We’ve heard from a few people over the past couple of months who’ve moved into new homes with outdoor space, want to garden with the environment in mind, and aren’t quite sure how or where to start. We’re not professional landscape designers, but we are environmentalists with a modest budget and big dreams with experience doing exactly that. We’ve learned a lot — and are learning something new all the time — as we transform our own backyard of turf grass and invasives to a wildlife- and family-friendly habitat.
Here are a few tips for getting started on your own gorgeous, peaceful, eco-friendly landscape:
- Seek inspiration from books (most of all!), Instagram, Pinterest, and websites. Grab a beer or a cup of coffee (or whatever drink you choose) and settle in with books that are both beautiful and informative, like American Woodland Garden, The American Meadow Garden, and Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes, or spend some time on Pinterest. (This activity isn’t just a great first step toward planning your garden; it’s good for the soul.) Learn what type of landscapes, designs, and plants you connect with most, bookmarking images and taking notes of plants and layouts you like. Is it the photos of dense meadows that make you happy? Do images of fern-heavy woodlands bring you a sense of calm? It might be something simple like a bench surrounded by shrubs, a patio bordered by sedges or a walkway bordered by a blend of grasses and flowers. Plants that work for a cottage in the English countryside won’t be appropriate here in Jersey, but that doesn’t mean you can’t achieve the same vibe with low-maintenance natives. See a non-native you love? Post a comment below and we can help suggest a similar native plant.
- Look for inspiration in the wild. Another great way to determine how you’d like to approach your own ecological garden is to learn more about the plant communities in natural areas you love. In the Pine Barrens, for example, you’ll notice a mix of ferns, blueberry bushes, and pines. The sad truth is that we’ve destroyed most truly natural spaces around here, so this isn’t always easy. That said, we highly recommend visiting Mt. Cuba Center and Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve and other managed natural areas that educate and inspire.
- Get to know your yard’s conditions: the light, the soil, the challenges. It’s impossible to plan well without really getting to know your space, so take the time to notice how the light changes throughout the day. Do you have a big oak tree that shades a large portion of your yard? Where are those great full sun spots perfect for a bright pollinator garden? Is there a wetter area where rain garden plants like an Elderberry makes the most sense? It’s not easy to admit that a plant you like might not be a good fit for your space, but try to embrace what you have. The more time you spend gardening, the more you’ll learn, but a baseline is what you’re aiming for here.
- Sketch out multiple plans (with pencil). This is a good excuse for getting a nice new notebook or journal. Draw a rough sketch of your property, garage, and deck or patio, and start some long-term planning. What would you like to see in 5 or 10 years? We know, for example, that we want a shade and moss garden near the house and gravel patio, and a meadow just about as large as we can make it. We want the privacy a grouping of shrubs (viburnums) between us and our neighbors will eventually bring, and a pollinator-friendly spaces. Try out a few designs, which of course will change and evolve as you go.
- Prioritize areas of your property, focusing on small areas with dense plantings over a little here and a little there. This is something we didn’t do at first, because we didn’t know as much about ecological gardening as we do now. We’d buy one or two plants of a certain species and kind of throw them in different spaces based on conditions. As we’ve learned more, our goal has become to create the masses of plants that look good and better serve native wildlife. If you don’t have a ton of money to invest all at once, focusing on certain areas and really filling them out is the way to go.
- Make a to-do list, and place invasive removal high on the list. This is the necessary but not fun part of transforming your yard. If you don’t work hard to get rid of your ivy and other aggressive non-natives, your planning work will all be in vain.
- Plant shrubs and trees as soon as possible. Oh, how we wish that we’d planted our shrubs and trees before so many of the other projects we prioritized first. Yeah, the rooms needed paint and plaster needed repair, but we would be so much closer to our dream yard if we’d just taken the small amount of time necessary to get those plants in the ground five years ago.
- Get your family involved. The more your family understands about what you want to achieve and why, the better the experience will be. Think about the way you create a home inside that’s comfortable and creative and personal. Creating a beautiful and beneficial environment outdoors can have just as significant of an impact: it’s a place to hang out, but it’s also an incredible opportunity for exploration and learning and to do something that’s bigger than you, than us.
- Don’t forget ground cover! When planning your garden, don’t forget to incorporate ground cover plants that will eventually eliminate the need for weeding and mulch.
- Just do it. Perfect is the enemy of good, and all that. Your garden will evolve. Even if you just focus on a few species you love at first, well, hey, that’s better than what you’ve got now. Don’t let research and overthinking stop you from just doing something.
- Keep learning and seeking new ideas and species. One wonderful thing about gardening with natives is that they come back year after year, but you’ll never run out of new plants to try or edits to make.