A NATURESCAPE PLAN
To avoid confusion, second guessing and
simply stated, headaches, a plan
is a cherished item. It is perhaps the single most important
item in your naturescaping effort. While a written plan
is best, you may be able to get by with a "mental" plan,
depending on how your mind works.
On this page, we present one method of
achieving a naturescaping plan, i.e., deciding what to
plant where. Our goal here is to present enough information
to empower you to make a plan that works for you and your situation. Recall that the plan is a place to start and can be tweaked as you progress. Note also that despite our efforts below, there are many considerations in making
a plan and you may desire to engage the assistance of a
design professional - a list of which is provided in
our Landscape Professionals
Directory. So ... let us dive in.
On the previous page, you were introduced
to the idea of "outdoor living space"
and you made a baseline plan.
The baseline plan indicated the various areas of your
yard (based on use), how to get from one area to another,
and which areas would be naturescaped. On this page,
we will address making the plan for the latter
- the naturescape areas.
In general, a plan will show the type
of plants to be planted and where they are to be planted.
A plan may also indicate the relative size of each plant,
particularly the large ones. This may be done by placing a dot or small circle that represents the trunk/crown and a larger circle that represents the average diameter, for example, the 20 year size is often used in conventional landscape design.
For smaller "herbaceous"
plants, there may not be sufficient space to indicate
each plant. In this case, one may make some other notation
that suggests the general placement, species and quantity (either of individual plants or combinations of plants.
To begin the process, we suggest that
you have your baseline plan and a list of common native
plants and their attributes. The list can come from
the Regional Plant Lists provided here, from a local
nursery or community service organization or from another
source or compilation you have found/developed.
Three Step Approach
Our simple three step approach
is effectively selecting and placing your trees first
(step one), then selecting and placing your shrubs (step
two), followed by selecting and placing your herbaceous
plants (step three). Not so intimidating, eh?
- Select and place your trees
Due to their size and the influence
they will have on your site, place your trees first.
The selection process can begin with eliminating those
trees that would not work well on your site –
too large, don’t meet site conditions, etc.,
and then selecting your favorite(s) among those that
remain. Consider the size of your lot, the location
of structures and utility lines and how large of a
tree you would like. Size might eliminate several
candidates. Next consider whether an evergreen or
deciduous tree is appropriate based on what is available
as a native, whether you want shade in summer only,
and which views you may want to block. This eliminates
more trees, often leaving you with a few from which
to choose. Next confirm that the trees you like are
OK with the sun, water and soil conditions of the
site. Normally, this is a non-issue because, in general,
the trees evolved to grow in your location. There
may, however, be some exceptions, for example, a forest
understory tree might not like full sun. If you have
any concerns, check the Regional Plant List or a field
guide or search the web.
One of the last considerations in tree placement is
whether to plant trees individually or in a small group,
i.e., a “grove.” Some trees, such as aspen,
birch, alder, tend to grow in small groups. Thus, to
encourage a nature look, it is best to plant more than
one of these trees. If in doubt, ask nursery staff or
consult a field guide as to whether plants tend to grow
in groves. The trees in your “grove” may
be tightly or loosely distributed, based on your preference.
While other trees may be planted individually, it
is still a good idea to plant more than one, if your
space permits. This creates a more natural setting,
allowing trees to reproduce and eliminates a collection
of individual specimen – the natural history
museum or “half of Noah’s Ark” look.
Lastly, with placing your trees, recognize that they
will grow in over time. Either be patient or over
plant with the idea of culling some back as they grow
into each other.
- Next select your
Like trees, shrubs are woody plants. In contrast
to trees, however, shrubs tend to be smaller and multi-stemmed
(not a single trunk). Using a plant list, consider
the sun, shade, soil and moisture conditions of your
site. Begin selection based on shade, sun and mixed-light
conditions, noticing that some shrubs grow in multiple
light conditions. Once in the right light category,
select the characteristics that you like – evergreen/deciduous,
color, food, habitat, etc. With these shrubs (and
the herbaceous plants below) you are effectively filling-in
the space between one tree and the next and between
the trees and other areas of the landscape –
turf area, pathways, structures, garden. Note shrub
height, selecting smaller shrubs if you’d like
to taper down in transition from one zone to the next.
