7 Ways to Find Your Garden’s Voice

By Susan Tweit, Houzz

When I give talks on designing with natives, I remember the words of Lady Bird Johnson, former First Lady of the U.S. and founder of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas: “Wherever I go in America, I like it when the land speaks its own language in its own regional accent.” The “language” she was referring to is the look and feel that native plants give; the particular colors, shapes, patterns, scents and sense of place created by these rooted beings and the communities they have evolved in over millennia.

When we bring species native to our regions back into our yards and landscapes, we design gardens that return the regional accent. Here are some tips for creating landscapes that incorporate native plants in pleasing and sustainable ways.

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Rikki Snyder, original photo on Houzz

1. Understand what “native” means for your landscape. A “native” plant is generally considered to be one that has evolved in a particular region or place, developing a network of relationships over millennia with the other living things there, from microbes in the soil to pollinators and grazers and, of course, other plants. In short, it is a long-term member of the community of that place and region.

The point of bringing native plants back to our local landscapes is to return the community of nature to our daily lives, and to heal the ecosystems of our parts of this earth. It’s about restoring relationships between plants and each other, and between plants and other kinds of living things. It’s about reweaving community. So “native” in this sense means local.

The trees in this New England garden, with their glorious scarlet leaves, would not be appropriate natives to add to my yard in northwest Wyoming, for instance. Yes, they are native to the North American continent. But the relationships that sustain these stunning trees are with species of the forests of the well-watered and comparatively lush Northeast, not the arid and high-elevation sagebrush country of the West.



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Susan J Tweit, original photo on Houzz

2. Learn to recognize natives where you are. Autumn colors for my region come from local native plants, such as the hunter-orange skunkbush sumac (Rhus trilobata) and golden-flowered rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa), shown here. There are also the plummy-crimson leaves of chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), the brilliant gold of quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) and the lemon to amber leaves of eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides) and narrowleaf cottonwood (Populus angustifolia) trees.

We all garden with plants native to other places, whether in our use of edibles or favorite flowering plants, or the bulbs we love in spring and fall. But when we want to design natives into our landscapes, that means local natives, species that know the conditions of the region in their genes, that know who (as in, which other species) to “call in” by broadcasting plants’ unique language of aromatic chemicals on the airwaves for pollination, pest control, company and to spread their seeds and fruits.

“Native” means plants that speak with the “regional accent,” as Lady Bird Johnson put it, of nature in a specific place. Their colors, shapes and relationships are part of the local vernacular.



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Susan J Tweit, original photo on Houzz

3. Choose your style. To design a landscape with natives, you first need to know your style. What kinds of landscapes appeal to you?
• Formal, with plants carefully placed and often shaped and trimmed? This photo shows a formal border that uses native plants, including golden Heliopsis and purple spotted Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum) beneath an overstory of large native ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) trees.
• The masses of color and form of cottage gardens?
• Naturalistic gardens designed to echo prairie, meadow, woodland, forest, cliff or alpine areas?
• Minimalist, focusing on a few types of plants in formal arrangements?
• A combination of some of the above?

Not sure of your style? Look at the style of the buildings in your yard, and consider what kind of landscape style will enhance them. Collect photos of gardens that appeal to you, and consider what style or styles they represent.

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Susan J Tweit, original photo on Houzz

4. Know your site. Good design works with the site, not against it. Learn your site as your plants will know it, and you’ll be able to match plants and the design with the place. Spend time outside sitting in one place to get a feel for what it would be like to be “planted” there.
• Is your site on a slope? Flat? A combination? Does it have areas where water doesn’t drain well? Or that drain too well?
• What’s the overall aspect? This means the direction the site faces. North- and northeast-facing sites are the coolest orientation, receiving the least winter sun; south- and southwest-facing sites are the warmest. Also note where existing structures, including walls, fences and buildings, cast shade or reflect stored solar energy.
• Know your soil texture: Is it sandy and well-draining? Is it more like clay, holding moisture tightly? Somewhere in between?
• Understand the wind channels and frost pockets, and the various other microclimates created by the combination of topography and garden structures, including fences and walls.



Related: Sit on a New Stylish Outdoor Bench

The minimalist formal garden seen here is on a former industrial parcel at The Railyard, a park in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The design makes the most of difficult conditions, a flat high-desert site with highly disturbed clay soils, by emphasizing native and drought-tolerant plants. It also honors the site’s history as a rail yard, in the shape of the paths and gardens and the industrial materials used for the hardscape.

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Susan J Tweit, original photo on Houzz

5. Echo the terroir. Terroir is a French word used mostly when discussing wine and local food; it comes from the Latin word “terra,” or earth. It refers to the unique flavor that soil and weather give to the fruits of any given place. It’s about what makes the nature of any locality distinct and special, that “regional accent” Lady Bird Johnson referred to. Native plants contribute to the terroir of our gardens and landscapes. Terroir includes:
• The look and feel of surrounding landscapes, including rock types, the shapes of dominant landmarks and the color and arrangement of rock formations, plus seasonal natural fragrances or any other distinct characteristics
• The characteristic native plant species (trees, shrubs, grasses and wildflowers)
• Plant spacing and pattern (woodland, dense forest, shrubland or prairie)

The native-plant-dominated suburban yard seen here was designed specifically to evoke the feel of the foothills of Colorado’s Front Range, where prairie merges into foothills and woodlands. The fall color and overall shrubby form of the garden come from an overstory of regional native shrubs and small trees.

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Susan J Tweit, original photo on Houzz

6. Integrate key species. When you look at nearby wild landscapes, what native plant species dominate?

This photo shows a border of native bunch grasses lending early-fall color to the formal landscape around a Wyoming museum. Even though much of the landscape is lawn, the designer used native limestone rocks and key species of trees, shrubs, grasses and perennial wildflowers in the borders to evoke surrounding wild landscapes. The trees we see include ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) and Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum). The grasses and shrubs visible are little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa).
• In a forest or woodland, what is the overstory? Coniferous trees? If so, which ones? Deciduous trees? Of those, see which are the dominant kinds. Is there a mix of several species, or one kind? What is the understory? Also see what vines are growing between the understory and overstory, and if there are ground cover species.
• In a grassland or meadow, what are the dominant grasses? Wildflowers? Are there shrubs, and if so, which species?

“Key species” also refers to natives that have crucial relationships with pollinators, songbirds or other species. Knowing your key native species will help you design a healthy garden, one that sustains the relationships needed for the community to function.

Related: Plant Beautiful Perennials for Vibrant Fall Color

7. Design for a flourishing garden community. By bringing the relationships they have formed with other species over the millennia into our gardens, native plants create community and habitat, often attracting pollinators, birds and other species we have never seen before to our yards. That’s generally a good thing.
• Pick native plants that add color, texture and form, as well as food and shelter for pollinators and songbirds in all seasons. If your garden is interesting aesthetically year-round, it is also likely to be welcoming to wildlife.
• Think in terms of layers — not just overstory and understory but all the layers within those. If you have space for trees, include trees that will grow tall and others that are shorter, so that your overstory has upper, middle and lower stories. Recognize that tall shrubs and large bunch grasses can also serve as overstory, and lower ones can be understory. Make layers at the ground level too, with some plants that hug the soil, others at midground height and taller plants. Use vines as connections between those layers.
• Open your eyes and ears to new species appearing as you move in native plants.

And listen for your garden’s “song” as native plants return the land’s unique voice.




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