Marilyn L. Schweitzer’s
A Little Backyard Native Landscaping Philosophy
My interest in environmentally friendly landscaping began when my husband and I moved near Denver. Being from the Midwest, I had prepared myself to live in a far more arid area, (Denver gets about 1/3 the rainfall of Chicago). I discovered instead that over 50% of the residential water use went to maintaining landscapes, primarily bluegrass lawns. Being a bit of a lazy and frugal sort, I decided to invest in native and other drought resistant plants rather than watering a lawn or installing a sprinkler system. I found this venture both challenging and rewarding in terms of the success of the plantings and my neighbors’ approval.
When we moved to Naperville in 1987, I looked forward to a new urban landscaping adventure—one starting afresh with the general principles I had learned in Colorado. Over the last 28 years I have found people to be much more accepting of environmentally friendly landscaping. While weeding dandelions from my parkway it’s gone from being told, “You can’t control those without herbicides!” to “Don’t pull those—those are early pollinators for bees!”
My approach may not be for everyone, however, here are my tips towards going native in an urban/suburban environment:
- Have a plan of sorts. It doesn’t have to be a detailed plan, it doesn’t even need to be a drawn-up plan, and it certainly shouldn’t be a stagnant plan. Just have some sort of goal or mental picture before planting. A plan also prevents me from buying one of every species from a native plant sale or garden center. Here are a few links that show what to consider in planning a environmentally friendly landscape:
- Audubon Chicago Region guidelines for Migratory Bird Habitat
- Garden for Wildlife from the National Wildlife Federation
- The YardMap Network from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology
- Blend with your neighbors! There are many approaches to home landscaping. Smooth rather than abrupt transitions not only look better, but lead to better relations with neighbors.
- Think in terms of outdoor rooms. Your house has rooms, so why shouldn’t your yard? Outdoor “rooms” may serve different purposes such as a play space, a vegetable garden, or a place for reflection. Outdoor rooms also add a mixture of calm and intrigue. Small gardens in Japan excel at this. But, don’t forget to have a way to get from one room to another!
- Know your stuff, at least to some degree. Find plants suitable for particular spots, don’t plant anything considered invasive, and check local ordinances. You’ll never know it all and everyone will make a mistake from time to time. Visit nature preserves to see living specimens at different seasons! To learn more about native plants to consider for your home landscape, see:
- Go native, but don’t be dogmatic. Plants native to our area will generally grow better, need less care, and support more wildlife. However, it’s not always easy being green. If a beloved native species isn’t available or doesn’t “fit,” consider a non-native or hybrid that has similar environmental benefits. Also, I’d much prefer to plant a non-native than anything I suspect may have illegal roots, e.g., harvested without permission from an area such as a forest preserve or public right-of-way. The Illinois Native Plant Society has a great list of plant nurseries and plant sales (many accept or require orders in advance), but here are a few a close to Naperville:
- Do what you enjoy and are able—outsource the rest! You don’t have to do it all on your own. Learn enough to be able to assess your limitations and to communicate your goals to someone else.
- Limit pesticides and herbicides. My general rule is “I’ll leave you alone as long as you leave my house alone.” Critters don’t always understand this and some plants are particularly obnoxious, especially to other plants. I try to hand dig weeds or destroy noxious seeds before they spread throughout the neighborhood. I believe this lessens the use of herbicides by my neighbors as well. Chemicals are a last resort.
- Be patient. There’s no such thing as an instant landscape. Gardening/landscaping is more like putting money in a savings account than finding a get rich quick scheme. It may take time to mature, but there is less risk, lower initial cost, and you can take pleasure in its growth.
- Get certified. This isn’t at all like getting a certificate to practice law or even apply herbicide. It’s about promoting a favorite conservation organization and letting your neighbors know that those aren’t “just weeds growing over there.” (I’d be surprised if you’d be chastised for still having a few hostas—I wasn’t.) Here a few programs:
- Things change. Plants die, ground shifts, fences decay, plants get crowded, and things simply don’t work out as planned. This gives way to new opportunities. The death of an apple tree in our front yard gave way to new native plantings, a shift from from shade to sun, and an easier way to form a path. Divided plants and dug up seedlings are great to share with friends and neighbors.
- There’s no such thing as a perfect landscape of any kind. As with children, there will be flaws, but you still love them.