As to arrangement, as a general rule, we suggest
planting an odd number of any given shrub and “mixing
it up,” randomly planting your shrubs. They
will let you know if the are happy or not. Best
to simply put them in the ground, water them through
the first summer or two, and see what happens. You
can plant more of the plants that did well, remove
those that did not, and try some other plants, if
Remember, in all of this, there is no right or
wrong steps. Try and learn, and try again. It can
be a fascinating journey.
- Then select your herbaceous
Herbaceous plants - perennials and annuals - are smaller,
non-woody plants that typically go dormant in summer
drought and/or during winter, particularly in the
Similar to the approach with shrubs, select your
herbaceous plants based on light, soil and moisture
requirements, primarily light requirements. Pick
sun-liking plants for sun and the converse for shade,
noting that many plants tolerate partial shade or
Next look at growth characteristics. Note that
some herbaceous plants are good at spreading out
and filling in a space, while other do not spread
considerably, yet are quite attractive in bloom.
This latter group we'll refer to as the "accent"
plants, and there are often bulb plants such as
lilies, trillium and the like. We recommend planting
plants that will provide you some coverage and then peppering
them with accent plants.
Plant what you like (and what you can find in nurseries and/or legally collect), and see what happens.
It is important to recognize that
in the digging and planting, the bare earth will
be exposed. Opportunistic plants, mostly weeds,
will sprout from any exposed earth. Therefore, it
is important to cover exposed earth with a wanted
plant or mulch, straw, or glass clippings, etc.
Other considerations in designing a naturescape
- Sunlight/Shade. Notice the path
of the sun relative to your building. By leaving your
building "exposed" to the sun you can achieve
passive solar heating. An appropriately placed tree,
on the other hand, can significantly lower an air
conditioning bill or simply provide a deliciously
cooler summertime house. A deciduous tree permits
passive solar heating in the winter and cooling shade
in the summer.
- Culling. If one or two trees of
a certain species are desired in a mature naturescape,
it may be desirable to plant several trees of that
species initially and selectively remove trees as
they grow out. The photograph below shows several
young hemlocks filling-in a clearing. Only one or
two will ultimately survive. We can implement and
manage the same process. By doing this, we cover the
amount of ground that the mature trees will cover,
and don't have to worry about weeding or other maintenance
concerns in that area. When one of the small tress
looks particularly stressed, we remove it (and perhaps
we begin removal prior to signs of stress, to selectively
thin in a manner that retains the trees we want).
- Stormwater. Reducing storm
water run-off from your property can significantly
benefit human health as well as the health of
the ecosystem. This can be done by the creation
of on-site rain gardens (aka bioswales) or other
moisture-absorbing or distributing features.
Rain gardens can be arranged to accommodate
water from downspouts or other sources.
Note that if a rain garden is implemented, it should
be located at least ten feet from the foundation
of a house with a basement
and at least six feet if there is no basement.
The creation of a rain garden, essentially a depression
that collects some water, also permits
the incorporation of a greater diversity of
plants (rushes, spireas, shrub dogwoods, etc.),
thereby fostering varied "looks" on your property
and "habitat diversity." For more information
on residential rain gardens, click on the pamphlet
image below that will take you to plant lists
for sun and shade and installation information
for creating a rain garden in the Pacific northwest. The process in analogous for other reasons.
Increasing the amount of organic material on
or in your soil also helps reduce stormwater
run-off because this material acts like a big
sponge. This is perhaps best done by applying
leaf mulch or a like substance. Leaf mulch is
discussed in the site preparation step which
- Other Thoughts. There are
many other thoughts or factors that one might
consideration in landscape design and plant
selection. These include placing out colored
landscaping flags, with different colors representing
different plants, to get a visual feel for a
proposed layout (see photo). See photos below.
Other thoughts or factors include selecting the same
or similar plants for opposite sides of a walkway
to give the feel of walking "through" a landspace, rather than dividing
it; making any grade adjustments, include those
that compensate for added soil/mulch height due to
any added organic material; and either creating
a "view-shed" or blocking unwanted
views. See our hedge section on the Special
Considerations page for hedge plant suggestions.
- Have fun! It is a wonderful,
creative, dynamic, topical and interesting thing
that you are doing. Have fun with it. It is
not traditional landscaping, so when it does
not look like traditional landscaping, don't
worry. And, perhaps most of all, don't take
it too seriously. Be dynamic - live and grow
- just like your landscape!
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