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Garden Basics
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Compact backyard native garden, photo courtesy of "Matilija Bob" Sussman, Moorpark, CA

The success of a garden — whether large or small — is contingent on a fundamental principle. Plants will thrive best if planted in the right spot, meaning in a location where the conditions of water, light, climate, and soil match those to which the plants are adapted. To ensure proper plant placement in the restoration and management of your backyard habitat, you’ll need a plan.

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Consider the following:

NATURAL DESIGN
RETHINK YOUR LAWN

GROWING CONDITIONS

SOIL/COMPOST

LIGHT CONSIDERATIONS

REGARD FOR WILDLIFE

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NATURAL DESIGN

Graphic from “Audubon At Home in Seattle – Gardening for Life” available at Audubon.org/bird/at_home

Map out your property — using graph paper is a handy way to do this — show all elements of the area, such as the house, driveway, paths, stone walls, existing plants, lawn, etc. Note areas of sunlight and shade, wind direction, wet and dry spots, soil type and soil pH. With tracing paper or clear acetate, create overlays to the map indicating areas that will be removed and those that will be added. You may want to involve a landscape designer, use landscape software, or visit our web site resource for more ideas.

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RETHINK YOUR LAWN

A converted front lawn. Photo courtesy “Matilija Bob” Sussman, Moorpark, CA

If each one of us that takes care of our own lawn (49 million U.S. households), replaced just ONE square yard (9 square feet) of lawn with alternative plantings, we would:

  • • Stop 60,000 tons of grass clippings from finding their way to a landfill
  • • Provide more than 10,000 acres of better habitat for wildlife
  • • Eliminate 1.2 million hours of mowing
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Follow the steps and resources on the Minimize Lawn Action Plan to begin to transform your thirsty lawn into a healthy yard.

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GROWING CONDITIONS

  • • Find the planting zone you live in on a USDA plant hardiness zone map (pictured left). This average temperature range will guide you in purchasing plants that can survive in your climate.
  • • Be aware of various micro-environments around your home, which create specialized growing conditions. For instance, a hillside may be more susceptible to wind, calling for tougher, drought-tolerant plants.
  • • Know the average rainfall in your area, and more specifically, recognize areas of your outdoor space that tend to be wet or dry most of the season. Plant accordingly.
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SOIL/COMPOST

Photo courtesy USDA

  • • Know the type, quality, and pH of your soil. Whether the soil is sand or clay, whether it has enough nutrients, and whether it is acidic or alkaline all make a difference to a plant. These elements determine water retention, food sources, and nutrient availability. A simple testing kit can give you pH readings, but for a complete soil profile, you’ll need to send a sample to a lab. Contact your local Cooperative Extension for soil testing facilities in your area
  • • Understand the soil needs for the plants you choose, matching plants with your soil type. For instance, native plants found in woodlands prefer rich soil, as is found on the forest floor. Other natives, such as those found in dry, exposed soils, prefer less fertile earth.
  • • If you find that your soil needs improving to increase its nutrient and moisture-holding capacities, add decayed organic matter such as compost. Compost use is a remedy for many soil problems, and because healthy soil translates to healthy plants, the creation of a compost pile is a must for gardeners. In addition, it saves precious landfill space.
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LIGHT CONSIDERATIONS

Sunset in Carlsbad, California, photo by Gary Stolz, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

  • • The south side of the house is the brightest, hottest, and most dry while the north side is darkest, least warm and often wet.
  • • Determine the areas that get full sun, partial sun, and shade and mark these on your map. This will further help you select the correct plant for the site.
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REGARD FOR WILDLIFE

Cottontail Rabbit, a common backyard visitor. Photo by William R. James, U.S. FWS

  • • Connect planting areas — from your front yard to back yard, and from your yard to your neighbors’ yards — to create a wildlife corridor.
  • • Vary the levels of vegetation to mimic natural landscape structure and provide wildlife habitat. Plant large and small trees, shrubs, herbaceous undergrowth, groundcovers, and vines. Keep the tier idea even for meadows and wetlands, designing with plants of different heights.
  • • Plant in masses rather than an individual plant here and there: it’s more aesthetically pleasing of even more value to wildlife.
  • • Retain dead trees and snags where safety permits to provide foraging, nesting, and perching opportunities for birds and other wildlife.
  • • Rake leaf litter under and in front of shrubs to provide a mulch cover for plants and foraging area for ground-feeding birds. In similar fashion, rake brush into piles that provide areas of shelter and protection for wildlife.
  • • Use natural borders rather than fencing. Native shrubs create a hedgerow beneficial to wildlife, aesthetically pleasing, and maintenance-free.
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Resources/Links

NATURAL DESIGN

Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Natural Landscaping Basics

http://www.bbg.org/gar2/topics/wildflower/handbooks/going_native/3.html

Audubon At Home in Seattle – Gardening For Life:
Offers a variety of success stories and ideas for creating a natural garden

http://www.audubon.org/bird/at_home/GardeningForLife.html

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SOIL/COMPOST

Brooklyn Botanic Garden
How Compost Builds the Soil

http://www.bbg.org/gar2/topics/sustainable/handbooks/easycompost/3.html

USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
Backyard Conservation Tip Sheet on Composting in the Yard

http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/feature/backyard/compyrd.html