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.

Replace Your Lawn

Here's how to plan 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 re-designed 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, including our own director of Horticulture, urge you to take a deep breath and consider leading your neighbors on a new (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)

Choosing what to plant to replace your turf can be simple. Sort the areas of your yard into three categories: 1) where you could lose the lawn and not miss it; 2) where you desire a green groundcover, but not necessarily turf grass, for aesthetic reasons; and 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?

The trouble starts with the grass itself. 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. Too busy to do this yourself? Dozens of businesses would be delighted to do it for you, and they love to lay on the chemicals:

  • 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. 

As for lawn fertilizers, most 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. 

To the alarm of the landscape-services industry, 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 neonicotinoid

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

Creating an Ecological Garden

The ultimate goal for the ecological gardener is a beautiful garden that provides year-round interest, 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 commonplace, it’s critical that we decrease that percentage, and siting plants properly is the simplest step in that direction. (See Right Plant, Right Place, below.)

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 form of pesticide

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, like those commonly referred to as “neonics,” are absorbed by a plant’s vascular system, making the entire plant toxic to harmful and beneficial insects alike. The use of systemic pesticides has been linked to the decline of important pollinators, and their widespread use in growing plants for gardens means that many important pollinator plants are toxic to the very insects gardeners intend to support. When buying plants, always ask whether or not they have been treated with systemic pesticides, and avoid using these products in your garden.

Ecological gardening with native plants is a fantastic way to keep our gardens beautiful and make sure they support healthy, local ecosystems. We hope you will keep these principles in mind as you consider adding fabulous native plants to your garden. 

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

Right Plant, Right Place

Which plants will thrive in my garden? 

Plan your garden now with our interactive Garden Plantfinder. To learn about the principles and concepts behind it, read on:

A plant native to our ecoregions is likely to be hardy enough to survive our winters and resist many native pests in summer. But even native-plant gardeners must think about the timeless principle of right plant, right place. All plants have specific growing requirements, and if planted in the wrong place will struggle to survive. Learn your site's growing conditions and choose plants based not only on their looks, but also on their needs. Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is stunning, but plant one in a dry, shady site, and it will never flower. Plant bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) in a wet spot, and it will rot. In general, place plants where they will require no extra watering once established. (Woody plants usually take two to three years, herbacious species a full season, if planted at the outset.)

To understand what your garden has to offer, consider three essential factors: light, soil type/moisture, and space availability.

Light: Full sun means more than six hours of direct sunlight per day. Anything less is some variation of part-shade to shade. Conduct a simple light analysis by observing light and shadow in each part of your planting area at least three times throughout the day; for example, at 8 a.m., noon, and 4 p.m.

Soil: Because of its chemistry and texture, soil is more difficult to evaluate. But one thing you can do at home is determine how well your site drains by conducting a percolation test. Dig a hole about eight inches deep, fill it with water, let the water drain to saturate the soil, and then fill it again. If the water takes longer than 24 hours to drain the second time, your site is poorly drained; less than 12 hours, and it is very well drained. To find out your soil's percentage of organic matter, texture, and pH (acidity and alkalinity), contact your local cooperative extension service to conduct a soil analysis. 

Space: Choose plants that at maturity will be the appropriate size for your garden. Avoid planting tall-growing trees under power lines, for example, or aggressively spreading plants next to delicate, slow-growing  specimens. And shrubs and trees with spreading canopies eventually will cast sun-loving species in shade.

These three fundamentals of gardening will guide you toward choosing the right plants for your garden. And remember: No matter what a plant’s requirements, any plant going into the ground needs TLC. Treat newly establishing plants as if they are still in a container, providing ample water through their establishment period to make sure they get off to a good start. 

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