A Year of New-Home Landscaping and What I’ve Learned

A Year of New-Home Landscaping and What I’ve Learned

  • By Susan Martin
  • /
  • March 2021-Vol.7, No.3
  • /
  • 6 Comments

After l listened to a webinar with Doug Tallamy (2/19/21), expert in insect and plant interrelationships and author of Bringing Nature Home and Nature’s Best Hope, I started to change my perspective on setting out a new garden design.  My original goal for redoing the mid-90s landscape was to use native plantings to create a low-maintenance design, and that’s still my goal. I am intrigued, however, by the idea of working with the concept of productive vs. ornamental.

This article will focus on several ideas:

  • A description of our current landscape and how I want that to evolve
  • Staying true to the idea of low maintenance
  • Incorporating the concept of productive native plants
  • Sharing what I have learned about using databases to select productive plants

CURRENT LANDSCAPE

About one year ago, we moved to a property of 7 acres, with much of that acreage still devoted to growing hay. There were only 8 trees when we moved in: 3 weeping willows; a sad Japanese maple; an ornamental plum and a redbud, both removed; a failing weeping cherry in the center of the circular drive; and a crepe myrtle. The “garden” in the center of the drive had cypress shrubs in addition to the weeping cherry and the property is in full sun. The house is built up on a mound of imported topsoil; the south side of the property is low and very wet; the east, west, and north sides are flatter and dryer, with some seasonal wetness. Our landscape is similar to many new construction sites, although the house is about 25 years old. I think many homeowners might face these same challenges to varying degrees.

 

Front circle at start of project Photo: Susan Martin

Front circle one year later Photo: Susan Martin

Much of the soil is poor, because all the exposed surfaces such as the center planting area in the circular drive, foundation beds, and tree rings were all covered in white landscape stone. Although the stone is an effective weed deterrent, it doesn’t break down and enrich the soil; it doesn’t allow for adding any amendments; it compacts the soil; and it heats up plantings to a severe degree in the summer. Removing the landscape rocks was a priority. We then added several species of native trees to provide some shade, to provide privacy on the southern side, to help soak up the moisture on that same side, and to get the ball rolling on bringing back a healthy ecosystem. River birch (Betula nigra), feature photo at the top of this article, was one of the species we chose for the wet area.

SOIL TESTING, pH, AND WORKING WITH SITE CONDITIONS

One of the first things we did was to get a soil test through the Virginia Cooperative Extension office.  We tested three areas: the front of the house, the back, and the circular “garden” in the driveway. The front and the circular garden had acidic soil with a pH of 6.0. The back yard was even more acidic with a pH of 5.5.

Now let’s consider what these pH numbers mean for planting on the property. As the soil test indicated, our property is very acidic, particularly in the back area. I recently re-listened to a webinar by Larry Weaner (2020) from New Directions in American Landscaping (NDAL). His presentation addressed how acidic soil could work in our favor to help create a low-maintenance, native plant landscape. Grass requires a neutral to basic soil. Grass needs more nutrients to flourish, and basic soil more readily releases nutrients. A pH of about 6.0-7.2 is considered optimal for cool-season grasses. Kentucky bluegrass, one of the most widely used cool-season turfgrasses, grows best when soil pH is between 6.5 and 7.2. To encourage grass in our acidic soil, we would need to add limestone to raise the pH. A note on pH: although the differences noted above may not seem significant, there is a ten-fold increase in acidity for every decrease by one whole pH unit. For example, a soil with a pH of 5.5 is ten times more acid than a soil with a pH of 6.5, and a soil with pH of 4.5 is 100 times more acid than the soil with a pH of 6.5.

Many native meadow perennials, on the other hand, can flourish in acidic, low-nutrient soil; they are also drought resistant. Native meadow perennials are suited to our full-sun property. To encourage native perennials over turf, I should add sulfur if the soil is alkaline. But I don’t need to add sulfur because our soil is already acidic. I don’t need to add fertilizer, because in general, native meadow perennials don’t need rich soil. Unlike turf, they also don’t require supplemental watering, except while getting established. Native plants have developed an evolutionary history with native insects. This host-plant specialization creates a healthy food web where natural insect predators will reduce the need for insecticides. Conditions naturally favor what I would like to do, which means that maintenance will be lower. I’ll be working with our conditions, rather than trying to manipulate them into something else.

