Help critique front native wildlife garden plans

shannonlantzyAugust 29, 2010

I moved into my home two years ago. I have tried my hand at vegetable gardening, which has brought a lot of success and is incredibly rewarding (Built 4 8x8' raised terraced beds in backyard, two great productive seasons so far.)

I would like to venture into landscaping the yard. There is a bit of existing planting up front against the house, but I would very much like to:

- block the view into the front windows from the road

- attract birds, bugs, and critters to watch from the bay window (I can't/won't do this out back, since my dogs obsess over terrorizing/flushing the yard of wildlife)

- minimize the lawn

My husband wants to make sure I don't do anything crazy so the house won't resell someday (although we have no plans to move, ever, things do change). He's concerned about pulling almost all the grass.

I have poured over a few library books, native plant listings, and found a landscape design that provided the basis of my plans:

Here is the site now:

Here is what I mocked up:

And with images of the plants:

The plants areas aren't drawn to scale...I really don't know if everything will fit or if there's way too little to fill up the space. I do know that the area (that's not under the green circle of the live oak) gets full sun, about 6 hours a day. The area closest to the street loses sun first. The area planned for shadbushes and dogwoods is about 2' lower than the rest of the area, as there's a sharp slope. That area gets very wet with a rain.

If these plans are good enough to start, what do I do next? Start pulling up sod and bringing in compost? I am hoping to do as much as possible from seed, as I just quit my job and am starting a PhD fulltime.

I'm in the Washington DC area. All these plants should be able to grow in this area, according to the US Fish and Wildlife booklet I have. But I don't know the basics, like when I can plant the shrubs/trees, what things I should start with, etc. Any help will be very much appreciated! Thanks so much for taking the time to read and consider. I hope to learn a lot!

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mad_gallica(zone 5 - eastern New York)

First thing to understand is that this is not going to be anything like a low maintenance landscape. It's an artificial garden in any real sense of the term, and is going to require the same level of maintenance as any other garden. Even thinking about weeding that much space makes me tired.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2010 at 3:33PM
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I like the concept, and many of your selections. Once you have your overall plan, you can install the gardens in phases and adjust the plan as necessary. I would start with the foundation plantings, feeding/bird bath garden, and peripheral gardens, leaving the central lawn area intact (at least for the time being).

Instead of a row of trees along the front, I would place them a little differently, aiming for a more natural look, perhaps with some understory shrubs and/or herbaceous perennials clustered nearby, which would give further screening from the road.

The depressed area that gets wet when it rains - does it drain pretty quickly? Have you considered a rain garden? These are designed to capture stormwater and allow it to seep back into the ground, rather than run off into storm sewers. Since they drain in a short time, they do not breed mosquitos. There are lots of excellent resources, many online, referenced at the end of the fact sheet linked below.

Native plants are usually (but not always) lower maintenance than exotics, especially if you choose the right plant for the location. A good layer of mulch will help keep weeds down.

We probably have similar growing conditions - I'm in Monmouth County, NJ, near the shore. I find that garden phlox, BE Susan and monarda are very prone to powdery mildew in late summer - even the resistant varieties. It's not enough to deter me from growing them, though, and doesn't do any grievous harm to the plants - it's purely an aesthetic issue.

If you're going to be growing from seed, do take a look at the Wintersowing forum. It's a wonderfully easy way to start lots of seeds in the winter - outdoors, without investing time, money and indoor living space in all kinds of seed-starting gear.

If you haven't already done so, also check out the Mid-Atlantic Gardening forum. They seem like a nice group and have a couple of plant exchanges each year. You can see a lot and learn a lot at such events, and may just walk away with some plants as well.

Of course, you're already sold on the idea, but you may be interested in Doug Tallamy's book 'Bringing Nature Home'; he also has a web site with a good deal of information. And if you ever see that he is scheduled to speak somewhere - Go! He gives an informative and inspiring presentation.

A plan is important, but I view a garden as never finished, and the process as a journey, full of discoveries and surprises (hopefully mostly happy ones) along the way.

