NATURESCAPING: MAKING SUSTAINABLE CHOICES IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD
by Lorraine Anderson
A vast expanse of lawn dominated the view from my backyard-facing living room windows when I moved into my townhouse three years ago. The previous owner had no doubt succumbed to a weekly summer ritual of roaring up and down with the power mower and dragging the sprinkler all over the place. Fall and spring applications of weed-and-feed were probably part of the routine. And for all this effort, there was a soul-deadening monotony to the landscape — a landscape visited by squawking blue jays and the occasional possum but otherwise devoid of wildlife.
I wanted something better: something that took less work, offered more beauty and variety, and fed my body and soul as much as it helped heal the planet. I enrolled in a class called “Naturescaping Your Yard, taught by Beth Young of Beth Young Garden Design in Corvallis. I learned how to observe my yard and understand it in ecological terms. I measured and mapped it, messed around with ideas on tracing paper for a few months, and finally came up with a plan. Then I rolled up my sleeves and got out my shovel.
I reduced the lawn to a patch about a sixth of its former size, right next to the deck where I could easily access it for sunbathing and games with my cat. I laid down cardboard where I wanted beds, excavated for a 9-by-11-foot concrete paver patio, and used the rocky clay soil to build up the beds. With my trusty square-nosed shovel, I stripped the sod from areas that would be paths and heaved these rugs of grass upside down onto the beds-to-be. Then I topped all the beds with compost and started planting a mix of native and well-adapted plants.
After a couple of summers of putting about eight hours a week into this satisfying though sweaty and back-straining toil, I have a yard that hums and buzzes with life. I harvest strawberries for my morning cereal and chard for dinner. Black-capped chickadees, cedar waxwings, finches, robins, western tanagers, and hummingbirds visit regularly, and ladybugs are everywhere. The vista from my living room windows encompasses native red-flowering currant, red-twig dogwood, vine maple, and colorful drought-tolerant lavenders, rockroses, and yarrows. The rare weed pulls easily from soil that’s becoming loose and rich.
The garden is no longer an impoverished and overcontrolled piece of ground but a living system — a naturescape.
What is Naturescaping?
Since the early 1990s, interest has been growing around the United States in the topic of “ecological” or “sustainable” gardening. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calls it “greenscaping.” The term “naturescaping” first sprouted in an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife publication in the early 1990s and has since poked up shoots all over the country. The Kemper Center for Home Gardening at the Missouri Botanical Garden published a fact sheet about it in 2005, and in 2007 an entry for naturescaping appeared in Wikipedia.
Naturescaping is a quiet revolution in the way we garden, based on an expanding awareness of our interrelationship with all living things. It’s thinking in terms of restoring our own backyard ecosystems. It’s allowing natural cycles and processes to work without interference. It’s being mindful of the impact of our choices on the wider world beyond our backyard.
Naturescaping involves making intelligent use of resources by conserving water and using organic material generated on-site to improve the nutrient and physical structure of soil. It’s using local, recycled, and/or low-impact building materials. It’s using plant species adapted to the spot where we place them and creating a welcoming habitat for wildlife. It’s working with nature to minimize the amount of time and energy required for maintenance.
Why Naturescape Your Yard?
Why naturescape? Because it will make you happy. Because it’s the right thing to do.
Commonly used landscaping and gardening practices are harmful to our rivers, our air, other species, and ourselves. We’ve been taught to plant things that have no business growing in our soil and climate, and then keep them alive with unnatural measures that waste water and pollute the environment with chemicals. We’ve learned to throw away nature’s bountiful gifts of organic matter in the form of fallen leaves and yard trimmings, only to haul in synthetic fertilizers by the fossil-fueled truckload.
Wouldn’t you rather have a backyard that thrives solely on what’s offered by its soil and climate and that rarely needs weeding, pruning, watering, fertilizing, or mowing? Your yard can be a lively outdoor space that both nourishes your hunger to be in contact with nature and contributes to the health of the whole. A naturescaped backyard leaves you the time and energy to enjoy it — it’s an oasis, not an albatross.
The key naturescaping principles answer the simple question: What would nature do?
Think of it this way: If you take any trail into an undisturbed natural area, you’ll find yourself surrounded with a harmonious profusion of plants in various stages of health and decay. Birds and butterflies lend sound and color, as do pools and rills. Rock outcroppings, snags, and tangles of fallen branches provide perches and shelter for small animals. With no gardener in evidence, nature’s garden thrives. How does nature do that?