PLANT CHARACTERISTICS AND LOW MAINTENANCE

Larry Weaner also addressed how to use plant characteristics in the design of low-maintenance landscapes. Before I look at specific plants, I’ll consider how to work with, rather than against, the natural behavior of plant groups.

Root Systems in Maintenance Planning

Plants have either spreading root systems (often shallow, fibrous root systems), or clumping root systems (more compact, growing down more than out, with a tap root). Rhizomatic systems are thick, fleshy underground stems that spread outward from the plant like spreading root systems. Rhizomes may be either spreading or clumping.

Suckering shrubs with fringe tree, Chionanthus virginicus ‘Dirr’ Photo: Susan Martin

When considering plant selection for a particular area, it is important to consider whether plants have a clumping growth habit, or a spreading growth habit. In general, maintenance may be minimized in a smaller, well-defined garden by using plants that are clumpers, rather than spreaders. Of course, some plants spread slowly, and some spread more aggressively. For larger spaces that you want to fill, spreaders fit the bill.

From Central to Perimeter Garden Locations

You may want to consider plants with spreading versus clumping root systems in light of proximity to the house. It takes time and effort to fight against aggressive spreading when that characteristic is not suited to the site. As you move away from the house, large drifts of spreading perennials or suckering woody plants may be exactly what you want. This will reduce maintenance by reducing the need to weed. It is also a great way to expand the plant base without buying new plants for large areas. Therefore, for our circular garden, I would lean towards perennials with clumping root systems. For areas that will be naturalized away from the house, I would lean heavily toward plants with spreading root systems.

In the photo above, the suckering shrubs on the right include Sweet Pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia Ruby Spice) and Sweetspire Little Henry‘ (Itea virginica), both native to coastal Virginia. Itea virginica is larval host for the Spring Azure butterfly. Bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds use the flowers of Clethra alnifolia. These shrubs are planted in a wet area of our landscape.

Using Competition for Selection and Maintenance

Plan a competitive composition of plants so that there will be little open space to allow weeds to thrive. Plant taller plants with spreading roots that will crowd out weeds that need sunlight for seed germination. Plants that spread aggressively will “win” over clumping plants, but this competition needs time to play out. If you are gardening close to the house, you may not want to wait for the winners to take control. For these areas, you may want to weed out undesirables. The further you move away from the house, the more patient you may become with allowing competition to produce winners.

Weeding and Disturbance

Weeding is a two-edged sword: we want to avoid herbicides, and so we pull weeds manually. Pulling, however, disturbs the soil. Disturbance creates empty spaces which allows seeds to germinate. Rather than pulling weeds, Larry Weaner favors cutting weeds below the canopy of surrounding plants; this will reduce available sunlight and prevent weeds from germinating. He also advises cutting and applying an herbicide, if necessary, with a paint applicator. Over time, the seed bank will change from weed seed to the native plant seeds.

It Takes Time

Weaner pointed out that low maintenance landscapes are not low maintenance when they’re being established. It takes time for plants to work out their natural dominance. It takes time to change the seed bank. You can’t just take it easy in the beginning.

ORNAMENTAL VS. PRODUCTIVE LANDSCAPES

Beauty is in the Eye of the Caterpillar

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail caterpillar Photo: Jacy Lucier, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

When we view our landscape as a place where we can set up the right conditions for nature to thrive, our focus shifts from designing ornamental landscapes to designing productive landscapes. Doug Tallamy emphasizes that instead of focusing on native plants, we should be focusing on productive native plants. How is “productive” defined? Plants that provide food for caterpillars are productive plants.  Surprisingly, 5% of native plants provide 75% of food for caterpillars. The most important change we can accomplish as gardeners is to develop landscapes that support caterpillars. Recent research by Doug Tallamy demonstrates that for a place to support a diversity of life, native plant species must represent at least 70% of the biomass in the landscape. Below this critical threshold, food webs collapse and habitats unravel. When designing new areas in our landscape, or adding to existing gardens, 70% is an important guideline. But remember, within this 70%, some plants are much more effective than others in supporting caterpillars. 

