Native Plant Trust

Ecological Gardening

Share Your Habitat

Turn your yard into an oasis for all forms of life

The principles of ecological gardening are simple: work with, not against, nature to achieve a beautiful, sustainable garden. If you choose the right native plant, put it in the right place, and use no chemicals, you can the transform your home landscapes and public spaces into islands of habitat for insects, birds, and other wildlife.

And native plants are just as ravishing to behold as the hot new exotics your local garden center is touting this year. For all who are new to gardening with natives, we hope you take joy in the plants themselves, and in watching the native bees, butterflies, birds, and other creatures drawn to your home habitat.

Our Free Pollinator-gardening Manual Is Here!

Download this user-friendly guide and share it with friends

Gardening for Pollinators will get you started on where to locate your pollinator garden, how to choose the right plants for your site, and how to maintain your pollinator garden through the seasons, among other essentials. Written for gardeners at all levels, the manual is published only as a PDF because it is meant to be shared. So help us get out the word, and send it to friends or direct them to this page! Download it here.

Creating an Ecological Garden

The ultimate ecological garden provides year-round beauty, supports local wildlife, absorbs and filters rainwater, and improves air quality.

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1. Choose plants native to your ecoregion

They are adapted to the local soil, climate, and pollinators and feed the web of life. Download a copy of this ecoregions map.

2. Limit irrigation to new plantings

As much as 30 percent of the potable water in New England is used for irrigating lawns and gardens. With droughts becoming more frequent, it’s critical to decrease that percentage, and siting plants properly is the simplest step to achieve that. Use our Garden Plant Finder to help choose plants that will thrive in your conditions.

3. Don't use fertilizers

Focus on building healthy, organic soils that provide all the nutrition native plants require. Fertilizers, even when used responsibly, are pollutants; they are highly mobile forms of basic elements like nitrogen and phosphorous that cause direct environmental harm to waterways, including algal blooms and ocean dead zones. By recycling organic waste through composting and using organic mulches in our gardens, you have no need for fertilizers.

4. Don't use any pesticides

Pesticides can have disastrous effects on human health, as well as catastrophic environmental impacts. Fourteen of the 30 most commonly used lawn pesticides are known neurotoxins or carcinogens, and two-thirds of them cause reproductive harm in humans. Those at particular risk are children and pets that come into direct contact with gardens and lawns treated with pesticides. Systemic pesticides, such as neonicotinoids (“neonics”) are absorbed by a plant’s vascular system, making the entire plant toxic to all insects. The increasing use of systemic pesticides means that many important pollinator plants are toxic to the very insects gardeners are trying to support. When buying plants, always ask if they have been treated with systemic pesticides, and avoid using these products in your garden.

Condensed from the introduction to Native Plants for New England Gardens, by Mark Richardson and Dan Jaffe.

Here's How to Reduce Your (Really Boring) Lawn

It's not hard to create an ecological, functional, and attractive yard

To let go of the ever-popular but increasingly toxic lawn (see below), we need to replace it with a landscape that looks beautiful and is relatively easy to maintain. It will automatically support pollinators and other wildlife if you plant natives in your redesigned yard. But we worry about what to plant. And we worry about getting dirty looks from our neighbors.

But a mounting number of brave suburbanites and horticultural experts urge you to take a deep breath and consider leading your neighbors on a new, turf grass-free path. Here are some stories to get you inspired:

They Fought the Lawn. And the Lawn Lost (The New York Times)

How to Fall Out of Love with Your Lawn (The New York Times)

Now, let's get started in minimizing your lawn:

First, sort your yard into three categories:

  1. where you could lose the lawn and not miss it
  2. where you desire a green ground cover, but not necessarily turf grass, for aesthetic reasons
  3. where a lawn is useful, say, for kicking around a soccer ball

In category 1 places: Choose a color palette, find some plant combinations that complement each other and thrive in similar conditions. One pleasing combo for spring color in a shady spot is creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera) and foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia). They flower at the same time and work as living mulches that stabilize soil and keep weeds at bay. Add taller accent plants, such as a native flowering shrub or two that fit your color scheme and conditions, and you've got the start of a beautiful, low-maintenance garden that will provide a spot of native habitat for you and your family—and turn your former lawn into an oasis for wildlife.

In category 2 places: Consider site conditions—sun exposure, moisture, and drainage. Look for mat-forming perennial groundcovers, or true lawn alternatives, that thrive in those conditions. For sunny spots, consider wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana), which tolerates a wide range of conditions and supports dozens of moth and butterfly species. And it bears tasty, fragrant little strawberries in mid-June. In shadier spots, Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica) looks much like standard turf grass that grows in short, fountain-like clumps. These groundcovers require no fertilizer and scant supplemental watering.

In category 3 places: Keep the lawn, but get off the weed-and-feed cycle. Mow high (between three and four inches) with a mulching mower and aerate your soil in the fall. The longer your grass, the deeper its root system and the less irrigation it will need. Replace thirsty grasses with drought-tolerant species like tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea).

As for your neighbors' glares, perhaps they will open an opportunity to have some conversations about why you chose to roll back your lawn.

Why Should You Replace Your Lawn?

Most turf grasses, including Kentucky bluegrass, are native to Europe and poorly adapted to our climates and soils, especially the acid soils of New England. Which means they must be kept on life support with supplemental irrigation, fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. When the grass grows too high, which happens quickly because of the added water and fertilizer, we cut it with a gas-burning mower, trailing fumes that catalyze into ozone pollution in the summer heat. Some more motivation:

  • Americans apply 30,000 tons of pesticides each year to keep grass green, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
  • The University of Massachusetts reports that the typical lawn-service company in that state applies five to seven pounds of pesticides per acre of lawn a year. Per EPA records, this is at least twice the amount applied to the most pest-plagued of agricultural crops, sweet corn. This should terrify you, because lawns serve as the primary play area for our kids and pets. Despite labels that tell us that pesticides are safe for use around children and pets, ongoing scientific studies find many of them anything but.
  • Fourteen of the 30 most commonly used lawn pesticides are neurotoxins. Sixteen are known or suspected carcinogens, and two-thirds of them may cause reproductive harm in humans.

Most lawn fertilizers contain nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. The run-off of the first two compounds into our water supply presents "one of America's most widespread, costly, and challenging environmental problems," the EPA reports. And then there are the herbicides to kill "weeds"—many of them plants that offer potential benefits. Clover, for example, fixes nitrogen that can support turf-grass growth. Violets can host rare butterflies like the regal fritillary.

Advocates for health and the environment are starting to act. In the last five years, many states, including four in New England, have passed laws that limit the use of lawn fertilizers. Massachusetts is attempting to pass a bill that would restrict neonicotinoids, a widespread systemic pesticide.

Condensed from an article in Native Plant News (Spring/Summer 2017) by Mark Richardson

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Right Plant, Right Place

Learning which plants will do well in your shady/sunny/clay/loam/wet/dry site can take years—and a lot of failed experiments. Use our Garden Plant Finder to save time (and plants) by matching your site conditions to species that will thrive!

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