• Nature develops landscapes over eons, perfectly suited to the conditions prevailing in the place. Take time to get to know your place on earth — its weather and seasons, plants and animals, soil and drainage patterns, natural and human history, natural processes, design challenges and opportunities — before altering it in any way.
• Nature encourages atmospheric water (rainwater or snowmelt) to soak into the ground where it falls. Nature “plants” species where they’ll survive with the amount of water provided. Become water wise and choose the best water management strategies for your land and lifestyle, which may include catching water in a cistern or rain barrel. Choose plants that can survive our summer droughts without supplementary watering.
• In nature, plants grow in ordered, long-lived, self-sustaining communities or guilds, where each plays an ecological role and may serve many purposes. There are no “weeds.” Put the right plant in the right place, based on function, needs, and natural communities.
• Nature works toward equilibrium with predator and prey species. Pests are kept in check by natural enemies. Create the right conditions to bring in birds, small animals, and beneficial insects, and let them do the pest patrol.
• Nature incorporates native wood, stone, gravel, and other materials into landscapes. For the nonplant parts of your garden, choose materials that are nontoxic, durable, recyclable, organic, biodegradable, reusable, local, indigenous, reused, and/or recycled.
• Nature builds soil by accumulating organic debris on the soil surface and breaking it down from the top. Nature does not till, dig, rake, mow, or use a leafblower. It allows leaves and dead branches to decompose where they fall. Build your soil with organic materials and the rest will follow: fewer pests and diseases, less watering, less work.
These basic principles form the foundation of naturescaping. Keep them in mind as you make choices in the process of designing and installing or renovating your garden.
Naturescaping in a Nutshell
A naturescape • is a working ecosystem • is adapted to its place on earth • is populated with plants that succeed in the climate and soil provided • features locally produced, sustainable building materials • may use decorative elements in place of plants to decrease maintenance • is a place where pests are naturally controlled • requires little supplemental water • uses no synthetic fertilizers • needs no power mowers, weed whackers, or leaf blowers • helps keep the house warm in the winter and cool in the summer • welcomes wildlife and good bugs • provides food for people and animals • doesn’t require struggle or create waste • uses all that nature provides • is a beautiful and tranquil place for people to reconnect with nature and each other — naturally.
How Much Time and Money Can Naturescaping Save You?
You might be afraid that naturescaping will cost more than you can afford, or more than it would cost to install a traditional landscape if you’re buying a new home, but in the long run naturescaping is thrifty. You can install a naturescape bit by bit, as time and money allow; you don’t necessarily have to hire a professional landscaper and have it installed all at once. And maintenance is where you’ll really save.
PlantNative, a nonprofit group dedicated to moving native plants and naturescaping into mainstream landscaping practices, estimates that maintaining a naturescape can cost up to 90 percent less (!) than keeping up a traditional lawn-centered landscape. This is because you don’t need to prune, spray, mow, or dump water on plants that you have properly selected to fit your site. You don’t need to buy and apply expensive chemicals or pay a lawn service. Your backyard gets easier to maintain because it gets more stable as the plants mature and the soil improves.
A naturescaped yard can also reduce your home energy costs. Besides providing wildlife habitat, properly positioned trees and shrubs can reduce air conditioning costs by shading your home in summer, and they can reduce heating costs by as much as 30 percent by serving as a windbreak in winter.
For More Information
The Corvallis chapter of the Northwest Earth Institute (http://www.nwei.org/) sponsors a “Passport to Healthy Gardens” tour every September. On September 13, 2009, the author’s garden was included on the tour.
Check out the articles and fact sheets on the Ecological Landscaping Association website (www.ecolandscaping.org).
Visit the PlantNative website (www.plantnative.org) for a tutorial on how to create a native plant landscape.
Go to the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District website (http://emswcd.org/in-your-yard/naturescaping/) for information about upcoming naturescaping workshops and about how to create a naturescape in eight steps.
Two recent books are also great sources of information:
Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies by Owen Dell (For Dummies, 2009)
Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, 2nd edition, by Toby Hemenway (Chelsea Green, 2009)
Lorraine Anderson is a freelance writer and editor living in Corvallis. She’s the editor of Naturescape Your Yard: A Step-by-Step Guide for Homeowners (working title) by Beth O’Donnell Young, due in bookstores November 2011.