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Natural Landscaping, Getting Started

by James P. Engel, © 2003

Table of Contents Previous Next

Begin the landscape project by preparing the soil surface. If you are converting lawn you will need to kill or smother the grass and then provide some type of mulch to help retard the regrowth of weeds and grass. You can use a herbicide to treat the area several days to a week before starting the actual excavation. You can strip the top layer of sod using a spade or turf cutter or you can rototill the area. In every case the likelihood of weed seeds or remaining roots resprouting is high, so it is necessary to install some form of mulch after final plant installation to help suppress unwanted plants (also called weeds). I like to recommend the most cost effective materials but you can select other materials that are readily available to you. I believe in spreading a solid layer of newspaper, cardboard or other biodegradable paper material over the surface of the topsoil before adding the finished mulch layer. This paper material creates an impenetrable barrier between the soil and the surface to prevent weed seed germination and root regrowth. I don’t recommend the use of synthetic mulch fabrics because they do not biodegrade, are costly and can create litter problems in the future. Over the paper layer add a finish layer of bark mulch. If using paper the bark mulch can be in a layer thick enough to just cover the paper. If you are not using a paper layer then you need to use a heavier application layer of mulch to prevent weeds from growing through the mulch.

I recommend using bark mulch when first constructing a natural landscape because it creates a very finished and attractive project that is an accepted norm for landscaping. This is critical when the beds are near the house, are highly visible or must blend with nearby managed properties. Over time the cost of maintaining bark mulch can be quite expensive. Most bark mulches sold today are very finely ground and composted. These make a poor mulch for suppressing weeds. Try and find the coarsest bark mulch available or unprocessed bark. Wood chips also make a fine natural mulch.

All plants produce their own natural mulch that is right at hand and free to the user. This mulch is in the form of fallen leaves. These leaves can be raked from the yard and spread evenly under the trees and shrubs. You may choose to chop these leaves before spreading to prevent the wind from blowing them around but this isn’t necessarily a problem. If you want to maintain the more finished look of bark mulch you can restrict the application to the more visible outer edges as the inner surfaces will be hidden by the growing plants.

Fallen leaves are a valuable natural commodity that should not be wasted. Disposing of fallen leaves off site is not only a waste of labor and energy but also a waste of the fertilizer value and environmental benefits of this natural mulch. In nature the annual accumulation of fallen leaves creates a layer of leaf litter that serves several key functions. The leaf litter serves to retain soil moisture and to keep the soil cool. The nutrients contained in the leaf litter are slowly released as it decomposes and made available for new plant growth. This is an efficient nutrient recycling system that benefits all woodland plants and organisms. The leaf litter layer is an ecosystem in itself containing countless microorganisms and invertebrates and serving as an important food source for ground feeding birds. Creating and preserving this important community is one goal of natural landscaping and serves to support and maintain the health of the landscape plants.

This page updated September 10, 2004