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Natural Landscaping, Philosophy

by James P. Engel, © 2003

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One objective of natural landscaping is to convert a large expanse of grass into a living functional landscape that is attractive to look at, easy to maintain and that creates valuable wildlife habitat. The more grass converted the better but it is best to start with a manageable size. Break the larger project down into smaller component parts. For example you have a one-acre yard between the house and the road. You want to landscape one half of this leaving an area immediately in front of the house with grass and a clear view to the road. Begin by creating some long landscaped strips along the edges of the yard and along the road these may be 10 to 20 ft wide and 50 to 100 feet long. These would be landscaped with an assortment of trees and shrubs. These strips would be allowed to mature for a few years. You could then create some new strips with a buffer of grass between the new and old strips. In time as the trees matured and began to shade the grass these buffer strips would be reduced or eliminated altogether.

Another strategy is to plant several trees in a natural cluster, create a grass free ring several feet in diameter around each tree, in this ring plant several shrubs under each tree. In time as the trees and shrubs grow up and begin to fill in the intervening space the grass strips can be removed or reduced.

The long-term objective is to gradually replace the large expanse of grass with landscaped islands of native trees and shrubs interspersed with mowed lawn. This cannot be accomplished over night no matter how much you desire it. Trees and shrubs need time to mature and develop.

An important design feature of natural landscaping is making the design mower friendly and low maintenance. This is accomplished by placing all plantings within distinct mulched beds thereby separating the plantings from the mowed lawn. The contours of the beds make for easy mowing and trimming. The amount of time spent mowing will decline as more lawn is converted to low maintenance woodland.

Another low maintenance practice is to mow fall leaves instead of raking. Simply chop leaves one or two times in late fall and leave them lay on the ground. They will mostly have disappeared by spring.

To make the planting affordable and manageable the tree and shrubs will be smaller than what one might buy if you were only planting one tree. Some people believe that buying a larger tree gives them a time advantage. In many cases a smaller tree planted at the same time as a larger one will surpass the larger one in growth over time. A group of trees acts much different than a single tree. The group acts as one larger biological unit. The trees grow taller faster and the trees buffer each other from the effects of wind and sunlight. A group of trees should be viewed as one living entity.

This page updated September 10, 2004