A lush, green lawn has long been considered the beauty standard for traditional Canadian yards. However, keeping that lawn just the right shade of green and cut to just the right length takes many resources. Weekly mowing is required, as is feeding, weeding and watering. If this sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is!
Maintaining the perfect lawn takes up a lot of time, money and water, but neglecting to maintain it can be even worse. Brown patches or dead lawns not only look unappealing but can also jeopardize the curb appeal and value of your house.
Fortunately, there is a solution that benefits both homeowners and the environment, while keeping a well-groomed aesthetic as a top priority. For homeowners looking for a viable alternative to a grass lawn, naturescaping is the perfect solution. Beautiful yards can come in many different styles and besides being a unique way to achieve a great looking green space, naturescaping also adds value to your property. Perhaps best of all, it does all this in an eco-friendly manner.
What is naturescaping?
Naturescaping — a term that is a portmanteau of “natural” and “landscaping” — means using plants that are native to your area instead of the non-native grasses, shrubbery, trees, or flowers that have more traditionally been used. It’s a virtually foolproof way to make certain that the plants in your yard will be ideally suited for the climate where you live, and will also simplify your gardening and landscaping routines:
- You won’t need to pay for a lawnmower or gas to run it, eliminating a time-consuming weekly chore and the associated pollution caused by lawn mowers;
- Native plants are generally more resistant to pest insects, in part because they help to create an appealing habitat and source of food for beneficial animals and insects, eliminating the need for pesticides or other aggressive bug-control efforts;
- By default, native plants are ideally adapted to their local climate and soil conditions, preventing the need for fertilizer or soil amendments;
- Native plants are also already accustomed to local rainfall and precipitation levels, significantly reducing the need for extra watering or irrigation. To fully realize this benefit, you may also want to consider xeriscaping (see below).
Naturescaping is emerging as a popular way to make properties more eco-friendly because it eliminates many of the traditional techniques and approaches that contribute to pollutants and waste in the environment. In other words, by choosing plants that can essentially take care of themselves, naturescaping allows you to enjoy doing more for the environment, and less work to maintain your yard.
What is xeriscaping?
If you love the idea of naturescaping and want to take the idea to the next level in terms of efficiency and cost-effectiveness, then you should definitely consider xeriscaping.
Xeriscaping vs Zero-scaping
Xeriscaping is the practice of using native and adapted plants that require little-to-no supplementary watering. This practice is especially important in regions that tend to be vulnerable to drought, and where homeowners must actively look for ways to conserve household water use, but it can be employed nearly anywhere with great success. Xeriscaping is often mistakenly called “zero-scaping,” perhaps based on the fact that xeric plants require very little water. In fact, the term “xeriscaping” derives from the Greek prefix “xero,” meaning dry—rather than the number zero. Even if you mistakenly use the term zeroscaping, however, most nurseries and landscapers will understand what you mean.
Benefits of xeriscaping
The immediate benefit of xeriscaping is water conservation. In times of drought, homeowners must become increasingly aware of how much water they use, and for what purposes. While watering plants would normally seem like a perfectly suitable use for water, using drinkable water to do so in times of drought can come with serious consequences. The ability to conserve water during a drought can make a dramatic difference and can be a significant financial benefit as well. Xeric plants should be able to survive and thrive with only normal levels of precipitation, only requiring additional water during extreme heat or a prolonged dry spell.
Of course, even in the absence of drought conditions, water conservation still offers benefits, both for the environment and for your wallet—and it’s been proven that xeriscaping can cut down significantly on your water bill.
How to naturescape or xeriscape
In order to naturescape or xeriscape, you will first need to modify your current perception of landscaping. If you glance through a magazine devoted to homes and gardens, you’ll likely notice many similarities, with popular landscaping design trends often being copied across different areas of the country, the continent and even the world. By incorporating eco-friendly design elements representative of your local environment, naturescaping makes it easy to create landscaping designs and features that are as unique and interesting as the homes they enhance. Naturally, there is no standard design formula for naturescaping. The types of plants you seed, how many you decide to use and the design you choose will vary according to your regional climate, the native species available and, of course, your personal taste. However, there are a number of general guidelines to keep in mind when planning out your naturescape:
- Learn about the existing conditions of the area you have in mind.
- Evaluate the possibilities, including potential alternatives to the traditional lawn.
- Sketch out a general diagram to represent the naturescape features you’d like to see in your yard.
- Strategize a detailed plan that takes into account the expected scope of effort, time and expense.
- Divide your plan into smaller manageable stages that can be put in place over the next several weeks, months or years, depending on your time and budget
While these are the five basic steps to follow when creating a naturescape, there are a few other factors you should keep in mind. For instance, you’ll need to consider what purpose you want your yard to serve. Will it be primarily a garden escape? Will you plant edible plants or species that are strictly for decoration? Do you want this outdoor space to function as an extension of your indoor living space, or more of a separate, peaceful retreat? Will it be used for sports and recreational activities? Are you planning to do lots of entertaining, which could mean incorporating an outdoor dining area, or even a screen and projector to watch movies?
The key is to really nail down the intended purpose of the green space before doing any actual work on the yard. If you doubt your green thumb abilities, or simply don’t have the time and energy to do it all yourself, many of today’s top professional landscapers are equipped to design and install eco-friendly naturescapes. If you find full-service landscape professionals are too expensive, ask if they offer consultations, which would allow you to access their knowledge and expertise as needed on an ongoing basis.