Here is a link that might be useful: Rain Gardens Fact Sheet

    Bookmark   August 29, 2010 at 4:44PM
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sleepy33(5b KS)

I have to say, the way that car is parked down there by the mailbox looks very strange, and I don't find the idea of making that a permanent parking area very appealing. It almost looks like a car lot showroom. Maybe it's just the car being perpendicular to the driveway that does it. If the only space for additional parking is in the front of the house, and it's necessary, then I would make the driveway wider. Also, gravel is not likely to stay put at the bottom of a slope like that; one good rainstorm, and your gravel will be floating away in the gutter.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2010 at 6:36PM
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I think you have a lot of great plants picked out that will help you meet your goals. For the wet/sloping area how about a winterberry holly? They have red berries on bare stems in the winter & are really pretty (plus native, plus they like wet soil - they grow in roadside ditches).

A few other thoughts:
Don't cover your bay window with plants. It will affect resale value because people like to buy a house they can see. And it can create moisture issues to have a big shrubby thing too close to the house. I vote you try to pick a plant where the top of it just peeks above the windowsill of the window but doesn't cover it.
If you wanted to cover the window for your own privacy or to keep your dogs from barking at people who walk by (like my dog) then I say, "Get some nice honeycomb shades or other window treatment."
Try to repeat some of your plantings. Instead of one big clump of black-eyed susans, have 2 or 3 smaller clumps dispersed throughout the yard. It helps your eye move through the landscape when you look at it and adds some repetition. Plus, smaller clumps of plants spread around mean that each area has pretty flowers for a longer period (because there are more kinds of flowers in each area).
Another tip, if you have two things that bloom around the same time try to have the colors relate to eachother. Like if you had daylilies with a yellow throat blooming next to a yellow coreopsis ... they each enhance eachother even more.
Large specimens like the Pagoda Dogwood don't need to be in pairs or multiples. They can be the star of their own area, which would give you more space for repeating more perennials.
Last thought - if you want to have additional parking for overflow guests, etc you may want to consider those pavers that you plant grass through. I've seen some that are concrete & now they have them in reinforced plastic (check TuffTrack). That lets you have grass you can mow & it looks acceptable, but also lets you have parking in the area without creating dead grass that looks unacceptable.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2010 at 9:05PM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

Although you do have evergreen plantings near the house, most of the new bed is going to die down once you get a good frost.

So think about adding some evergreen "bones" to the bed to provide winter interest. Because winter is a sizable chunk of the year, and you probably want to look at more than a 30' swath of mulch during all those cold months.

For instance -- not that I'm a pro or an expert -- I've been making a long bed across the sunny part of my front lawn (about 1,100 square feet so far, and the last 150 or so next year). Most of the space is perennials of one sort or another, generally no higher than about 2 - 2 1/2'. But for winter interest, I have a dozen dwarf Mugo pines (the kind that aren't supposed to grow higher than 2'), dozens of low winter-blooming heath (like heather), and other evergreen groundcovers.

So it's a big long snaky bed across the front of the lawn with small low pines scattered irregularly, and a meandering almost-connected "spine" of lower green cushion-y groundcovers (and a few wider groundcovers around a tree). Last winter the pines and groundcovers had reached a good size and filled enough of the bed to keep it from looking too empty.

I suspect you'll need many, many more plants than are on the plan to fill up all that space.

Consider doing it in stages. The feeders and birdbath can be re-positioned as you enlarge the bed (unless you're putting in an electric line to heat the birdbath in winter).

Consider too whether you'll want stepping stones to access the feeders and birdbath (or is that the purpose of the extended walkway?).

And investigate who in the area will provide free mulch: you're going to need a lot of it. Possibilities include power companies, tree service companies, and sometimes even the local government recycling leaves, Christmas trees, etc. Your county Cooperative Extension Service can probably tell you. (And then there are the people who drive around the neighborhood in the fall a couple of hours before the garbage truck comes and snatch up bags of fallen leaves.) But if you're not likely to find a source of free mulch, then do add up the square footage of your bed and calculate how much the mulch is going to cost.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2010 at 11:51PM
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My wife says I'm going to H-E-double hockeysticks for this, but I couldn't help it. Sorry, I'm not a bad person :(

All kidding aside...

Sounds like you have put a lot of thought and research into your project already, so no matter what you do you'll do fine. I would only interject a couple of thoughts.
I'm confused by your husbands concern about native landscaping affecting the future sale of the house. I would think a prospective buyer would prefer a lower maintenance landscape over water-loving, turf that needs weekly mowing. Native landscaping can be almost maintenance-free if done properly.

Use boulders and other "native" materials to carry the theme all the way through.

To bring wild birds to your yard water is essential. Hummers prefer moving water so some sort of simple fountain will go along way toward this goal.

