Tips to Make a “Messy” Wildlife Garden Look Good
August 26, 2015
One of the top worries we hear about at Habitat Network from people considering wildlife-friendly landscaping (or even just reducing the size of their manicured lawn) is a fear that it will look too messy. Like it or not, native and wildlife-friendly gardening has a reputation for not being tidy. We think, with a few little tricks, however, you can make even the wildest yard look tame enough to fit in on your block.
Design can use cultural values and traditions for the appearance of landscape to place ecological function in a recognizable context. ~Joan Iverson Nassauer
When it comes to front yard landscapes neighborhood norms dominate people’s preferences. Research has shown that more than anything else, preferences for landscapes are determined by a set of implicit rules about what yards should look like. This is problematic when you want a landscape that not only appeals to your neighbors but also benefits wildlife. The solution? Including visible design cues of human intention in your wildlife-friendly landscape.
Mow the Edges
Meadows can be really beautiful, but in the context of a yard they can look unkempt, or even weedy. Mowing a thin strip along human paths, like streets and sidewalks, is a clear cue to onlookers that the property is actively managed and can transform “untidy” into elegant.
The grounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, NY, are maintained this way, and it results in a lovely space, not only for wildlife–since most of the open areas are left to grow wild–but for visitors and staff who enjoy wandering the maintained pathways.
Space Plants Wisely
Sometimes we make planting errors that negatively affect the look of a space. One of these is when we plant our annuals too far apart. Sometimes this is because plants are expensive and the number needed to fill a space was underestimated, and other times the spacing instructions that came with the plant are misleading. In order to accurately space plants you need to take into account your USDA planting zone (Don’t know it? Look it up on our Local Resources Page). In USDA Zones 2-5, annuals may need to be placed closer together by as much as a third to a half as close as the tags say. The northern growing season for annuals is five or six months, not the eight months that may be assumed on the planting tag. Space plants too far apart, like twelve inches for a salvia, and they won’t fill out and start touching leaves until right around the first fall frost. (note: Salvias are perennial in certain parts of the country, like California where there are at least 18 native species).
On the other hand, perennials, like shrubs, are often spaced too closely together. As they grow to their full size they are crowded and look messy. Sometimes, they are pruned to within an inch of their lives when mature to keep from crowding out other landscaping (for more on this visit this great article from Houzz). It is important to take into account their full size when planting, even if it looks bare when they are first planted. Most perennials need to be spaced around eighteen inches apart; many larger perennials are best planted twenty-four or even thirty inches apart.
Err on the Side of Flowers
Skew plants towards those with large and showing flowers. While many trees, shrubs and herbs have smaller flowers, some natives are known for showy flowers (like Eastern Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida), and Matilija Poppies (Romneya coulteri)). Using a disproportionately large number of these kinds of natives (disproportionate to their normal occurrence in a natural landscape) indicates that this is a designed space.
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