Natural landscaping is adapted to the climate, geography and hydrology and should require no pesticides, fertilizers and watering to maintain, given that native plants have adapted and evolved to local conditions over thousands of years. However, these applications may be necessary for some preventive care of trees and other vegetation in areas of degraded or weedy landscapes.
Native plants suit today's interest in "low-maintenance" gardening and landscaping, with many species vigorous and hardy and able to survive winter cold and summer heat. Once established, they can flourish without irrigation or fertilization, and are resistant to most pests and diseases.
Many municipalities have quickly recognized the benefits of natural landscaping due to municipal budget constraints and reductions and the general public is now benefiting from the implementation of natural landscaping techniques to save water and create more personal time.
Ecology and habitat
Native plants provide suitable habitat for native species of butterflies, birds, pollinators, and other wildlife. They provide more variety in gardens by offering myriad alternatives to the often planted introduced species, cultivars, and invasive species. The indigenous plants have co-evolved with animals, fungi and microbes, to form a complex network of relationships. They are the foundation of their native habitats and ecosystems, or natural communities.
Such gardens often benefit from the plants being evolved and habituated to the local climate, pests and herbivores, and soil conditions, and so may require fewer to no soil amendments, irrigation, pesticides, and herbicides for a beautiful, lower maintenance, and more sustainable landscape.
However, while local provenance plants have adapted to local conditions (which includes climate, soil, and other native plants and animals), there will often be instances, especially in cities, where one or more of these will have been radically altered.
- Building rubble used as landfill may raise soil pH (i.e. create alkaline soil), which can be problematic in regions of acidic soils (with local plants adapted to acid soils).
- Buildings cast a substantial shade, this may give rise to conditions substantially shadier than needed by local plants.
- Soil which is high in organic material and nutrients is often introduced into gardens, or many gardeners will have used fertilizers. Plants from some areas may not thrive under these conditions. For example, many Australian plants are particularly sensitive to phosphorus.
- Many native plants are adapted to, and benefit from, periodic wildfires that occurred before and during pre-modern settlement. These fires can be simulated in the garden by either "high mowing" or a controlled burn every few years.
Many weeds in an area are usually the result of imported plants. These plants become invasive because there are no natural controls such as disease, weather, or fauna in their new environment. They take over native habitats, reducing shelter and food for local fauna. Using local provenance plants increases the biodiversity of and is important for the health of a region's overall ecology.
Much of the wild areas have been destroyed to make room for urban development. Housing developments have replaced native habitats with ornamental plants and lawns, pushing the wildland–urban interface further out. While development won't be stopped, gardeners can keep wild areas and green spaces filled with native species on their lots and in their communities.
Despite this, there are usually plenty of indigenous or native plants which will grow and thrive in the area one is trying to establish a native garden.
The use of native plants in a garden or landscape can both preserve and protect natural ecosystems, and reduce the amount of care and energy required to maintain a healthy garden or landscape. Native plants are adapted to the local climate and geology, and often require less maintenance than exotic species. Native plants also support populations of native birds, insects, and other animals that they coevolved with, thus promoting a healthy community of organisms.
Plants in a garden or maintained landscape often form a source population from which plants can colonize new areas. Avoiding the use of invasive species helps to prevent such plants from establishing new populations. Similarly, the use of native species can provide a valuable source to help these plants colonise new areas.
Some non-native species can form an ecological trap in which native species are lured into an environment that appears attractive but is poorly suited to them.
However, in Britain research by the University of Sheffield as part of the BUGS project (Biodiversity in Urban Gardens in Sheffield) has revealed that for many invertebrates – the majority of wild animals in most gardens – it is not just native plants which can sustain them. The findings were published in popular form in Ken Thompson's book 'No Nettles Required: The truth about wildlife gardening' He confirms the approach which Chris Baines had promoted in 'How to Make a Wildlife Garden'.
Some ecosystems may benefit from any increase in biomass, from the introduction of certain non-native species, or any increase in biodiversity. In the case of disturbed areas some exotic/non-native plants may fare better than the displaced, native inhabitants, in the process increasing the biodiversity and biological biomass.
Native gardens include the following kinds:
- Fully forested with leaf debris on the forest floor, including coarse woody debris if possible;
- Desert with arid loving plants and succulents;
- Grassy meadow with a variety of wildflowers and water features;
- Lowland savanna with grasses and native trees; and
- Oceanic dunescape with tall, salt tolerant grasses.
Some wildflower gardens attempt to recreate a prairie, including native grasses along with flowering plants, i. e. forbs. Such gardens benefit the local wildlife, often attracting birds, butterflies, and small mammals. By carefully choosing the plants for the garden, some of these animals can be encouraged to visit the garden. One popular type of wildflower garden specializes in attracting butterflies and is thus denominated a "butterfly garden".
The native plants cultivated in wildflower gardens often have deep roots, and therefore are effective selections for absorbing surface runoff and allowing the water to infiltrate into the local water table. Wildflower gardens cultivated for capturing runoff in this mode are denominated "rain gardens".
