Ecological Landscaping can help guide your efforts to preserve biodiversity, conserve water, and save yourself some time and money. Ecological landscaping involves preserving existing native vegetation, landscaping with new native plants, shrubs, and trees, and, if desired, adding non-invasive ornamentals that complement and do not out-compete the native vegetation. By achieving a harmonious mix of practical and user friendly plantings, you will have an attractive, low-maintenance yard that restores, protects, and enhances the surrounding environment by blending seamlessly and naturally with it.
Benefits of Ecological Landscaping
- Better wildlife habitat will be created, thus helping to protect biodiversity.
- Homeowners will enjoy recreational opportunities, such as bird and butterfly watching, gardening, and photography.
- Save money by growing some or all of your own fruits, nuts, and vegetables.
- Planting trees and shrubs on the north and west sides of buildings reduces winter heating costs by blocking cold winds.
- Having lots of plants around buildings provides shade that lowers summer airconditioning costs.
- Plants along the perimeter of a yard add privacy from streets and neighbors, acting as a natural fence.
- Lower water use means lower water bills, more water left in the environment to sustain healthy aquatic habitat, and higher ground water levels for public water supply.
- There will be little water, air, or soil pollution from chemical pesticides and fertilizers because their use is minimized.
- Some native plants have deeper roots than turf grasses and can recover more quickly from drought conditions. Their use will increase erosion protection, especially near bodies of water or on steep slopes.
- There will be less noise and air pollution from lawn mowers, weed whackers, and leaf blowers.
- A healthier place to live, work, and play can be created.
Consider the Traditional Lawn
Many people take pride in the appearance of their lawn, measuring the way theirs looks in comparison to their neighbor’s or an ideal lawn pictured on television. Maintaining a lush green lawn can come with significant costs, however. When chemical fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, and gas-powered lawn mowers are used, the environment can suffer, people may become ill, and money is unnecessarily spent.
Landscaping offers numerous possibilities, from impervious concrete at one extreme, to a totally native ecological landscape. When compared to impermeable surfaces such as the pavement of driveways, sidewalks, and roads, turf grass lawns are a better choice. Lawns allow rainwater to sink into the soil to recharge groundwater, and grass roots prevent erosion. Turf grass can add to the biodiversity of a yard if it is used in conjunction with native shrubs and herbaceous perennials. However, when chemical fertilizers and pesticides are added, turf grass becomes ecologically unsound.
Key Principles of Ecological Landscaping
There are several overarching principles that provide the general guidance for ecological landscaping. These principles can be applied in any number of ways, from taking a few easy steps to a complete redesign of a yard or landscape. These principles can be used alone or in combination to create the ideal yard a homeowner may be looking for. While the use of all the principles would create the most productive ecological landscape, following any of these principles will help build an ecological landscape that integrates itself with the surrounding environment.
- Maintain as much as possible the pre-existing landscape, including soil, rocks, native vegetation, and contours during new construction.
- Integrate landscape components with surrounding natural vegetation to rejoin native habitat.
- Retain buffers of natural vegetation to any surface water body, including wetlands and vernal pools.
- Identify and remove non-native invasive plants, where possible.
- Choose native plants for landscaping.
- Use plants that are appropriate for the soil type, moisture content, and climate conditions of the area.
- Use water-efficient/drought-tolerant plantings.
- Ensure proper soil characteristics so that soils hold water and contribute appropriate nutrients.
- Provide a variety of plant species of different height levels – grasses, flowers, shrubs, and trees – to provide food, hiding places, nesting and overwintering sites for different wildlife species.
- Use integrated pest management approaches that minimize the use of pesticides to control weeds and pests.
- Use compost and other natural products for fertilizer and mulching needs, which will feed the plants and the soil.
Landscaping to Attract Wildlife
Depending on where you live in Massachusetts, there may be different types of wildlife: from white-tailed deer and spotted salamanders, to squirrels and pigeons. Biodiversity, the variety of living things, is a necessary element of a healthy environment. Ecological landscapes seek to promote this natural biodiversity. Many species of plants, even some so-called weeds, provide food or cover for some wildlife species. By providing a diversity of plants that offer food, hiding places, nesting, and overwintering, a yard that once attracted only a few species can begin to attract many more.
- There are over 282 species of birds seen in Massachusetts. Some are year-round residents, such as the Black-Capped Chickadee and the Cardinal, while others spend only part of the year here, like the Eastern Kingbird and the Yellow Warbler.
- Many birds, such as the Downy Woodpecker, nest in trees, so leave dead trees standing, unless they pose a hazard.
- Use bird feeders, suet (during the winter only) and birdbaths.
- When using bird houses and boxes, keep them well above the ground, near sufficient hiding places, and keep them clean and dry to prevent disease.
