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Establishing a Native Landscape: A Step-by-Step Guide

Updated: Jun 13, 2023

Planting a native landscape is not just a garden project; it’s an ecological investment. In this post, we are delving into the nitty-gritty of how you can strategically establish your native landscape on your own site. We will equip you with an in-depth introduction to give you the knowledge and tools to meaningfully begin transforming your yard into a thriving ecosystem.

In establishing a native landscape, you are doing more than just planting trees and flowers. You are crafting a living tapestry woven with the threads of local flora, creating habitat for wildlife, and fostering a microcosm of abundance and self-reliance. Your garden will become a sanctuary not just for you, but for the countless creatures that will call it home.

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Step 1: Site Analysis

Soil Analysis

Start by analyzing your site’s soil. Basic at-home soil tests typically test the soil's pH and primary nutrient levels (nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium) and can be sufficient for most backyard hobbyists. Below are a few links to some basic at-home tests:

Before we go deeper into what else can be tested for in soil, many folks will simply forego the following and just begin planting, as testing for the following can become a bit more expensive and time consuming. I, personally, have not done any of the following in my yard. However, if you are growing food for personal consumption or potential economic benefit as well, it can be important to fully understand your soil as it relates to the below.

  • Secondary Nutrients Testing: Calcium, magnesium, sulfur.

  • Micronutrients: Copper, zinc, iron, manganese, boron, and others.

  • Organic Matter Content: This measures the amount of decomposed plant and animal material in the soil. Organic matter improves soil structure, water retention, and nutrient availability.

  • Soil Texture and Structure: This refers to the proportions of sand, silt, and clay in the soil, which affect how the soil holds water and nutrients.

  • Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC): This is a measure of the soil's ability to retain and exchange cations (positively charged ions) with plant roots. Soils with a higher CEC can hold more nutrients and make them available to plants.

  • Electrical Conductivity (EC): This measures the soil's ability to conduct electrical currents, which is related to the levels of dissolved salts in the soil. High EC values may indicate soil salinity problems.

  • Soil Compaction: This measures the soil’s density. Compacted soil can restrict root growth and water infiltration.

  • Moisture Content: Knowing how much water the soil holds is important for irrigation management.

  • Presence of Contaminants: In some cases, especially in urban areas, it might be necessary to test for contaminants such as lead, arsenic, or other heavy metals that could be harmful to plants or humans.

  • Beneficial Microorganisms: Some advanced soil tests will analyze the microbial life in the soil, as certain fungi and bacteria are beneficial for nutrient uptake and disease resistance in plants.

  • Soil Temperature: While not always a standard part of a soil test, knowing your soil’s temperature can be beneficial for planting timing and understanding if the soil is suitable for certain plants.

For more comprehensive soil testing and more info in general about soil testing, check out the Cornell Soil Health Laboratory. There you can purchase different soil testing packages and get underway with comprehensive analysis of your soil.

Sunlight Exposure

sunlight coming through the trees in a backyard

Understanding how the sun moves across the sky and how various monuments (trees, other buildings, hills, etc.) impede the sun from reaching a target area of the site are important to understand before selecting what to plant. If you have spent a few years on your site, then you will likely know how the sun and shade work in your specific location at various points throughout the year. Even if you spend an afternoon and monitor the sun across the sky, take into account the season you are in, know where north, south, east, and west are, you can probably understand the sun and shade potential of your site throughout the year. However, keep in mind that if you have mature deciduous trees and you are observing in winter, the leaf cover and shade resulting form them can be exponentially larger in summer. I’m personally always surprised at how much shade my mature maple tree provides based on how it looks in winter.

Another low-tech option is to observe the plants growing around the site. Certain plants that require explicit sun conditions to thrive, could be a tell-tale sign.

Finally, there are some great apps that you can use to visualize the sun in 3-d across the sky. You can turn on your camera through these apps and point towards the sky and it will draw the sun's path throughout the year right on your screen. Apps like Sun Seeker can help you do this.

Drainage Patterns.

puddle in a backyard lawn

Monitoring drainage patterns of a site is crucial in understanding how water moves across the site and through the land as you'll want to either place plantings strategically to take advantage of the natural water flow or augment the land to curate the flow of water to be more beneficial to your long-term plan. Here's a guide on how to monitor the drainage patterns of a site:

  • Initial Site Survey: Start by visually surveying the site. Look for signs of erosion, areas where water may be pooling, and the general slope of the land. Note the locations of any existing drainage systems, natural watercourses, and low-lying areas.

  • Study Topographic Maps: Obtain a topographic map of the site. While this may be overkill for some, topographic maps will show contour lines that represent different elevations. They can be a bit pricey however (around $500, but this can vary drastically depending on location and complexity of site), but you should contact a local surveyor for a quote. On the map, pay attention to the contour lines; closely spaced lines indicate steeper slopes, while widely spaced lines indicate a gentle slope. Look for natural drainage paths where water is likely to flow based on the contour lines.