Good Luck!


    Bookmark   August 30, 2010 at 11:53AM
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    Bookmark   August 30, 2010 at 8:42PM
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rlv4 ... you made me laugh :) Thanks! I especially like the massive planting at the end of the driveway, it adds a certain sense of daily danger when you need to leave the house & can't see oncoming traffic :)

    Bookmark   August 30, 2010 at 10:24PM
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I have to agree with missingtheobvoious. There are NO evergreens except for the very front of the house. You mentioned that you want some privacy from the street but from November until March-April, everything will be bare and completely open. Try mixing different size evergreens with the native plants you listed. You will be surprised at how beautiful they work together.

Also, I understand about wanting to block the view from the street into the house. You can plan for a larger tree (maybe a river birch) in the middle somewhere. You do NOT want to completely block the view.

Also, your drawing doesn't show any bed outlines, just plants. Consider starting with MUCH smaller beds that can be enlarged later on. I don't think you want to remove ALL of the lawn. You will wish you had grass to cut once a week instead of beds to weed, mulch and deadhead.

    Bookmark   August 31, 2010 at 7:06AM
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Wow! What great input! I'm very excited for my next round of edits on the planning.

- As far as maintenance, I'm good at browsing through my vegetable garden once a day or every other day pulling weeds. Two big mulching per year, plus seed planting. What else? I hope not too much watering needed but that's doable too.
- I will kind of stagger the trees in front, to make them not so uniform. I should have realized that when placing them on the plans.
- I didn't intend to say I would cover the bay window, but rather screen it.
- I will start with smaller beds, probably with the one closest to the road (so I can put in the trees and bigger bushes).
- The wettest part of this area is also the darkest. I was hoping to cultivate some ferns, but later down the road. The slope actually turns back up toward the road, so it's more of a gentle ditch.
- The car was irregularly parked and shouldn't generally be in that place. I am actually hoping to discourage grass parking. We are part of a car club and often have parties where people fill up the front yard with cars. There's no reason they shouldn't walk a little further down the street. ;)
- I love the pavers for grass growing. That's in the plans if we have a slush fund someday! (Or I magically find those pavers at our local building supply recycling place)
- I have access to very inexpensive mulch and free compost (leafy and aged manure), plus a big truck to haul it two square yards at a time. That's one of the reasons I'm endeavoring to do this. My mom has offered to purchase a few of the trees and shrubs for my birthday. So I'm hoping to do this at truly minimal cost to my pocketbook. I just quit my job and started a PhD full time. Not much money available!
- Husband has no problem with native, he has a problem with my desire to minimize lawn. A couple have you have commented that we should start with smaller beds, and consider leaving some of the lawn, so you've supported his point that that's what we'll do.

More questions:
- To select some more, smaller evergreens for winter interest, what would you suggest? Anything that I can buy very cheaply (and I understand that cheaper means smaller so more waiting for the garden to fill inÂ)
- Bob: How did you DO that? Where did the plant pictures come from?

Thank you all so much!!!

    Bookmark   September 2, 2010 at 7:09PM
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I'm not well-versed in conifers, but do have a list at work from a presentation given by our Ag. Agent "Underutilized Trees & Shrubs". If I can remember, I'll bring it home; anything suited to our area should do just as well in yours.

Right off the top of my head, two deciduous woody plants with good winter interest are the river birch (betula nigra) 'Heritage' and redosier dogwood.

'Heritage' is better suited to our hot summers than white birch, and is resistant to many of the pests and diseases; as it matures, it also develops a lovely an interesting exfoliating bark.

There are a few different varieties of the redosier dogwoods now, with different coloration. They thrive in full sun to part shade, but will have better winter color in full sun.

Winterberry holly is deciduous, and you need both male and female plants, but will have a beautiful display of bright red berries in winter - for the birds or to cut and bring indoors (use them as supports for your forced paperwhite bulbs ... great combination).

I'm glad to see you've chosen the serviceberry (shadbush, amelanchier, etc.). Check the different varieties for the characteristics you prefer - some have more vibrant fall foliage than others. The berries are very attractive to wildlife (I didn't realize chipmunks climbed trees until I saw one gathering berries in one of the serviceberries at our park). The berries are edible for humans, if you can get to them before the wildlife does! They taste a lot like blueberries.

One of my favorite local nurseries is also a good resource for information, Even if you don't order anything from them, you will find a lot of photos and information and I've always found it to be reliable.

