Garden Beds for Beauty and Sustainability

You don’t have to completely start over in your garden beds when you have new plants and new ideas to try. One of the best things we can do to foster health for ourselves and the natural community is to increase density and layers in our landscape.

Many gardeners have older beds that need updating as plants come and go over time. There’s no need to remove an exotic plant — unless it’s regionally invasive — as long as the plant is healthy; just fill in around it with more natives adapted to your region. There will be many opportunities to fill gaps that are seasonal and spatial, and doing so will decrease the need for annual wood mulch applications, help compete against weeds and provide more for wildlife.

Pistils Landscape Design + Build
Spatial Gaps

In a natural landscape — like a meadow, woodland, fen or even desert — plants will be layered. There will be ground covers that are often under a foot tall, then mid-layer plants that may be roughly 1 to 3 feet tall and, finally, perennials shooting up to 10 feet high, followed by shrubs and trees of different shapes. Each of these plant types fills gaps in the space and provides a host of ecosystem services such as wildlife habitat, storm runoff mitigation, air and water cleaning and soil stabilization.

Look at the spatial gaps in your beds — at what layer are they? Ground, middle or upper? Begin to fill in voids that other plants may have once occupied, especially looking to native plants in your region that provide more for local wildlife.
Fox Whyte Landscape Architecture & Design Inc.
In many gardens, the most common layer that needs more plants is the ground layer, and some of the best plants to fill it include native sedges and bunchgrasses.

In shady areas, look to white-tinged sage (Carex albicans) and eastern star sedge (Carex radiata), which are both native from the Plains to the East Coast; and Sprengel’s sedge (Carex sprengelii), native from New Mexico north to Montana, the Dakotas and Nebraska and east into New EnglandGardeners along the West Coast can try round fruit sedge (Carex globosa) from California, or even clustered field sedge (Carex praegracilis), which is native to much of North America and makes a good lawn alternative.

For gardens in the sun, consider sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula), native everywhere in the U.S. but Oregon, Washington, Idaho and New England; for the Mountain West, look to Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis). Another elegant, shortgrass option in full sun is prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), native from Oklahoma east to Arkansas and north to Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota.
Lavish Gardens
Seasonal Gaps

You may already have plenty of plants in your beds, but you may find there are gaps in bloom time where you want to see more color and provide more resources for pollinators. When are those gaps during the year? Often, it’s late summer into early fall, so look to regionally native species of aster (Symphyotrichum spp., Eurybia spp.), goldenrod (Solidago spp., Oligoneuron spp.), boneset (Eupatorium spp.) and Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium spp.).

Once you know the spatial and seasonal gaps, you can begin filling in and rejuvenating the garden. Make sure to cover every layer and every week with plants and flowers — this density is aesthetically appealing for us and healthier for the ecosystem we are part of.
Susan Cohan Gardens
Regional Resources

It’s critical to not only know your region but also your site. Choosing plants adapted to your garden’s soil, light, drainage and climate are crucial for long-term plant health and wildlife support. Spending 10 minutes to research a new plant that takes one minute to dig in is a good adage (like digging a $10 hole for a $1 plant), and researching will empower you with incredible knowledge and confidence.

To help get started, you can turn to the landscape designers across the U.S. who are, more and more, focusing on native plants in their region — often, an expert can help you focus and offer a wealth of experience to save you time and money. You can also look to regional guidebooks as well as university extensions. Native plant societies abound in every state, and national native plant databases are plentiful, including Pollinator PartnershipThe Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and the National Wildlife Federation.

This year, make the garden come alive for you, wildlife and a sustainable future by building layers and renewing your older beds. “More plants” is an easy motto to live by for gardeners, and it just so happens to be wonderful for the natural world too.

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