A Designer’s Take on Wildlife Gardening

Though recent polls show that using native plants and attracting wildlife are big priorities for gardeners, these types of landscapes have a terrible reputation for being messy and poorly-designed.

It’s gotten to the point that many landscape designers I’ve spoken with shy away from mentioning native plants to their clients, even if they plan on including native plants in their design. Worse, some short-sighted neighborhoods have taken the extreme step of banning native plants (which attract wildlife) even as they mandate front yard lawns.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There is nothing inherently messy about either native plants or gardening for wildlife – we just get that idea because many of the proponents of wildlife gardening focus more on the wildlife aspect than the gardening aspect. Gardening enthusiasts compound the problem when we give in to negative stereotypes of what a wildlife-friendly garden looks like.

We’ve set up a false choice in our minds between gardening for wildlife or gardening for beauty, when we can absolutely have both.

Pollinator's paradiseWildlife gardeners – if we use good design principles to create a space that is as beautiful to people as it is to wildlife, we’ll find neighbors, friends and relatives lining up to hear more about how we did it. What better way of helping the cause of wildlife than to make others want to follow our lead?

Designers and plant geeks – Hey it’s cool, nobody’s telling us to back away from the plant catalogs. But we’ve gotta remember, wildlife brings beauty of its own to our gardens.ย  Nothing enhances the look of our high-end perennials like a few butterflies and hummingbirds, and that fancypants Brunnera looks way cuter when a salamander’s helping us keep it slug-free.

Can you have beauty and beasts in the same garden?

Yes, yes, yes! Over the coming weeks I’ll be talking about some of the ways you can support wildlife and the environment through good design and having a gorgeous garden. In the meantime, check out these articles to get amped up about some of the ways we can begin inviting wildlife into our gardens:

Gardening for Wildlife: a Compendium of Tips

In this series:

Wildlife Design Tip: Plant in Masses

Wildlife Design Tip: Choose a Simple Color Palette

Wildlife Design Tip: Focus on Shape

Wildlife Design Tip: Use Less Lawn

How to Design With Native Plants


20 responses to “A Designer’s Take on Wildlife Gardening”

  1. Sing it, Genevieve! I look forward to seeing your ideas, even though I garden in a much different climate, the ideas of good design remain the same. Wildlife and pollinator friendly can be beautiful and pleasing, even to the extreme neatfreaks out there. Shame on anyone who tries to regulate what gets planted in their own piece of dirt.

  2. I think you are right that many people (land developers and the general public) think native are “weeds”. I have had a native plant nursery in Nevada and it is now not much of a nursery because people here in Nevada were looking for the brightest, lushest green they could find. Unfortunately desert natives are soft greens to gray-green. Many of the “planned” neighborhoods in Reno, NV required bluegrass lawns (very water consumptive) and banned native plantings. All this in an area that only received 4″ to 6″ of precipitation which mostly falls in winter. A place where “water” is a fighting word between urban and rural interests.
    Another problem I found here in Nevada is that retail nurseries didn’t know how to care for desert natives. The overwatered and over fertilized them until they died. They were trying to get a pot where the foliage was greater in size than the pot. Unfortunately one of the desert plant’s survival mechanisms is to have more root that foliage reach more scarce water and nutrients in a typical desert soil environment. Anyway there are a number of hurdles to clear in order to make landscaping with natives the norm. Good luck! I think it is a worthy cause.

    • Oh, Edith, this breaks my heart. It’s still so hard for me to believe that people in this day and age would still ban native plants and require a freakin’ lawn. In the desert! What can they be thinking? It truly boggles the mind.

      What interesting insights about the plight of native plants your area. Keep on fighting the good fight and know that I believe in what you are doing.

      • It makes me sad to read what you’ve shared. Do you provide classes or does the local college or Native Plant Society? Do you also sell books on the subject or network with a native landscaper? I live in the chaparral and its a wonderful experience to explore the native plants in their various stages during the year. They may look messy to some but they are sociable here, growing together and densely, providing food for the wildlife and some of the best honey around. Thank you for what you’ve shared and I hope those hurdles will pass and natives will become the norm.

        • Hi Phyllis, I am so delighted to hear you’re in love with the charms of the chaparral area in which you live. “Sociable” is just the right word for how so many of these plants look when in their native habitat. I don’t personally provide any classes, but there are a number of books and resources for how to design landscapes and also how to use native plants effectively – when combined, these two skills make for a powerful landscape. One that touches the soul, feeds and shelters wildlife, and also just looks pretty! I’ll share some of my favorite resources later in the series. Thank you for asking!

  3. Gen, I can’t wait to see this series! Wildlife gardens can definitely be beautiful, while also attracting lots of birds, butterflies, pollinators, and other wildlife which is a total win-win for all.
    Also thanks for the link love ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Carole, I totally agree. Our gardens should be a win for everyone, and that definitely includes wildlife of every stripe (bugs, too!).

      Couldn’t be happier to link to your fantastic article. You help provide such great resources for wildlife gardeners. You’re my hero! ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Hey Gen – We must not ever apologize for “mess” and try to change the aesthetic of what people think of when they want a garden. Mess can be redefined with some good design, hardscape, and interesting plant combinations. It will also help if we can get some better photos of these ‘messy’ gardens into the media…

    • What an interesting take, Saxon. Of course, getting better photos of these gardens into the media is something you and I can both have a hand in. And you are so right – good design, hardscape, and interesting plant combinations are all key in redefining what is beautiful in our landscapes. Thank you so much for sharing your vision of how we can make a difference!

  5. Gen, thank you so much for sharing the idea that native plants don’t have to mean “messy”…I think people are so used to seeing invasive plants taking over natural areas and assume that’s what represent “native” plantings. My experience is that once people start to notice the life (butterflies, birds, dragonflies, unusual pollinators) that is attracted by native stunners such as bee balm, asters, phlox, etc., it opens up a whole new awareness of the role that their gardens can play in the wider environment. Those native plants are kind of like a gateway drug into backyard habitat gardening. It’s then often a steady march into planting stuff “for the xxx (insert native wildlife here” instead of just planting something because it looks nice or ‘goes well with the shutters’ ๐Ÿ™‚ There is a happy medium in there that garden communicators can help in getting out there! So thanks ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Yes, Ellen! I mean, nothing wrong with coordinating with the shutters, but how much joy can you get when you get shutter-matching AND butterflies? These plants have star power! I am glad to help show people the possibilities.

  6. […] If you already understand that planting natives is one of the best things you can do to support your local wildlife and see more butterflies, birds and other life in your garden, then you may have wondered how to use natives to best effect. Articles like Thomas’ are so important not only for the specific information provided, but just reminding us all of the idea that our locally-adapted plants can be used in a variety of ways in the landscape. You’re not stuck with a wildflower meadow or something scruffy – you can use these plants in any design style you wish. […]