It’s easy for me to be convinced that native plants deserve to be planted and highlighted in our gardens, but how do I convince my clients? Read along as I explain my process for ecological landscape design, a method I call Residential Restoration.
I use the term Residential Restoration to describe a holistic and ecological approach to managing privately owned land while emphasizing aesthetics and design. There are several key elements that I incorporate into a design that speak to this process, my method for landscape design at Native Valley Design.
One element is the identification and removal of invasive species. Depending on the size, location and nature of a residential property this includes both widespread escaped invasives that most people can agree are undesirable (think thistles, brooms, Himalayan blackberry) and those invasives that have been cultivated and catered to by the nursery and landscape industry over the years (think ivies, cotoneaster, butterfly bush and Mexican feather grass, to name a few). These sometimes take more convincing and I do this by offering native and non-native alternatives that provide similar color, structure and feel without jeopardizing habitat and ultimately becoming a nuisance.
It is typical to find these landscape cultivated invasives on many urban and suburban properties and this is a really great place for some Residential Restoration to begin. By removing these species we open up space for natives to take their place. While the removal process can be challenging there are rewards at the end. Many of these cultivated invasives have maintenance issues, become habitat for unwanted creatures, reduce usable space and may even be an eyesore. Their removal and replacement is an opportunity to improve all of these challenges.
Another element in this process is to determine the use and need for a lawn. I am not totally against lawns, and there are some great native seed and sod options out there that are beautiful and require less water than standard turf in order to be sustained. However, my baseline requirement for a lawn is whether or not it has a real purpose, and for me that purpose is whether or not it gets used and how often.
It’s easy enough to argue that a lawn in the front yard of a property (unless that is the only land space you have) is probably not being “used”. It’s likely a fixture of fitting in with the neighborhood, a remnant of the landscape design past. These front lawns have the potential to be great native habitat gardens, and I promise your Lawn to Garden renovation will be no more work than the feeding, watering and fertilizing maintenance schedule your current lawn already demands of you.
Backyards and side yards often have lawns too. Are they being used? Ask yourself this question. By who, for what? If the answer is no then maybe no lawn is needed at all. If the answer is yes then dive deeper into understanding your lawn requirements and I will find the right seed mix and size that appropriately meets your needs. And maybe you just like looking at something green year round. This can be achieved by species other than standard turf, it can even be achieved through native plants.
Lawn removal is about so much more than saving water. It’s about reducing a monoculture that offers no habitat and creating space and opportunity for a beautiful and equally inviting garden.
Finding ways to slow, spread and sink water on site is another element of the Residential Restoration method. Depending on site needs and strategies this can be a huge and complicated undertaking or simply digging a small basin for a rain garden in your yard with gutters directly feeding it during a rain event. Small rain gardens and swales are by far the easiest and most approachable way to keep water on site and out of storm drains which eventually dump into the ocean creating an ultimate loss to your garden and your local watershed. Some sites I have worked on did not involve a water catchment feature, but they did involved removing a significant amount of impermeable paving and lawn both of which reduce the amount of water that can sink and stay on the property. By replacing these features with gardens that are properly mulched we have already done a service.
That brings me to the next element, Permeable Hardscape. I make a point to incorporate hardscape elements that allow for water to sink in through joints as opposed to sheeting off. I also examine all current hardscaping at a residence and determine what could be replaced and what is no longer needed. Some homeowners inherit an RV pad (or several) that has no purpose for their personal needs, these get removed. In this case there is another opportunity to potentially recycle materials. Concrete removal is expensive and it creates waste. But the bonus of more usable space, better drainage and the option to re-purpose the material on site (as pavers, a dry stack wall, fill for a gabion wall, and more) outweighs keeping the impermeable paving.
There are typically a number or ways that existing materials on site (and off) can be recycled and incorporated into a design, and look amazing. Recycling materials always factors in as an element in Residential Restoration. One of the simplest ways to do this (and it's totally free) is to sheet mulch your new Lawn to Garden site with a combination of recycled cardboard from a local store and wood chips from a local tree service company.
With foundational elements addressed I then develop a planting palette that is site specific, water and fire wise and heavy on the natives. One of the areas I am constantly working on are ways to highlight native plants in a way that both serves a habitat building and aesthetic purpose. This approach sometimes means incorporating non-natives as complimentary plants. My method for this is to do a lot of research and make sure that these non-natives are serving multiple purposes in order to be a candidate for the palette. Non-native candidates include: edibles, non-invasives, comparable water needs, attract pollinators, and offer seasonal interest.
The new Plant Palette along with existing plantings at a site require careful consideration for irrigation needs. Planting in hydrozones (where plants are grouped with similar water needs) and configuring water saving irrigation techniques such as drip irrigation and climate sensor controllers are all elements in the Residential Restoration process. I also look at current irrigation systems and plantings to identify if design renovations are required of existing gardens. Sometimes overhead spray is directly landing on the trunk of an oak tree. Ultimately this continued practice will jeopardize the lifespan of your oak as will drip irrigation supporting a water-thirsty planting over its root zone. Oak loving, dry shade compatible natives are the clear alternative.
No restoration process is complete without a proper monitor and maintenance plan. A garden is living, the earth is changing, it’s going to require care and encouragement as it transforms. While I strive to offer low care designs, there is no such thing as a maintenance free landscape. In fact, when it comes to fire safety the number one thing you can do on your property is provide adequate and regular maintenance in the landscape. Developing a plan from the beginning that meets both landscape requirements and homeowner restrictions is critical to the success of a new landscape.
Lastly, I believe that Residential Restoration has the power to match the important work that large scale public restoration projects already achieve. It is an accessible way to bring a slice of nature into your own personal space and the greater number of homeowners that make this choice, the greater impact it has on large tracts of land that otherwise the public has little say over or connection to.
A Residential Restoration is meant to be beautiful and inspiring. For some, it will be different, and being different is not always easy to swallow. But like anything, the more its done and the more common it becomes in the lexicon of landscape design, the greater the standard will become for adopting this approach. Like the lawn, which for many gets installed just because it’s what you do, has become a fabric of our manufactured landscapes, a Residential Restoration with native habitat rich plantings has the opportunity to renew and restore our landscapes and our connection to local ecosystems that we love and depend on.
Residential Restoration Method
Invasive Species Identification and Removal
Lawn Reduction or Removal
Water Catchment Features
Native and Complimentary Non-Native Plant Palette
Maintain and Monitor