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Tips to Make a “Messy” Wildlife Garden Look Good

Snapdragons line a garden path. Photo by plant4wildlife/flickr.
Snapdragons line a garden path. Photo by plant4wildlife/flickr.

One of the top worries we hear from people considering wildlife-friendly landscaping (or even just reducing the size of their manicured lawn) is a concern 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 yards, 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.

Sissinghurst gardens. Photo © Ursula Haigh
Create a meadow as a lawn alternative. Photo by Ursula Haigh.

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, New York, 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

Some types of planting decisions can make a space look messier than it really is. One example is planting annuals too far apart. Sometimes this is because plants are expensive and the number needed to fill a space was underestimated during planning. Other times the spacing instructions that came with the plant are misleading.

In order to accurately space plants, first check your USDA planting zone. In 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 5–6 months, not the 8 months that may be assumed on the planting tag. Space plants too far apart, like 12 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 some areas, such as in 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 18 inches apart; many larger perennials are best planted 24 or even 30 inches apart.

Line of Sight. In the photo above notice how removing some of the vegetation makes the house visible from the street. This is one of those tricks for improving the perception of landscaping. House is hidden; and, as a result, the yard is seen as unkempt and overgrown. House is visible; and, suddenly a yard seems cared for. Photo © Steve Elgersma
Line of Sight. This sequence shows how removing some yard vegetation can make a house visible from the street. This is one of those tricks for improving the perception of landscaping. If the house is hidden, the yard can be seen as unkempt and overgrown. If the house is visible, suddenly the yard seems cared for. Photo by Steve Elgersma.
Messy garden in the Adirondacks. By Carol Norquist.
A native woodland garden. Photo by Carol Norquist.

Err on the Side of Flowers

Skew plants toward those with large and showy 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.

The Cornell Lab

All About Birds
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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library