  • Monitor During Rainfall: One of the most effective ways to understand drainage patterns is to observe the site during or immediately after a rainstorm. Watch how the water flows across the site and take note of where it pools or runs off. Take photographs or videos for future reference.

  • Conduct a Perc Test: A percolation test, or perc test, helps determine how quickly water is absorbed into the soil, which is essential for understanding drainage. Dig a hole about 12 inches deep, fill it with water, and observe how long it takes for the water to drain. If it drains too quickly, you may have erosion issues; if it drains too slowly, you may have water-logging problems. Here’s a link from University of Nebraska for more details on how to conduct a perc test:

  • Use Soil Analysis: As part of understanding drainage, it's important to know the type of soil on your site. Clay soils tend to drain slowly, while sandy soils drain quickly. Perform a soil analysis as indicated in the previous section to determine the soil type and structure.

  • Assess Vegetation and Ground Cover: Observe the types of vegetation and ground cover present. Well-established vegetation can slow down surface runoff, while bare ground might lead to faster runoff and erosion.

  • Utilize Technology: There are various technologies and software available for drainage analysis, such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) that can model drainage patterns and simulate water flow under different conditions.

  • Seek Professional Help: If the site is complex or if you are planning a significant project, it might be worth consulting a hydrologist or civil engineer who specializes in drainage and water management.

  • Document and Monitor Over Time: Drainage patterns can change over time due to various factors such as changes in land use, vegetation, and climate. It’s important to document your findings and continuously monitor the site, especially after significant rainfall events.

Once you’ve gone through a soil, sun, and drainage analysis, you are well prepared to begin plant selection. Upon your findings, you may need to do some alterations to your site such as soil augmentation or further landscape preparation. That is beyond the scope of this write up, but we have plans to address in future posts.

Step 2: Planning the Native Landscape Layers, Selecting, and Sourcing

plant guild

Plan out the layers of your forest. For this section, we are going to assume we are doing a native food forest on a site in the Northern Piedmont just for purposes of illustrating plant selection.

  1. Canopy layer: Native trees like American persimmon and Black Walnut.

  2. Understory layer: Smaller trees and shrubs like serviceberries, raspberries, and blackberries.

  3. Vine layer: Climbing plants like wild grape.

  4. Herbaceous layer: Perennial plants like ramps and nettles.

  5. Ground cover: Low-growing plants that cover the soil like beach strawberry.

  6. Root layer: Edible roots and tubers.

  7. Fungal layer: Mushrooms and other fungi.

Establishing Plant Guilds

Create plant guilds by grouping plants that benefit each other. For example, pair nitrogen-fixing plants like clover with your fruit trees to help improve soil fertility, include flowering plants to attract pollinators, etc. Read more about plant guilds here:

Be sure to select plant varieties that are native to the ecoregion. This will ensure that your native landscape or food forest is adapted to local conditions and supports the local ecosystem. Review our NativePlantMatch tool for plant suggestions and contact local nurseries or conservation groups to source native plants.

Step 3: Planting Schedule

  • Early Spring: Plant bare-root trees and shrubs. This is the time to plant your canopy and understory layers. Ensure that the soil is workable and not too wet.

  • Late Spring/Early Summer: Plant the vine, herbaceous, and ground cover layers. This is also a good time to plant annuals in your food forest to help with soil stabilization and to attract pollinators.

  • Fall: Plant garlic and other bulbs and add additional trees and shrubs if needed.

Step 4: Mulching and Watering

Mulching is essential to retain soil moisture, suppress weeds, and add organic matter to the soil. Apply a thick layer of mulch around your plants, especially the young trees. Water the plants regularly to ensure they get established, particularly during the first year. Watering is more critical when first planting. As the vegetation acclimates to the new environment and integrates with the soil, they become less dependent on supplemental watering.

Step 5: Monitoring and Maintenance

Regularly monitor your new plantings, especially in the first few years. Look for signs of pests, disease, or nutrient deficiencies, and address these issues promptly using organic methods. One tool that can help you is Fungal Disease Database, which is a small, but growing database of common fungal diseases that impact vegetation:

Additional Considerations

While planting your native landscape, it’s essential to consider the long-term sustainability and impacts on the local ecosystem. Here are a few final tips:

  • Water Management: Make sure you implement sustainable water management practices like swales and rain gardens, especially in areas prone to drought or heavy rainfall.

  • Soil Health: Regularly test your soil to ensure it has the nutrients necessary for plant growth. Incorporate organic matter like compost and mulch to improve soil structure and fertility.

  • Pest Management: Instead of using chemical pesticides, encourage natural predators such as ladybugs and birds to help control pests.

  • Community Involvement: Engage the local community in the planning and maintenance of the food forest. This not only educates the community but also helps in preserving local biodiversity and promoting sustainable practices.

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