Beyond the lawn
How to get started
Beyond the lawn
In recent years, there has been a shift away from carefully manicured lawns and gardens and toward more natural-looking, informal landscapes that make greater use of native plants that require little maintenance. Here are some ways to turn all or part of your property into a natural landscape, one that is beautiful, requires less effort to maintain, and provides a haven for many species of birds, insects and animals.
A lawn can be a beautiful part of the home landscape, but it shouldn't be the only part. With thoughtful plant selection and placement, it's easy to design a low-maintenance yard that still gives the appearance of neatness and care. What's more, by incorporating certain plants into the landscape, you can improve critical habitat for songbirds, butterflies, and other wildlife.
Our fascination with lawns and lawn care comes at a steep cost. Over 25 million acres of America - an area roughly the size of Pennsylvania - is devoted to lawn grass. This green carpet has replaced the habitats of our native plants, songbirds and other wildlife; the summer air is filled with pollution and noise from gasoline-powered mowers; and lawn-care tasks eat up millions of hours each year that could be spent more productively or enjoyably.
It wasn't always this way, of course. Early settlers once maintained a small clearing around their houses with the help of an occasional "mowing" from sheep, cattle or a scythe. Their home landscapes included gardens, fruit trees, shrubs and trees, which were surrounded by pastures and cropland. When the first reel mower was introduced in 1830, manicured lawns quickly became the vogue at estates and parks. Yet the popularity of lawns didn't really explode until after World War II, when new suburban neighborhoods were developed with rolling carpets of turf.
How to get started
Ground Covers for Natural Gardens
(Common Name, Botanical Name)
Japanese spurge, Pachysandra terminalis
Sweet woodruff, Galium odoratum
Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis
Bugleweed, Ajuga spp.
Maidenhair fern, Adiantum ped
Christmas fern, Polystichum acrostichoides
Ostrich fern, Matteuccia pensylvatica
Cinnamon fern, Osmunda cinnamomea
Periwinkle, Vinca minor
Solomon's-seal, Polygonatum biflorum
Astilbe, Astilbe spp.
Bleeding heart, Dicentra spp.
Daylilies, Hemerocallis spp.
Creeping thyme, Thymus praecox ssp. arcticus
Creeping juniper, Juniperus horizontalis
Rockcress, Arabis spp.
Ornamental grasses, various spp
Lady's-mantle, Alchemilla spp.
Oak, Quercus spp.
Wild cherry, Prunus pensylvanica
White pine, Pinus strobus
Service berry, Amelanchier spp.
Crabapple, Malus spp.
Rhododendron, Rhododendron spp.
Honeysuckle, Lonicera spp.
Trumpet vine, Campsis radicans
Viburnum, Viburnum spp.
Chokecherry, Prunus virginiana
Barberry, Berberis spp.
Brambles, Rubus spp.
Bee Balm, Monarda spp.
Speedwell, Veronica spp.
Plants for Butterfly Gardens
Dogwood Butterfly bush
Poplar, aspen and cottonwood
Clover Butterfly weed
Willow Purple coneflower
The most obvious place to begin turning your lawn into a natural landscape is in those areas where grass doesn't thrive in the first place: shaded areas under trees, wet sections of the yard, steep banks and rocky outcroppings. These places are all perfect candidates for alternative plantings.
Next, do some research and develop a plan of what you'd like to see growing in these "problem" areas. Start small and replant step by step. Here are a few things to remember as you go about creating an attractive and low-maintenance yard:
1. Go for a natural look rather than a formal one.
2. Select a limited number of plant varieties and bunch them together in drifts.
3. Plant groundcovers.
4. Select plants appropriate to your climate.
5. Incorporate paved surfaces and fences.
The Natural Look.
A formal yard has lots of open space, with plants strategically placed on the edges of the lawn. The natural landscape, however, incorporates more native plants - trees, shrubs, ornamental grasses, and flowering perennials - that are grouped together in free-flowing swaths around the property.
You can incorporate these plants into your current landscape, create special areas (like a cactus garden or a bird or butterfly sanctuary), or simply allow sections of your yard to 'go wild." Many nurseries and garden centers now carry a good selection of hardy native plants.
Whatever you do, though, please do not remove plants from the wild to transplant into your garden. Many wild plant species are rare or endangered and could be irretrievably lost if they do not survive the move to your yard.
Planting in Drifts.
Traditional gardens tend to incorporate a large number of different plant varieties, but keeping all those competing plants in their place can be hard work. To avoid this predicament, limit the number of plant varieties, and group the plants together, giving them enough elbow room so that they will grow for many years without crowding each other out. You'll find that, in time, the shrubs and perennials will merge into one large planting that helps suppress weeds and that creates a safe haven for birds, toads, and other small creatures.