Using Keystone Plants

Oak (Quercus) is caterpillar host plant for 513 moths and butterflies Photo: Native Plant Finder by Zip Code

Tallamy describes the most productive native plants as keystone plants. These species attract the most caterpillars to our gardens, which means these plants will contribute the most to our ecosystems. Oaks (Quercus spp.) are the royal family of keystone plants. Tallamy has pointed out that there are over 90 species of oaks, including shrub-like oaks and low-growing oaks. Other examples of keystone genera include: Prunus (cherry), Salix (willow), Betula (birch), Acer (maple, boxelder) and Malus (crabapple, apple). He advises us to be “fussy” when selecting plants because insect herbivores are specialists. These insects can develop and reproduce only on those plants with whom they have an evolutionary history. This is why using locally-native plants is important. The Native Plant Finder (By Zipcode), described below, lists plants in order of their productivity, i.e., their value as keystone plants.

USING DATABASES TO SELECT NATIVES

Selecting the right plants requires a commitment of time and effort, but once the plantings are in place, maintenance will be reduced, and the natural machinery of rebuilding ecosystems will start to whir. There are many websites that provide databases for native plants, but we’ll look at these four:

 

Native Plant Finder (By Zip Code) is a database that gets down to the local level when searching for plants native to your area. Plants can be searched based on category such as trees and shrubs, wildflowers, etc. It does not give plant requirements such as moisture or sunlight. This resource ranks native plants by the number of butterfly and moth species that use them. Doug Tallamy is a research partner in this database.

Piedmont Natives Plant Database lets you search by categories such as trees and shrubs, wildflowers, etc., and provides information on plant needs, plant characteristics, and total number of plants that meet your search criteria. You can’t filter your search based on plant needs or characteristics. It also provides a link to the USDA Database.

The DCR-Department of Conservation and Recreation database lists plants native to Virginia according to 3 regions: Mountains, Piedmont, and Coastal. It also allows you to specify plant type, and requirements of light and moisture, plant height, and attraction to bees, monarchs, butterflies, and hummingbirds.

Audubon Native Plants Database By Zip Code, allows you to search for birds that are often attracted to native plants in your local area. You can enter shrubs, trees, perennials, grasses, etc. As an example, a search on shrubs in zip code 22901 produced 34 best shrub results out of a total of 450 total results. The birds attracted to each shrub are also listed. For Southern Arrowwood (Viburnum dentanum), for example, 18 bird species are listed.

 

AN EXAMPLE OF USING DATABASES FOR PLANT SELECTION

Wildflowers

I had identified meadow perennials as good candidates for our sunny site. Let’s look at the Piedmont Native Plant Database and see if purple cone flower (Echinacea) is native to Albemarle County. It is not; that perennial is native to central to southeastern United States, with some species native to Illinois and the Chicago region. This database does list 178 wildflowers that are native to Albemarle. Let’s check the Native Plant Finder(By Zip Code) for wildflowers native to zip code 22901. In this database, native plants are ranked in order of the number of butterfly and moth species that use them as host plants for caterpillars. The top 4 species are especially productive: goldenrod (Solidago); aster; strawberry; and sunflower (Helianthus), and so I add these to my list. Would I also include Echinacea among my meadow plant selections? I certainly would as it is one of my favorites, and the seeds are attractive to birds, especially goldfinches, in the winter. I will continue to use this database to check on the attractiveness of plants to caterpillars. By emphasizing local wildflowers, I will be sure to provide food for caterpillars that have evolved with native plants local to our area.

Top four wildflowers for zip code 22901, Native Plant Finder by Zip Code

Shrubs

Finding local shrubs that meet our site conditions was less successful. The Piedmont Native Plant Database provides a chart of native plants with a description of plant needs. A total of 62 shrubs are identified as native to Albemarle County. I searched the list for shrubs that need full sun, and medium/high moisture. I did this by skimming the list; there isn’t a search function based on sun and moisture requirements. One plant met these criteria: Swamp rose (Rosa pallustris). This shrub likes boggy-to-wet soils in full sun, but it also prefers acidic, organically rich soil. Our soil is not organically rich. There has been no leaf litter enriching the soil in our treeless landscape. I will still investigate swamp rose. Although it’s native to Albemarle, it’s not native to our local zip code of 22901.

