better habitat for wildlife and birds who depend on the native species for food and shelter.

Consider that native plants have evolved to grow in specific soil, light and moisture conditions. It’s crucial to the success of your project that you carefully assess these factors and other aspects of your property in order to choose the right plant for each location. To give your plants the best chance of survival, choose native plants that are adapted to local growing conditions instead of plants that come from different parts of the province or country. Using the native plants reducing the amount of work required of you. You don’t have to change out the soil or supply a great deal more sun or water than would be ordinary. Nature will simply take care of most of this, leaving you to do more enjoying and less toiling.

And then, of course, you must also consider environmental factors, especially those beyond your control. No matter where you live, air pollution and salt contamination can present challenges. The symptoms of salt injury are similar to drought: watch for reddish brown leaves or premature changes to autumn leaf colors and branch disfiguration. Use salt only when absolutely necessary. Sand is a good alternative to salt. Where plants will be exposed to salt (along road sides or on the coast), plant species that are tolerant to salt.

Start your plan by creating an inventory of the existing plants on your property. You’ll need to identify what you want to keep, what you want to move and what you want to replace. And, then, when you have assessed your goals and your property, it’s time to plan your naturalization project. Using an inventory and a map which shows your property boundaries and dimensions of your house, draw a picture of your present yard. It should show existing vegetation, utilities, buildings, driveways, walkways, etc. Then, on a copy of the same inventory, draw a picture of your naturalized yard. If you aren’t much of an artist and don’t like to draw (like me) remember that there are computer software available to help you with these tasks. Complete the plan first, then decide on a work program based on your time and your budget. Start small and allow the project to evolve.

Unless you intend to hire expert help, it’s a good idea to divide your project into phases. Tackling a bit at a time allows you to keep most of your yard intact and to learn from early successes and failures. Next, choose the native plants you intend to plant and determine when and how they should be planted. The final planning stage is when you actually get your hands dirty. Before you disturb any part of your property, layout your design on the ground using garden hoses, ropes, props and stakes to outline and mimic the sections or beds. This will help you visualize the layout and see how each plant complements its neighbor.

Finally, here are some points to remember as you work through the planning stages:

1. Choose native plants that will thrive in the specific climatic, soil, light and moisture conditions in the selected part of your property.

2. Choose native plants that have been grown from local seeds. The farther away you go for a tree, the less chance it has of thriving in your area and the more work you will have to do to prepare the site and care for the tree. For example, if you live in Georgia and purchase a black walnut tree in Niagara Falls, the tree will not come from stock that has adapted to Georgia’s climate.

3. Visualize how your naturalized property will change over the years and leave room for your plants to grow.

4. Know the habits of the plants – final height, spread, blooming period. Basic gardening skills still apply.

5. Use your garden hose in the summer to delineate your new planting beds. In the winter, (after Christmas) “borrow” your neighbors discarded Christmas trees and insert them into the snow around your yard to help visualize what it will look like. For deciduous trees you can use large branches from adjacent trees.

6. Keep in mind the kinds of activities you want to do in your yard during the different seasons and in the coming years.

7. Anticipate and plan for future maintenance. As some plants mature, they may need to be moved or divided to maintain balance and form. Trees and shrubs may need to be pruned to maintain the correct level of shade or filtered sunlight for the plants below.

8. Consider potential energy savings in your design. Deciduous trees planted on the east and west sides of a building will keep it cooler in the summer while allowing the sun’s rays through for heat in the winter. Plant evergreens on the northwest side of your yard to cut the force of cold winter winds. These design features will also shelter wildlife and plants in your yard from extreme hot, cold and windy weather.

9. For a natural look, plant clumps of plants and include as many layers of vegetation as possible to mimic naturally occurring communities.

I hope this post helps you get an idea of how you can naturalize your yard. It may seem like a lot of work but you can control how demanding it is by your choices. Choosing native plants, natural landscaping, ground covers and existing water sources will reduce the labor and time involved a lot.

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National Wildlife Federation Attracting Birds, Butterflies & Backyard Wildlife (National Wildlife Federation)

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2 Responses so far

  1. 1

    […] interested in what’s involved in naturalizing your yard, here are some good articles: – Tips for Naturalizing Your Yard – Biodiversity in Your Backyard – Annuals, Perennials and Bulbs […]

  2. 2

    mrtumnas said,

    One thing I don’t think many people realize is that naturalizing in the long run is probably easier than taking care of a lawn, and definetly a lot more fun.

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