These plants form a ground-hugging companion for taller plants and protect the soil from erosion as they spread. Plus, when they're mature, they keep weeds and other unwanted plants from gaining a foothold. Although it takes a little patience and effort to establish ground covers, their year-round color and interest makes it well worth the wait.
For shaded areas, try planting periwinkle (Vinca minor) under your trees, or incorporate ferns, lily-of-the-valley, and pachysandra in shady corners of the yard. For spring color, plant spring-blooming bulbs, Solomon's-seal, and old-fashioned bleeding-heart (Dicentra spectabilis) between the ground cover plants.
For sunny, dry areas, daylilies are one of the easiest, fastest-spreading perennial ground covers you can grow. Creeping thyme (Thymus praecox spp. arcticus, also sold as T. serpyllum), as well as juniper, euonymus, and creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera) also make a nice carpet in sunny spots.
While trees, shrubs, and perennials may be the predominant elements in a natural landscape, they are only part of a much larger ecosystem. From bees, birds, and butterflies to larger animals like squirrels and chipmunks, the natural landscape - even on a modest backyard scale - can play host to a fascinating diversity of creatures. Encouraging wildlife to come into your garden requires a slight shift in how we perceive our home landscapes.
Features like brush piles, compost heaps, hedgerows, and stone walls may seem like utilitarian areas of the yard, but they can provide shelter for a range of small animals that need a place to call home. Once you start looking at your yard from a wild perspective (a "bird"s-eye view,? one might say), you will undoubtedly discover other features that, while they might be relatively unimportant to you, provide wonderful habitat for wildlife.
A standing trunk of a dead tree, for instance, might represent home (or the diner) for a surprisingly large range of birds, insects, and mammals. Rather than removing it, you might want to leave it right where it is, lopping off any dangerous or unsightly limbs and letting nature take its course with the rest. A dead tree trunk, surrounded by daylilies or lilies-of-the-valley, can even become a beautiful landscape feature, evoking visions of ancient ruins or natural decay.
Now look over your landscape through this new, wild perspective, and imagine what you would need to survive there. You'd need food, of course, and a source of water. You'd also need a place to take shelter from weather and hungry predators. To create a truly diverse landscape, you will have to provide for these needs.
There are a couple of ways to do this.
1. Identify the "host plants" that are food sources for the particular creatures you want to attract. For example, the monarch butterfly has a special relationship with the milkweed plant and hummingbirds love fuchsia.
2. Provide artificial shelters or food sources. Erecting houses designed to attract bluebirds or purple martins, or simply put out seed and suet in feeders. Set up hummingbird feeders to provide nectar. Buy or build shelters for bats, butterflies, toads and other creatures. Once you know which kinds of houses certain animals prefer, you can even make them out of recycled materials. For instance, a broken terra-cotta turned upside down is a perfect home for toads.
3. Provide water. A pond will of course attract a diversity of wildlife, from dragonflies to migrating waterfowl. But a small pool or fountain can liven up a natural landscape. Even a half whiskey barrel sunk into the ground can provide the perfect home for minnows, water striders, and a family of frogs.
Plants and habitat requirements obviously vary for different birds, insects, and animals, and separate regions of the country have different native species. So decide what kinds of native species you'd like to attract to your garden, then consult field guides or one of the many books listed below.
Planting Noah's Garden: Further Adventures in Backyard Ecology by Sara Stein (Houghton Mifflin, 1997).
Going Native: Biodiversity in Our Own Backyards ed. Janet Marinelli (Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 1994).
The National Wildlife Federation's Guide to Gardening for Wildlife by Craig Tufts and Peter Loewer, (Rodale, 1995).
The Bird Garden, by Stephen W. Kress (Dorling Kindersley, 1995).
Hummingbird Gardens: Attracting Nature's Jewels to Your Backyard by Nancy L. Newfield and Barbara Nielsen (Chapters, 1996).
Impeccable Birdfeeding by Bill Adler, Jr. (Chicago Review Press, 1992).
Butterfly Garden Books
Butterfly Gardening: Creating Summer Magic in Your Garden by the Xerces Society, Sierra Club Books, 1990.
Butterfly Gardens: Luring Nature's Loveliest Pollinators to Your Yard ed. Alcinda Lewis, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 1995.
The Butterfly Garden: Turning Your Garden, Window Box, or Backyard into a Beautiful Home for Butterflies by Mathew Tekulsky, Harvard Common Press, 1985.
Bat Conservation International
National Audubon Society
National Wildlife Federation
North American Butterfly Association