It is difficult to find native shrubs that like both high moisture and full sun, so I decided to be less restrictive, and use a database that defines Virginia by region, rather than by county. I searched The DCR-Department of Conservation and Recreation for Virginia using the Piedmont region as the locale, and I screened for plant conditions of full sun and high moisture. This database has easy-to-use search tools. I found 8 shrubs. Our property has a lot of deer pressure because of the hay fields. Therefore, I decided at this point to eliminate 7 out of 8 shrubs. Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) seems to remain a good candidate. It’s described as being tolerant of dry-to-wet conditions.

I am confused, however, because although this shrub is listed as an Albemarle County native, it did not surface in my original search based on high-moisture needs or tolerance. When I went back to check, I realized that, although the database shows plant characteristics in general, it didn’t supply that information for ninebark, and so I had missed adding the bush to my high-moisture list. Ninebark is listed in the Native Plant Finder based on zip code 22901. That site doesn’t include moisture needs or sunlight requirements. It is used as an initial screen for identifying local natives, and as a source for caterpillar productivity. Ninebark is ranked number 15 in trees and shrubs because it is a host shrub for 31 species of caterpillars. Sounds good. I plan to give it a try, but I’ll look for the straight species and avoid the many ninebark cultivars that offer pretty foliage other than green. Although I might like the jazzier colors, caterpillars do not. They seem to like green. One last check at the Audubon database shows that ninebark is attractive to many bird species.

Young Southern Arrowwood (Viburnum dentanum) Photo: Susan Martin

When I searched on the Native Plant Finder by Zip code 22901, four viburnum shrubs came up, including Southern Arrowwood (Viburnum dentanum) and Blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium). Both are listed on the Virginia DCR database for the Piedmont region as growing in moderate moisture, and they are in moderate moisture spots in our landscape. I also know from experience that although these shrubs are often listed as deer resistant, they need protection when young or the deer will defoliate them. Also, be mindful that Blackhaw can reach up to 30′ tall at maturity, another characteristic to evaluate in selection and placement.

This shrub search demonstration isn’t a nice, neat example; in fact, it’s cumbersome. However, I think it’s a good example of how to use the different databases for specific information. It also demonstrates how sensitive the searches are to criteria such as dry, medium moisture, or high moisture. Or, full sun vs. part shade. Different databases also classify plants as having somewhat different plant requirements. It takes a bit of experimentation!

 

WORKING TOGETHER

Homegrown National Park is an organization founded by Doug Tallamy and Michelle Alfandari. This fascinatingly simple concept calls on people to make small changes in their landscapes that, over time, together with the efforts of their neighbors, will make a huge change in the health of our ecosystem. It’s a way for the little guy to become a hero — who doesn’t want to be a part of that! As Doug Tallamy points out:

83% of land in the U.S. is privately owned. If we planted native on 50% of private land, we would restore biodiversity…and we can do it starting NOW.

See Homegrown National Park for information—and inspiration!

SUMMARY

The ecological benefits of planting with natives are well-recognized. This article explores how to use plant characteristics in designing low-maintenance, native landscapes. Select productive native plants that provide food for caterpillars and attract pollinators. As Tallamy advises, be fussy when selecting plants: 5% of native plants provide 75% of caterpillar food. Rebuilding a healthy ecosystem starts with the selection of keystone plants that are native to your area and suited to your growing conditions. Choosing well-suited plants means lower maintenance. Become familiar with using native plant databases that will help you select the right plants. Remember that you’re not alone in your efforts. Think of your landscape as one patch in the larger ecosystem of other home gardens.

SOURCES

“Dealing with Weeds, Deer, and Other Garden Hurdles,” Larry Weaner, New Directions in American Landscapes (NDAL), https://ndal.org/

“Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard,” Douglas W. Tallamy, GreenScapes Symposium, 2/19/21.

