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Naturalistic Landscapes for Impatient Gardeners
August 26, 2001 by Evelyn J. Hadden

Unfortunately, this article won't reveal how to "force" plants to bloom faster. That would compromise the healthy root systems they're building while they appear (sometimes for years) to be doing nothing aboveground. Instead I offer three strategies for gradually converting a garden of work-intensive show plants to a lower-maintenance, natural-looking landscape without giving up all your gratification.

You may have noticed I said all up there. That's because, with these strategies, you'll have to trade some of that instant gratification for other things you might want, such as:
  • color and interest throughout the year;
  • butterflies, birds, and other wildlife visitors;
  • decreasing maintenance; and
  • increasing variety and mystery.

The following strategies can be mixed and matched. I hope you find one or more that will help you transition your yard to a more natural landscape and enjoy the process.

Strategy #1: The Section-by-Section Approach

Convert your land to a more natural landscape section by section. This is also called "phased development."

Step 1: Develop a rough idea for the design of your entire property before you do anything else. For instance, know that you want to have a woodland around the edges of the property, savanna in the center, and a medicinal prairie surrounding the patio. You may find it easiest to pattern different zones in your new landscape after ecosystems native to your region.

Step 2: Decide which area of your property you want to convert first. Consider the following:
  • how large the area is;
  • how you'll convert it—smother the lawn, interplant among existing species, take up the pavers;
  • what materials you'll need; and
  • how much time and money you want to devote to its conversion.

Step 3: Prepare the ground as needed and add plants. Your options for planting include:
  • spend more on large plants,
  • buy seedlings in bulk, and
  • sow seed.
These options aren't mutually exclusive. You'll probably do some of each. Choose the combination that works within your budget and provides enough interest to curb your impatience. Things to keep in mind when adding plants:
  • Some seeds are cheaper than others.
  • Some seeds germinate easier than others.
  • Seed mixes that are customized for your region and property will outperform generic mixes.
  • Make sure you aren't setting up your new natural landscape at the cost of an existing one.
  • You can often buy a potted perennial and immediately divide it into half-a-dozen plants.
  • Farmer's markets often offer discounted seedlings grown locally.
  • Some plants self-sow easily, given the right conditions, and thus will produce free seedlings for you.
  • Planting young woody plants (called "liners" or "saplings" and often sold bare-root instead of in pots) gives you greater control over their final forms through early pruning, and they'll develop sturdier, healthier root systems because they weren't forced to produce leaves and flowers out of proportion to their pot-limited roots. Their good start means that they'll most likely grow faster than big transplants would, so that in a few years your young liners will be larger than the costlier big-pot plants would have been.
  • If you can take an interest in the small plants and follow their stages of growth, you'll be able to plant a lot more individuals initially, and a fuller, richer landscape will reward you after a few years.
While your new planting area settles in, you can continue to enjoy and dabble with the rest of your garden just as you always have.

Strategy #2: The Add-A-Few Approach

An alternative to the section-wise approach is to start converting your land all at once, but do it by adding plants throughout, until gradually the area is filled with the "permanent" plants. In the meantime, allow temporary plants (instant gratification) to hold the areas between permanent ones.

Step 1: Develop a rough design, as in the section-wise approach.

Step 2: Decide which permanent species to add first. These can be major structural plants, your favorite plants, or a batch you received from a neighbor or happened to buy on sale. You may want to consider the following factors when deciding which plants to start with:
  • value over all four seasons;
  • time needed to reach maturity;
  • whether you'll have to wait on certain species to add other species (i.e. trees first before shade-loving forbs), and how long the wait might be;
  • which species will add most aesthetically to your landscape; and
  • which will promote a good environment for other plants in their area (nitrogen-fixers, sod-busters, taprooted nutrient collectors).
Step 3: Plant the chosen permanent species, then fill in between them with annuals or other temporary plants. Keep in mind that you may not replace your temporary plants for several years, in which case short-lived perennials would provide a lower-maintenance groundcover than annuals that only last one season.

Here are some proposed planting stages for different ecosystems:
  • Woodland: Decide where your canopy trees will go and plant them first. Grow a green mulch like white clover under them to increase soil fertility. When trees are tall enough to cast the required shade, smother the green mulch and plant the lower layers of the woodland.

  • Grassland: Start by seeding a weed-free soil bed with a mix of desired species. Throughout the bed, plant large-sized potted specimens of key species and/or slow growers. They'll have a chance to establish before the seedlings are large enough to compete, and you'll have something to look at during the first few years.

    Alternatively, start by sowing a mix of perennial grasses and forbs along with some annual wildflowers to give a show the first year. Overseed with annuals the second year to produce another good show while the perennials build their root systems. By the third year, most of the perennials will be flowering, and sowing more annual seed may be unnecessary and may even interfere with the perennials' growth.

  • Pond: The most important first step is to remove any sod within a buffer zone around the water's edge and replant a few key native species to filter runoff and build habitat. Sod attracts geese and degrades water quality. Many products exist to help you quickly establish a plant buffer in a wet area. Examples include floating island beds, mat for shoreline, willow and dogwood bundles (which you can make yourself), and more.

  • Alpine scree: Place rocks first, and also slowest-growing plants to give them a chance to establish without competition.

  • Herbal carpet: Cover bare ground or smothered lawn with gravel and plant strategically placed "seed" plants, which will self-sow and give you more plants the following year. Alternatively, sow low annuals like sweet alyssum in unplanted areas of your herbal carpet to keep weeds down until you are ready to plant. TIP : In a mixed planting, include some self-sowers. They will find and fill gaps, meaning less chance of unwanted plants moving into the area and thus less weeding for you.
While your slower permanent plants develop underground structure, your temporary plants will distract you with a pretty aboveground display, and they'll start attracting butterflies and other wildlife right away.

Strategy #3: Diversion

Another tactic altogether is to add instant structure to the area you're converting, or divert attention to another area, using one or more of the following elements:
  • Fast-growing plants
  • Potted plants set beside or inside planted areas
  • Hardscape such as patio, deck, or paths
  • Trelliage, arbors, pergolas, and other garden structures
  • Sculptures, birdbaths, sundials, or other focal ornaments

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