A Landscape Challenge

by Cindy Gilberg

One of our All-American icons is the lawn—expanses of irrigated, fertilized, pest-free and well-groomed green carpet. So popular is this verdant blanket that turf is considered the #1 crop in the U.S., with an estimated 40 million acres in cultivation. The American lawn comprises a majority of our human landscapes and requires a lot of resource input in the form of time, water, fertilizer, pesticides and fuel for mowing.

Lawn provides pathways for movement through the landscape, is a visual base for the surrounding landscape and a place where people can play and sit. While lawn fits into the human ‘habitat’, it offers very little habitat for nature’s creatures—insects, birds and other wildlife. And this summer’s heat and drought pointed out that to keep lawns green and lush under extreme conditions requires large amounts of water, often more water than is used to produce many of our food crops.

Here is the landscape challenge: find ways to reduce your turf by 50%, replacing it with resilient and hardy native plants. Accomplish this by identifying areas of your property that are high use and high traffic zones. It makes sense for these to be mowed grass or a permeable surface such as a flagstone patio, permeable pavers, etc. Next, look at other areas of your property—under trees, difficult–to-mow slopes or large, open expanses of lawn. These are perfect opportunities for mixed plantings of native trees, shrubs and low-maintenance ground covers using a design style that can be formal, traditional or naturalistic. This approach includes aesthetics while addressing the need for a more sustainable use of the land as well as habitat for our local ecosystems.

For example, identify a few large trees that are close to each other under which you can create a native shade garden. Plant smaller trees such as dogwood and serviceberry with masses of shrubs like wild hydrangea, coral berry or fragrant sumac. Around the edges of these plantings use native perennial ground covers such as oak sedge, wild ginger and Senecio. Along the boundary of your property try similar plantings of small trees, for example redbud, fringetree, or hawthorn. Add large shrubs like hazelnut and viburnum. Finish the scene with low growing shrubs and perennials to visually tie the bed together. Always plant a combination of trees, shrubs and perennials to add visual interest and fulfill habitat requirements. Include plants that provide flowers, seeds and berries in various seasons for the same reason.

Native landscapes such as these, once established, require less water to sustain them and pesticide use is discouraged in order to maintain a healthy habitat. Cutting and/or pruning is done once or twice a year, depending on which plants are used. Compare this in time and money spent to lawn care which requires ample watering, fertilizing, pesticides and weekly mowing.

“Bringing Nature Home” by Doug Tallamy is an excellent resource on why and how to create native landscapes. For more how-to on a local level, GrowNative (www.grownative.org) and Shaw Nature Reserve (www.shawnature.org) promote regionally native plants as solutions to many of our landscape challenges and are great resources to refer to. Recently, Keep America Beautiful (www.kab.org) announced a National Planting Day promotion this fall to “celebrate the value and power of native species in restoring ecological balance to the environment, while creating greener, more beautiful communities.”

Take time this winter to assess your property and how you can work towards a more diverse landscape that includes native plants.

Cindy Gilberg is a horticulturist and Missouri native who writes, teaches and does consulting and design work in the St Louis area. Her work focuses on both native plant landscapes as well as other styles of landscape design. Contact: cindy.gilberg@gmail.com or www.cindygilberg.com

This column is written in collaboration with Shaw Nature Reserve (Missouri Botanical Garden) in partnership with the Missouri Department of Conservation. Visit the Whitmire Wildflower Garden (at Shaw Nature Reserve), a 5-acre display garden, for ideas on native plant landscaping. Native plant conservation and the promotion of native plants in our landscapes is vital to restoring the rich biodiversity of our region.