Investigating Your Site, Yourself and Your Plants
OK! … Are your sleeves rolled up? … Ready to start? … Good!
We’ll start by recognizing that each of us has a slightly different background and, therefore, a different experience or comfort level with plants and landscaping. That’s to be expected. To accommodate people of all backgrounds and to not make assumptions, we intend to start at the beginning – the initial design phase – and work our way, step by step, to a functional naturescape. The Steps we will take are:
For those of you who have already completed some of these steps (i.e., investigated your site, prepared a plan, etc.), we invite you to jump ahead. For all, we suggest that you use these Steps merely to the extent you find them helpful, recognizing that there is often more than one way to accomplish anything. We suggest that you don’t get too caught up in the process, but just go for it! Remember that the ultimate goal is to have native plants on your site and to let natural systems work for you, as opposed to you spending your time, money and energy fighting against those systems.
Forest, Prairie and Desert
In the U.S., the northern Pacific rim, parts of the Rockies and the Mississippi Valley and parts east are forest land, while the plains have prairie and the arid southwest has desert. The text that follows is written with a slight bent towards naturescaping in a forest zone and to a lesser extent in a prairie zone. While the text is relevant to all three landscape zones, we include separate pages for Prairie and Desert that address the unique concerns of those areas.
We will begin the journey by having you ask (and answer) three threshold questions. The first two questions would be asked in any landscaping project, regardless of whether native plants are involved.
These three questions are:
- What do you have?
- What do you want to do with it?
- What are the right native plants?
1. What do you have?
Assessing what you have or, in other words, recognizing the “lay of your land” is the essential starting point. From this base, you can go forward deciding what to keep, what to change and where things will go. To accomplish this, it is necessary to investigate your site and ask and answer some questions – you will notice that asking and answering questions is a "basic theme" of the design phase. While the questions to ask may vary slightly based on where you live, they will typically including the following:
- Is your site sunny or shady?
- What is the path of the sun across your site (in winter and summer)?
- Is the site flat or sloped or both?
- What is the soil like – a denser clay or a looser loam/sand?
- How is soil drainage – good, fair, poor (i.e., is there standing water at times during the year)?
- Where are buildings, power lines and property lines located?
- Would the building(s) benefit from a shade tree or trees, and where would those trees be located?
Can you think of others?
It is typically helpful to walk your property (and at different times of the day/year) with pen, paper and tape measure in hand. Consider making a sketch or map of your site (or, at a minimum, the areas you’d like to naturescape). Note the location of immovable structures (houses, driveways, sidewalks, etc.) and plants you would like to keep. Make an indication of slope, wetter areas and sunny/shady areas, etc., as appropriate. Investigate the downspouts – where are they, and are they tied to the local storm sewer? Could downspout out flow be used to water plants or create a "rain garden"? Noting these and related details gives you a written record of what you have. This record may be referred to as your “baseline plan.”
2. What do YOU want to do with it?
To assist in addressing this second question, we would like to introduce the idea of “outdoor living space.” Inside a house, people often plan the use of each room and the arrangement of items in the rooms – this creates “indoor iving space.” If you do the same for your outside space, i.e., plan the use of various areas and what is in those areas – structures, furniture, patio/deck, turf, beds, etc., you are defining your “outdoor living space." The enhancement of your outdoor living space effectively increases the total amount of living space on your property.
In designing your outdoor living space the questions you might consider become more introspective – this is the investigating yourself part of this step. Since your living space is rather personal, the questions will vary from person to person, but representative questions include:
- Do you like to entertain, and what space or structures would you like for that?
- Do you want to create a sanctuary?
- What views do you want to maintain, create or block?
- What areas will be used for recreation or the dog or for a grill or swing or bench?
- What areas will be used for a vegetable garden, turf lawn, compost pile or shed?
- What area will be used for ______ (you fill in the blank)?
Is this fun, or too much to think about? While we hope and suspect that it is fun, we recognize that it can also be a lot to think about. If you are beginning to feel that it might be too much, remember that you can always pear things down and focus just
on the areas you know you want to naturescape. Alternatively, you can hire some design assistance. There are landscape design professionals who help people design outdoor living spaces on a daily basis.
With answers to the personal questions above, we now suggest that you create a “bubble diagram," by drawing shapes, e.g., bubbles, on your baseline plan that indicate the various areas and how they will be used vegetable garden,
turf area, deck, dog space, etc.). Then indicate how people will move from one area to the next. Potential movement corridors include inorganic pathways (stone, cement), organic pathways (woodchips, bark mulch), lawn (turf or other), lawn alternatives (i.e., “steppable” plants), patios, decks, driveways, etc. What you have now created is a plan that shows not only your outdoor living space, but (1) the areas you have that are available for naturescaping and (2) the conditions at those areas – sunny/shady, wet/dry, sloped/flat, etc. Not surprisingly, it is this condition information that will be used to select the right native plants.
3. What are the right native plants?
Alright! We’re making progress! From Questions 1 and 2, you now know the areas you want to naturescape and the conditions at those areas. … So
how do we figure out what are the right plants for those areas and where to plant them? The second part of this question, “Where to plant them?” will be dealt with in the next Step – Making a Plan. The first part of the question, figuring out what the right native plants are, we will deal with now.
While learning something new, like how to speak a language or use a computer, could seem daunting at times, learning one’s native plants is actually fun and can be easy (depending on where you live and what resources available to you). It also seems to be best done in stages. There are several ways to become familiar with your natives and you can decide what works best for you. Some suggestions we have include:
– Use Regional Plant List. … ;
– Visit a local native plant nursery and ask “What is that?” and “Where does it grow?” “What other plants grow with it?” Native plant nurseries close to you are listed in our Native Plant Nursery Directory. Remember that nurseries are in business to make a profit so they will likely be helpful in educating you about plants, and that their business may be in part a labor of love – meaning they truly enjoy it and want to share;
– Contact a local organization, nonprofit or governmental, that is concerned with native plants and/or environmental health issues. The Native Plant Society of your state is a good place to start. although in some areas the Native Plant Societies focus more on saving rare and endangered plants and not on common or commerically available plants. Audubon Society chapters and other local organizations might also offer classes, workshops or field trips. In some communities, native plant and ecological landscaping classes are offered by community colleges, soil and water conservation districts, municipal water boards, etc.;
– Visit a local natural area that is relatively undisturbed or has been restored. While this is almost impossible after a couple centuries of “settlement,” it does exist in some places and is extremely valuable because it will illustrate “plant communities.” Unfortunately, plants are not labeled in natural areas so while you will see them you might not know what they
are. If, however, the natural area is in a park, then there might be tours or other information available from the park management;
Lastly, as you become familiar with native plants – and you will! – it is helpful to also recognize which plants tend to grow together – both horizontally (what grows next to) and vertically (what grows above or below). A collection of different plants species that naturally grow together is often referred to as a “plant community.” There is merit in planting plant communities because you will be planting plants that are used to growing with one another and as a result get along and, well, “play fair.” PN