By Benjamin Vogt, Houzz
For decades we’ve had landscape principles in place that might hinder us from creating thriving, sustainable landscapes. I’ve covered some of these principles, or rules, in the past, but there are more to consider amending as a new garden season is upon us.
Here are some ways that we can rethink some gardening practices so that our outdoor spaces can be what we’ve always imagined them to be — places where wildlife and people connect and grow together.
Jerry Fritz Garden Design, original photo on Houzz
1. Plant shorter flowers, grasses and ground covers among larger ones to mimic nature. There’s a tendency to think of garden borders and beds as tiered levels: short up front or on the outside edge, medium-height stuff in the middle and tall plants in the back. But our landscapes don’t need to look like bleachers at high school football games.
Go ahead and plant shorter things among taller stuff. Grow a sedge (Carex sp.) or tickseed (Coreopsis sp.) that reaches 1 foot to 2 feet tall among some 3- to 4-foot-tall little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), meadow blazingstar (Liatris ligulistylis), stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum) or Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum). The shorter plants will also act like a living mulch, mimicking what nature does by letting plants duke it out to find some equilibrium.
McKinney Photography, original photo on Houzz
2. Drop the mulched tree circles. This can’t be taken as a blanket statement. For newly planted trees, it’s been proven that a circle of mulch extending out to at least the tree’s drip line, which is how far the tree’s branches extend out, is beneficial for establishment (which can be a few years, depending on size). If you hire someone to mow your lawn, a mulch circle might dissuade anyone from getting anywhere near the tree trunk and causing damage.
I’m an advocate for removing the mulch circle as soon as possible. Trees growing among grasses or a perennial bed just seem more park-like, even natural, and you won’t have to keep applying new mulch, because the plants themselves are a living mulch.
For trees that love shady, cool root zones, like birches, consider letting the lawn grow taller, or plant perennials and shrubs in the drip zone and just beyond where feeder roots extend. Most tree feeder roots, the nonwoody roots that absorb water and nutrients, tend to be in about the top 12 inches of soil, so choosing plants whose roots can grow deeper will ensure that both trees and perennials get what they need, all while taking resources that weeds would otherwise need to get established. There are also plenty of perennials, grasses and sedges that can grow in the dry shade of mature trees.
Related: How to Keep Fruit Trees Healthy
Falling Waters Landscape, original photo on Houzz
3. Plant small perennials and trees. We are so excited when we buy new plants. We want them to be big as soon as possible — lush, flowery, showy and mature. But that takes time, just like it takes time for us to grow up. A bigger plant in a bigger pot still has to establish, and that might take as long, or even longer, than a smaller plant, which won’t be in nearly as much shock as a more mature plant when you dig it in. Smaller plants are also cheaper, so you can buy more for faster cover. Think about using plants in 3-inch pots or trays of plugs if you’re planting large amounts of grasses.
Benjamin Vogt/Monarch Gardens, original photo on Houzz
4. Ignore plant tags. Well, maybe not totally, but don’t let the plant tag at the nursery be your only, or even primary, way to judge how the plant will do in your garden. You have to know your soil, drainage and light; you also need to know the plant’s requirements. Do those requirements and your site’s conditions line up? Plant tags can’t tell you that.
Whip out the cellphone, tablet or desktop computer and research online — get information from other growers, wholesalers, nurseries, botanical gardens and regular folks like you. How is the plant performing for others, especially others who live in a similar climate, or better yet, nearby or in your eco-region? Pay special attention to those who’ve grown the plant for many years — often, the newest thing for sale at nurseries hasn’t been thoroughly tested or tested in a diversity of regions.
This is exactly why native plants are so wonderful, especially if grown from locally sourced seed. They’re already adapted to your climate, and all you have to do is match them to your site conditions.