Natures’s Best Hope, Douglas W. Tallamy, Timber Press, 2019

“Keystone Plants,” Pennsylvania Native Plant Society, http://www.panativeplantsociety.org/uploads/1/7/8/2/17829397/notes_nps_sept19.pdf

“Rewilding,” https://www.ecolandscaping.org/02/designing-ecological-landscapes/edible-landscaping/what-is-rewilding/

“Liming Turfgrass Areas,” PennState Extension, https://extension.psu.edu/liming-turfgrass-areas

“Low Maintenance Landscaping,” University of Missouri Extension, https://extension.missouri.edu/publications/g6902

“How to Start a Native Plant Garden: Easy, Beautiful Home Gardens that Support the Local Ecology,” Virginia Native Plant Society, https://vnps.org/how-to-start-a-native-plant-garden/

“Native Plants for the Small Yard,” Ecological Landscape Alliance, https://www.ecolandscaping.org/11/developing-healthy-landscapes/ecological-landscaping-101/native-plants-for-the-small-yard-easy-beautiful-home-gardens-that-support-the-local-ecology/

“Dividing Perennials,” Clemson Cooperative Extension, https://hgic.clemson.edu/factsheet/dividing-perennials/ (discusses spreading vs. clumping roots and lists plants in each category)

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, https://www.wildflower.org/plants/

Piedmont Natives Plant Database, http://webapps.albemarle.org/NativePlants/default.aspx

Native Plant Finder (by Zip Code, ranked by the number of butterfly and moth species that use them as host plants for their caterpillars), https://www.nwf.org/nativePlantFinder/plants

Audubon Native Plant List By Zip Code, https://www.audubon.org/native-plants/search?zipcode=22901&active_tab=best_results&attribute=&attribute_tier1=&resource=&resource_tier1=&bird_type=&bird_type_tier1=&page=1&page_tier1=1

DCR-Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, https://www.dcr.virginia.gov/natural-heritage/native-plants-finder

Feature Photo: River Birch (Betula nigra), larval host plant for 321 moths and butterflies Photo: John Ruter, University of Georgia, Bugwood.org

 

 

6 Comments

  1. Sylvia (Ward) Rae

    Wow Sue! What a great article. You covered it all. Even after all my years gardening and all the knowledge I’ve accumulated through my years as a master gardener, this was still a very interesting and very useful article. For a beginner I think it would be even more valuable and inspiring.
    I enjoy all your articles, but this one was definitely over the top. Thank you.
    Sylvia

    1. Susan Martin

      Sylvia, thank you so much for letting me know you found this helpful. Learning is such a big part of why we find gardening so enjoyable. The native plant movement is really expanding, isn’t it? We started with the idea of selecting native plants, then we moved on to selecting productive native plants. Now we have databases that can help us select local, productive plants. With the help of Doug Tallamy, we’re all trying to fit the pieces together. It’s a lot!
      Sue

  2. Monek Lisbon

    Thank you for sharing your landscaping journey. I am new to the landscaping industry and business. I am doing my best to learn from experts like you. I like your content and I really gathered a lot of new information and knowledge. I am excited to learn more about your skills. Cheers, Monek

  3. Harold Hofstetter

    It is a beautiful article stating a whole year of home landscaping. Anyone searching for same topic may find their shelter here. I am sure many people will come to read this in future. Great blog indeed, will visit again future to read more!!

    1. Susan Martin

      Glad you found this helpful. As an update, of the shrubs I planted in the full sun, high moisture location, Itea virginica ‘Little Henry’ has been most successful. It’s starting to sucker a little and has been the most resistant to deer. Clethra alnifolia ‘Ruby Spice’ did okay in the site conditions but suffered from heavy deer browse. I have since moved that to another spot closer to the house and am trying to use deer repellent spray to get the foliage going. The site proved a little too wet for the American Beautyberry shrub. You’ll note that both the itea and the clethra shrubs that I used are cultivars of shrubs native to the coastal area of VA. The Plant Virginia Natives Campaign is compiling a list of cultivars of native VA plants. For more background info on this idea, you could refer to this March 2020 article from The Garden Shed, “Native Species or Cultivars of Native Plants — Does It Matter?” Thanks for commenting.

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