- no fertilization required
- no additional water
- more water available for other uses and other people
- zero to near zero work needed for maintenance
- no lawn mowing
- erosion reduced to a minimum
- natural landscaped plants take full advantage of rainfall
- when water restrictions are implemented, natural landscaped plants will survive, while more traditional plants may not
- increased habitat for native flora and fauna
- increased beneficial insect population reduces pests
- where heavily forested, provides shade on homes and businesses saving energy
- native plants rarely become invasive
- not good for outdoor games that require a manicured turf.
- in certain areas, wildfires or brushfires may be of great concern.
- may look less attractive due to reduced available range of plants to choose from.
- may be hard to find native plants which produce adequate quantities of edible matter.
Effect of new construction
In new construction, builders can either avoid clear cutting or clearing an entire property and disturbing other large flora or builders can completely clear an area of all flora to save construction time and replace the clearing with juvenile specimens once the job is complete. The downside to this is additional costs involved with purchasing replacements. The builder may also choose to plant additional native trees and other flora after construction to help the property blend with natural surroundings.
In some planned developments, natural landscaping is the requirement. Builders may not remove trees larger than a specific diameter and owners may not arbitrarily cut trees without a permit.
Throughout the world, forested areas were turned into cattle grazing or farmland. Often this land is then turned into residential or commercial use property. By returning the land back to its original state prior to human disturbance, vast amounts of energy usage and increasing pollution can be reduced. Natural landscaping costs less to install than traditional landscaping and, after the initial few years, reduces maintenance costs, combats erosion, and accommodates storm and flood waters better.
Native plant societies
In many parts of the world there are societies, clubs or local groups, such as Bushcare or ASGAP in Australia, the North American Native Plant Society, or the California Native Plant Society, which are made up of gardeners interested in growing plants local to their area, state or country. In the United States, Wild Ones--Native Plants, Natural Landscapes is a national organization with local chapters in many states. New England Wildflower Society, and Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. provide information on native plants and promote natural landscaping. These organizations can be the best resources for learning about and obtaining local native plants. Many members have spent years or decades cultivating local plants or bushwalking in local areas.
- Henry W. Art (2007), "A Gardener's Ecology", in C. Colston Burrell (ed.), Wildflower Gardens: 60 Spectacular Plants and How to Grow Them in Your Garden, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, p. 6, ISBN 9781889538310,
Native plant gardens that are designed to take advantage of local conditions and reflect prevailing ecological processes often are less work than high-maintenance formal beds and borders, and they blend more gracefully into the landscape.
- Tallamy, p. 12
- Douglas Tallamy (2009), Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Timber Press, p. 25, ISBN 9781604691467,
Because food for all animals starts with the energy harnessed by plants, the plants we grow in our gardens have the critical role of sustaining, directly or indirectly, all of the animals with which we share our living spaces. The degree to which the plants in our gardens succeed in this regard will determine the diversity and numbers of wildlife that can survive in managed landscapes.
- "BUGS projects - introduction".
- Thompson, Ken. "No Nettles Required: The Reassuring Truth About Wildlife Gardening". Archived from the original on 2010-06-02.
- Webb, Robert H. (2009). The Mojave Desert : ecosystem processes and sustainability. University of Nevada. ISBN 9780874177763.
- Lynn M. Steiner and Robert W. Domm (2012), "Using native plants", Rain Gardens: Sustainable Landscaping for a Beautiful Yard and a Healthy World, Voyageur Press, p. 94, ISBN 9780760340448CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
- "Home". Wild Ones Natural Landscapers, Ltd.
- "New Name, Deep Roots - Native Plant Trust". www.nativeplanttrust.org.
- "Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center - The Botanic Garden of Texas". Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
- Christopher, Thomas, ed. (2011), The New American Landscape: Leading Voices on the Future of Sustainable Gardening, Timber Press, ISBN 9781604691863
- Diekelmann, John and Robert M. Schuster (2002), Natural Landscaping: Designing with Native Plant Communities, University of Wisconsin Press, ISBN 9780299173241CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
- Stein, Sara (1993), Noah's Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Back Yards, Houghton-Mifflin, ISBN 0-395-65373-8
- Stein, Sara (1997). Planting Noah's Garden: Further Adventures in Backyard Ecology. Houghton-Mifflin. ISBN 9780395709603.
- Tallamy, Douglas W. (2007). Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens. Timber Press. ISBN 978-0-88192-854-9.
- Tallamy, Douglas W. (2020). Nature's Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard. Timber Press. ISBN 1604699000.
- Wasowski, Andy and Sally (2000). The Landscaping Revolution: Garden With Mother Nature, Not Against Her. Contemporary Books. ISBN 9780809226658.
- Wasowski, Sally (2001). Gardening With Prairie Plants: How to Create Beautiful Native Landscapes. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0816630879.