June 30, 2010

Harness native plants for spectacular landscaping

As published in The Erin Advocate

If you going to try your hand at naturescaping, be sure to let your neighbours know it is part of a plan. Who knows, they may even want to get in on the project, extending an area of ground cover, wildflowers, ferns and flowering shrubs over multiple properties.

"Keep it neat and communicate with your neighbours," said Melanie Kramer, a residential greening specialist with Credit Valley Conservation (CVC). "If you trim the area or use a border, it looks more intentional."

Plants should not be too orderly within a naturalized landscape, but you can still treat your land like a living, three-dimensional canvas, with groupings of colour and varieties of texture. Planning the view from different vantage points (your window, the street or a bench in the middle of the zone), you can plant taller elements in the background and shorter ones near the front.

"Ask yourself what is missing from your yard, and look for opportunities," said Kramer, who presented the Your Green Yard Workshop recently in Orangeville. "Over time you can build it up. Start with hardy species that you know will survive."

Become familiar with your soil type, how the water drains and what may be buried underground, like well pipes, septic systems and cables. The Ontario One Call utility notification service has a toll-free line: 1-800-400-2255.

If converting a lawn area, it is recommended that you remove the grass or kill it off by covering it with plastic, or a layer of newspaper and soil. It is a dramatic commitment, so it is perhaps best to start with a small area.

Low maintenance is one of the goals, so it makes sense to use native plants that thrived in this area for thousands of years before European settlement. Native species are drought tolerant and will not require chemical pesticides or fertilizers.

Groupings of trees or shrubs provide shelter and resting sites for birds, butterflies and small mammals – berry or nut-producing shrubs will attract wildlife year-round.

More trees are always good news – only about 12 per cent of this area has tree cover, and Environment Canada recommends 30 per cent. Species like Sugar Maple, Black Cherry, Yellow or White Birch, Basswood and White Ash should do well if you want to create a deciduous canopy.

For primarily sunny areas, pick prairie and meadow plants like the purple Wild Bergamot, the yellow Black-eyed Susan, the orange Butterfly Weed or the pink Spotted Joe-pye Weed. There are many attractive tall grasses as well. Learn more through the native plant database at www.evergreen.ca or try the Canadian Wildlife Federation site: www.wildaboutgardening.org. Photos of various plants are easily accessed through Google Images.

For shady areas, choose woodland plants like the blue Wild Geranium, the red Wild Columbine or the showy white Bloodroot; some are better suited to moist conditions. For shrubbery, consider Serviceberry, Chokecherry or Flowering Raspberry. You can also cultivate a rain garden by directing water run-off to a low area well away from the house.

There are many plants that are considered "invasive" – not just the poisonous ones like Giant Hogweed, but more common ground covers like English Ivy and Periwinkle. These two are acceptable if they are not allowed to "escape" to a natural area where their aggressive growth could crowd out other plant species. Others, like Curly Pondweed, Goutweed and Japanese Knotweed are considered a risk anywhere. Check out www.ontarioinvasiveplants.ca.

If buying plants from a nursery, consider native varieties instead of "cultivars" that have been grown to enhance specific characteristics. Also, plants like Queen Anne's Lace are not encouraged, since they were imported from Europe and are not true "natives". Learn more from the Ontario Society for Ecological Restoration: www.serontario. Also, the Canadian Wildlife Service has "Planting the Seed" guides on aquatic plants and meadow communities at www.on.ec.gc.ca/wildlife (click Publications).

CVC's ecological landscaping web page has a list of landscape architects that can assist with large projects, which could include low-maintenance lawns, permeable paving and "green" structures. Go to www.creditvalleyca.ca/landscaping. You will also find there a list of Native Plant Nurseries and Seed Sources where you can get advice, ranging from Humber Nurseries in Brampton (www.gardencentre.com) to Baker Forestry in Erin (905-877-9390).

Additional fact sheets will soon be added to the CVC site, including lists of which plants grow best in various soil types. More workshops are planned for this fall.