Ah, sweetbay magnolia (magnolia virginiana) - another native, semi-evergreen, very fragrant blooms (heavy in June, intermittently thereafter), seeds are colorful and food for wildlife. The undersides of the leaves are silvery, making a nice display when they flutter in the breeze. Choose an upright or multi-branching variety, according to your needs. Like serviceberry and river birch, they do well in a moist soil.

Ninebark (physocarpus) is another deciduous native, for sun or partial shade. 'Diablo' is a dark red leaved cultivar with contrasting clusters of tiny pale pink flowers.

I'm sorry, I should never get started.

    Bookmark   September 2, 2010 at 9:38PM
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Wow ... I recommend making a nice big entry and sitting area out there, and extending your "private" space to the street. A small fountain will cover the traffic noises and give water to the birds.

Don't cover the window with plants - let them look out onto the garden. A mixed shrub border of evergreens and deciduous (for fall color) plants would give you privacy at the street, and a few carefully positioned trees inside that boundary would be back-up.

I'm a lawn-hater unless the lawn is being used to play on, so removing the front lawn and replacing it with a woodland garden doesn't bother me. As for the resale value, try advertising "low maintenance woodland landscaping" and you will get the right customers.

    Bookmark   September 3, 2010 at 12:42PM
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mad_gallica(zone 5 - eastern New York)

But 'low maintenance woodland landscaping' isn't what she is planning on putting in. She is planning on putting in a garden, that in an eastern climate is considerably higher maintenance than a lawn. All a lawn really needs is to be mowed every once in a while. Seriously. A garden has to be weeded and mulched. Plants need to be divided. This is not a plant it and it will take care of itself sort of thing.

The ecosystem that wants to be there is serious, dense forest. So any open space that gets sun and isn't heavily tended turns into early succession forest - sumac, brambles, poison ivy, wild cherry, and other woody weeds. Not to mention maples by the gazillion, and the invasive, opportunist trees.

The big difference between wandering through a vegetable garden and picking at the weeds and doing the same for an ornamental garden is that vegetable garden beds are usually designed to be shallow enough to see and reach all of them easily. Ornamental garden beds are often designed to be fairly deep to give several layers of plants for a more complex, pleasing design. It can be done, but it takes a different sort of discipline. There is also the problem with a 'wildflower' garden that many of the plants are short lived, and depend on new seedlings to renew themselves. It isn't easy to always tell the difference between desirable seedlings and undesirable weeds.

    Bookmark   September 3, 2010 at 1:24PM
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Please don't become discouraged by everyone's comments about it being a lot of work. If you enjoy it, it's not work, it's excercise! Sure there will be a considerable amount of weeding the first year (weeds thrive in disturbed soil) Mulching heavily goes a long way toward preventing weeds and saving water, which you plan to do.

What type of grass is that? Hopefully not Bermuda.

As for the evergreens, remember they don't have to be trees. Consider evergreen shrubs as well.

As for the design I did, yes it's from (our website) I hope you found it useful. I hope it helped you visualize your plan a little better. We get the plants from lots of libraries, including some we've created.


Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   September 8, 2010 at 10:36AM
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I'm not discouraged! I am definitely taken the advice into account, however. I don't want to be in the garden weeding every day all day, or to have a wild overgrown garden if I go away for a weekend.

The grass is Zoysia. So, I'm used to brown in the winter!

    Bookmark   September 11, 2010 at 7:25AM
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Congrats on your 'victory garden'. Something about your plant choices made me think of grasses mixed with black-eyed susans, etc. -- which I always connect with Oehme and Van Sweden (photos below are from their website,

The link below is to Create a Certified Wildlife Habitat, by National Wildlife Federation, which has a lot of helpful info about what to plant to attract wildlife to your garden.

Here is a link that might be useful: create a certified wildlife habitat

    Bookmark   September 11, 2010 at 11:43PM
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Glad to hear your not discouraged. My question about whether the grass was bermuda was not concern over brown in the winter, but rather difficulty in removal. I think you'll find the same difficulty with the Zoysia grass. Just make sure you've eradicated it COMPLETELY before planting anything else or you will definitely have a tough time down the road.



    Bookmark   September 12, 2010 at 10:12PM
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jim_1 Zone 5B Illinois(5b) has been a couple of years since this began.

Any update?

    Bookmark   August 9, 2013 at 1:03PM
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