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Through Nature's Eyes: The look of a low-maintenance landscape
March 9, 2004 by Evelyn J. Hadden

	frosted thistle among grasses
Frost transforms a thistle (food of goldfinches and Painted Lady butterfly larvae) into a temporary winter sculpture.

We have been trained to appreciate certain styles of landscape, but our tastes tend to favor landscapes that are high-maintenance and often ecologically unsound. Developing a different aesthetic—looking at a healthy natural area and finding it beautiful—depends to a large extent on encountering enough natural landscapes and learning about their constituents and the relationships among them.

Here's a look at four characteristics of healthy natural landscapes that directly oppose our society's standards of beauty.

Fallen Foliage OR Free Fertilizer?

Plenty of dead foliage promises plenty of food for future growth, though tidy gardeners view it as an unsightly reminder of summer's demise, a potential harbor for pests, or cast-off clothing that threatens to smother the plants beneath.

Leaves, seedpods, or petals left to lie on the ground strike many gardeners as chores waiting to be finished. When we see too many of them piling up, we know it's time to get out the rake, bag them, and cart them off to the dump or the compost bin.

However, there are more ecologically healthy (and less work-intensive) ways to treat fallen foliage. We can learn to see it as fertilizer. If too deep a layer is collecting over something that needs light, such as lawn, then of course it must be removed, but why not remove it to another area of the garden?

Shrubs often appreciate the extra nutrients, and many bulbs and perennials will happily push up new stems through an insulating layer of leaves. If you're trying to get a tree or a small woodland off to a good start, fallen foliage is a powerful soil builder and can be piled a foot high or deeper, covered in wood chips or another mulch if you like, and left to decompose into rich soil that will support woodland plants.

(Note that spreading fallen foliage up around the trunks of trees may lead to rot, so leave a few inches of mulch-free area to allow trunks to stay dry. Mulching deeply around shrub stems may encourage small mammals or beetles to nibble off the bark below such cover, so you may want to keep deep layers of leaves a couple of inches away from stems too—unless, of course, your aim is to create habitat for these animals.)

Sticks OR Storage?

Dry vegetation in winter indicates food and shelter—in short, life—but may be viewed by gardeners as unappealing because it looks dead.

Dried stalks and seedheads look messy to many gardeners, who rush out as soon as the flowers have faded and cut their stems to the ground to encourage another flush of bloom or simply to get them out of the way of more attractive (i.e. blooming) plants. However, leaving those spent stalks standing can benefit the garden both ecologically and aesthetically.

The ecological benefits apply to both plants and animals. Seedheads can provide much-needed food for wildlife during the off-season, when fresh seeds and berries are hard to come by. Standing stalks provide perches above ground from which to rest and survey territory. They may be holding the larvae of next year's butterflies up off the damp ground. They may be catching snow and insulating the plants' roots, providing cover or a home for small animals, or sheltering a basal rosette that with such protection will grow sooner the following spring.

Plants may self-sow more readily if left to complete their cycle in the way that they have developed through the centuries. Dead stalks are gradually lowered by snow or rain until, at the right time in the seasonal cycle, they reach the ground and deposit their seeds. Other stalks retain nutrients that they slowly return to the roots or bulb, losing their green coloring in the process. If these plants are cut early, they may be weakened and need fertilizing to bloom again or even to regain their previous level of health.

Dried stalks and seedheads can also add aesthetic value to a landscape. In winter, when the range of color in most landscapes narrows, texture and form become more important and more interesting. A field of unmown grasses and forbs will be sculpted by snow into waves of half-bent stems and low, calm spaces of matted-down foliage and clusters of still-erect stems decorated in ice crystals. The wildlife attracted to these places add motion, color, and variety as well.

Pleasing Uniformity OR Uninsured Species?

Uniformity can indicate an unbalanced landscape, though we see it as symmetric and therefore appealing.

If we look at a garden and see several trees or shrubs of the same species, shape and size, our eyes may be pleased by the uniformity. Many of us like rows of identical plants—hedges, allees, borders. Many of us want balanced gardens.

These landscapes send a less pleasing message to the eye trained on natural areas. Uniform sizes can indicate previous destruction. A fire, for instance, may germinate a stand of identical-height Jack Pines. Uniform shapes could point to ongoing destruction, such as the devastating removal of forest undergrowth to a uniform height by heavily browsing deer.

Plants of one species that occur in a variety of sizes and shapes usually indicate a healthier landscape. They lead to the conclusion that the given species is able to reproduce in the area, conveying a promise of longevity and a feeling of appropriateness.

Crowd OR Community?

Dense plant growth promises both fertility and weed control, though it's seen as impinging on specimen plant growth.

In an arid landscape, stretches of bare ground or rock don't necessarily indicate disturbance, but in a place that receives more moisture, dense plant coverage is essential to a low-maintenance landscape. Bare areas attract pioneer species, which quickly cover the ground, preventing soil erosion and gradually building soil for succeeding species.

To many gardeners in non-arid regions, the ideal garden consists of a series of specimen plants separated by lawn or mulch. To nature's eyes, such a scene indicates a lack of fertility and vulnerability to pioneer plants. Heavy plant coverage, with individuals massed together and different species woven through each other, signals a more stable plant community.

Natural ecosystems often include a "matrix" of plants, individuals of one or more species that grow in masses, forming a layer among which more occasional individuals of different species occur. The matrix species can be grasses (in prairies and meadows), ferns (in certain woodlands), shrubs (sagebrush and similar shrubs in high desert), or other plants, but their main shared trait is their ubiquitous nature. They give an area its "typical" look; they set the visual tone of the landscape with their color, shape, and texture.

But while the nature-trained eye sees and appreciates matrix plants as the very cloth from which the ecosystem is woven, the traditional gardening eye may not even see them.

These are just four of the many ways in which nature-oriented eyes see the landscape differently from traditional landscapers and gardeners. Learning to appreciate the complex relationships present in an ecosystem might allow even a tidy gardener to find more beauty and value in a wild landscape.

For More Information:

Noah's Garden by Sara Stein tells a classic tale of the dramatic difference aesthetics made for one gardener: she "prettied up" her landscape, which led to drastically reduced wildlife populations. Then she tried (with much work but also heartening success) to recreate habitat for the absent animals, many of whom returned.

buy it

Other LessLawn articles about Nature's ways of growing:

what do natural landscapes have that our created ones don't?

how to grow food like Nature grows landscapes?

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