- There is only one kind of hummingbird found in Massachusetts, the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird. To attract them, hang hummingbird feeders full of a 20% sucrose solution (one part cane sugar to 4 parts water) that
is changed weekly, or plant some of these flowers:
- Wild Columbine
- Hummingbirds also eat small insects, so do not use chemicals on your yard if you want to attract these birds.
- There are 126 types of butterflies found in Massachusetts, all of which can add color and excitement to a landscape design.
- The key to attracting butterflies is knowing which types live in the area, and choosing the right plants. Books and the Internet are good sources of information on this subject.
- Caterpillars, the juvenile form of butterflies, tend to eat the leaves from trees, shrubs, and some herbaceous plants. Adults tend to drink the nectar from flowers. Make sure to include food for both their life stages.
- Butterflies like to stay warm, so place a few rocks or garden sculptures in your yard that they can rest on. They will also need water to drink, so place a shallow dish of water near their source of food.
- Here is just a small sample of Massachusetts’ butterflies and their food preferences:
- Tiger Swallowtail (wild cherry,birch and willow trees, variousflowers)
- Clouded Sulphur (various flowers)
- Great Spangled Frittilary (violets, thistles)
- Monarch (milkweed, lilac, thistles, goldenrod)
Bats have a bad reputation among many people, but they are actually quite helpful to humans. One bat will eat up to 600 mosquitoes in one hour. Bats are also helpful pollinators of many flowering plants.
There are nine species of bats in Massachusetts.26 In order to attract them to a yard, it will be helpful to build a bat house.
Place this simple wooden box at least 15 feet above the ground, in an area of the yard that receives at least 6 to 10 hours of sunlight a day. Keep the box away from hanging branches, but near a good source of drinking water. These houses can be bought already made, or created at home. Either way, make sure the wood has not been chemically treated. Instructions on how to build a bat house can be found in the MassWildlife Homeowner’s Guide to Bats, available for free online at www.masswildlife.org, or by calling (508) 797-7270.
Because bats eat insects, do not use insecticides in the yard. The bats should take care of many pest problems.
Bats are afraid of humans and will only attack if trapped or picked up. As with all wild animals, bats should be looked at, not touched.
Landscaping To Conserve Water
In Massachusetts we receive four inches of rain a month, on average, thus most lawns in Massachusetts should be able to stay healthy with minimal (if any) amounts of additional watering. Most lawns require a maximum of one inch of water per week from all sources (rain or irrigation). When a more extended dry period occurs, generally at the end of summer, it is normal for most species of turf grass to turn brown. Many grasses are not dead when they turn brown. They are merely dormant, and will turn green again after the rainier and/or cooler weather returns.
Homeowners can reduce water use by reducing the amount of turf in their yards. For areas where a lawn-like look may be desired, use of native species of grass, such as various fescues, or low lying herbs and mosses, can help to ensure a resilient, more drought-tolerant ground cover. For other parts of a yard or landscape, perennials, trees, and shrubs may need to be watered regularly during the first several years after they have been planted, but once established should survive on an average yearly amount of Massachusetts’ precipitation without additional watering.
Water Saving Techniques
Soaker hoses and drip irrigation systems for flower and vegetable gardens. These irrigation systems, which are available at many local garden centers, reduce the amount of water used on a yard. Soaker hoses look like a typical garden hose, yet they use up to 70% less water than conventional irrigation systems.
Rain barrels and cisterns, which are available at many local garden centers and cost between $40 and $100, can help reduce water bills. Place these under gutter downspouts and use the water for various plantings in the yard. Care should be taken, however, to prevent mosquitoes from breeding in the rain barrel water. One way is to add a thin layer of vegetable oil to the surface of the water, which will kill any existing eggs. Covering the rain barrel with a lid or screen is a good idea if the water will not be used right away. Scrub the barrel once a week to remove any mosquito eggs that may be attached.
Consider using native plants whenever possible. Native plants have adapted to the climate, insects, and soil types found in Massachusetts. Because of this, they may reduce the amount of pesticides, fertilizers, and water needed for a yard, as well as contribute to a more natural habitat for animals and other plants. Native plants may support 10 to 50 times as many species as non-native plants. Using native plants will also help to reduce pollution. By replacing traditional turf species, the need to use a gas-powered lawn mower will be reduced, thus lowering greenhouse gas emissions.
As with any new yard, during the first year or two of a more ecologically-designed yard, more time and money may have to be spent watering the new plants, adding organic fertilizers or compost, and revising the landscaping plan. After this initial effort, a more naturalized yard will require less maintenance than a typical lawn.
Each yard is connected with the environment around us through a fragile link with nature. As property owners, we have the responsibility of caring for, and improving, that link. You can take meaningful steps to restore and maintain an ecologically sustainable landscape, allowing plants and animals to thrive in the neighborhood and act in harmony with surrounding natural lands.