Finding native plants and flowers
Sourcing native plants and flowers for your naturescape will be a slightly different process than you’ve likely encountered with traditional landscaping flowers. Instead of heading to a gardening chain store, you’ll probably want to head to a local nursery to buy your plants instead. In many cases, the plants you find at chain stores are not grown in local greenhouses, but rather shipped up from southern nurseries on a seasonal basis. In addition to being easier and more cost-effective, generic suppliers do it this way because native plants don’t tend to be the most sought-after (and profitable) products for them to sell. Local nurseries, by contrast, often maintain their own greenhouses, or work with local growers to offer local or locally-adapted cultivars. Before you plan a trip to buy, it pays to call ahead and talk to different suppliers and nurseries to see which of them carry native plants, just to be sure.
When searching for plants that are native to your region, you can look up plants in the Native Plant Encyclopedia published by the Canadian Wildlife Federation. This is a useful tool for helping you plan your naturescaping design, as it takes the guesswork out of choosing the types of plants that will best be suited to your region and particular yard conditions. You’ll want to consider shade and sun exposure, as well as the mature size of each plant.
Once you have a wishlist or database of plants native to your area, you can start selecting plants based on the specific conditions and layout of your yard. This will help you better account for mature plant sizes and the shade they will cast when fully grown, ensuring that all of your native plant choices will be ideally positioned for the conditions they need to thrive.
Choose large plants first, such as trees, then go on to shrubs and bushes, and select your flowers and small plants last. At the same time, you’ll want to factor in bloom times for plants of all sizes. Many trees and shrubs flower beautifully and make for a stunning backdrop to smaller flowering species and plants native to your area. These are all valuable considerations to keep in mind as you review plant lists for your area.
“Hardiness” is a term used to help gardeners understand which plants are capable of growing in certain regions. You can take a look at a map of Canada’s Plant Hardiness Zones, which provides details for a variety of climate conditions on one convenient map. This is a great resource for identifying the hardiness level of your region so that you can choose plants that are most adaptable to it. Alternatively, you can talk to someone at your local nursery for advice regarding the hardiness of the region you live in and the types of plants that will likely do well in your yard.
As you research which native plant species to plant, it’s important to remember that your choices will also make your backyard more (or less) appealing for the wildlife in your area. Since many of the most popular or traditional plants originated in Europe, they may not be as attractive to wildlife for shelter or as a food source as native plants will be. By choosing carefully, you can be sure your naturescaping efforts will result in a welcoming haven for native bee species, butterflies, birds and even rodents and other mammals.
If you are interested in supporting pollinators or other particular animal species in your area, it’s a good idea to consult with local nurseries for tips on the plant preferences of various insects and creatures. The Canadian Wildlife Federation has a whole series of articles that will help you understand how to incorporate native plants to provide the ideal food source and habitat for all sorts of different species. You can even have your garden officially certified by the CWF as a wildlife habitat that helps to protect native species.
Combat invasive species
Another major benefit of naturescaping is that, by growing native plants, you are helping to combat invasive species. According to the Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health, an invasive plant is “any species, including its seeds, eggs, spores, or other biological material capable of propagating that species, that is not native to that ecosystem; and whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.” By favouring native plants, you can help to reduce the number of invasive plants in your area that are potentially causing harm to the local ecosystem.
The degree of harm that invasive species can wreak upon their adopted homes can be extreme. In June of 2018, The Washington Post reported on the invasive hogweed plant and the considerable danger it represents to humans. Not only is giant hogweed an intimidating species physically, but contact with its toxic sap can also cause serious burns and even blindness. Though not all invasive species can cause such serious harm, they can still disturb and disrupt the balance of native wildlife and plants in the area.
Watering plants in a xeriscaped yard
The importance of irrigation in xeriscaping should not be overlooked. Irrigation systems can help to make sure your plants have access to a sufficient supply of water, where and when they need it the most. According to the Landscaping Network, instead of watering plants from above the ground, directing the flow of water close to their roots not only helps them survive and look healthy, but it also trains their roots to dig down and absorb the moisture naturally located deep within the earth.
While cacti may immediately come to mind as highly suitable plants for xeriscaping, there are plenty of other options that can also thrive with minimal water and are excellent candidates for xeriscaping. Another valuable source to look to for inspiration is your nearest botanical garden, which is likely to prominently feature native, local and water-wise plants appropriate to the local climate and conditions.
Like all plants, Xeric plants will thrive best when just the right conditions are met. This means using soil that is aerated, drains quickly and absorbs water, as well as a top layer of mulch to keep water from evaporating.
Prepare to enjoy your new, eco-friendly yard
Here in the Western world, we have grown accustomed to our yards adorned with grass and tulips as the norm, but it really doesn’t make a lot of sense to invest so much time, money and effort into maintaining a grass lawn — especially given the current precarious state of the environment. By naturescaping or xeriscaping, not only are you beautifying the exterior of your house, but you are also protecting the planet by making your property more eco-friendly. Find xeriscaping inspiration and share ideas by joining online groups, touring local nurseries and botanical gardens, and even by visiting open houses to see what other homeowners have done with their yards.