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Grass Roots: How To Build a Healthy, Natural Garden

Harvest Pain by Dan Nuttall

A landscape architect and artist gives us the lowdown on building a healthy, natural garden – and it’s more cerebral than you might imagine

By Dan Nuttall
Photography by Dan Nuttall

Recent events have us re-evaluating our needs as urban animals. The pandemic has made us acutely aware of the size and quality of our spaces. There is a direct link between attributes of space and quality of life, so our concerns are quite natural. For many, the pandemic could be described as an extended phase of “interiority” – both mental and physical. We’ve been preoccupied with our mental health, as well as the refinement of our domestic spaces. We have turned our gazes outward, taking a greater interest in the world outside. Is there an exterior space to escape to? Is there something to look at, engage with, or please the eye? We register anew the movement of light, the wonder of change in vegetation, the small dramas of street life and the presence and behaviour of animals. It’s no small wonder that birdwatching experienced an enormous surge in interest. By reconnecting to nature, we can give back to it, and also to ourselves, preserving our largest and only refuge: Planet Earth.

Six ways of thinking to create a natural garden landscape with high-quality spaces brimming with life

Illustration Map
map illustration by Anna Lin

1. Connect the disconnected

Linking patches of nature allows energy, material and organisms to inhabit and flow. These links not only provide habitats but also allow animals to locate new resources such as food, water, mates and hiding cover. In small spaces such as a backyard, connecting habitat can be as simple as planting a tree that fills in the open space between two other trees. The continuous canopy will serve as a highway for animals. If the tree is native and planted in the appropriate space, it will require little maintenance. The tree itself also sequesters carbon and provides oxygen and numerous other benefits. 

snake hibernaculum
Create spaces for nature and species to thrive. Pictured: a snake hibernaculum.

2. Let problems guide solutions

Are there areas where nature is telling us to pay attention to something? That annoying erosion leading to the low-lying wet area in your yard that you’re trying to fill in or drain? If we think “rain garden” and work with nature, it becomes an opportunity. Nature is providing free services. Plant moisture-loving species and watch life take advantage of this sanctuary. That open patch of exposed soil that never grows anything? Insects and birds rejoice at the sight of such open spaces. Augment the area with additional habitat – leave a layer of leaf litter, let a log decay. If you let the problem act as the resource, sometimes a troublesome dark spot in the garden is its own unique solution.

water runoff makes for an ideal rustic bird bath
Save resources. Here, water runoff makes for an ideal rustic bird bath.

3. Be edgy and complicated

Energy flux is greatest along edges. Think of the edge of the forest or body of water, for example, and the noticeable presence and diversity of plant and animal species. The greater the amount and complexity of edge, the greater the variety of resources. To increase the edge size, increase its length and enhance diversity. If a circle’s perimeter looked more like a snowflake while the amount of interior area stayed fixed, it would vastly increase the amount of edge. Diversify these edges not just with an assortment of species but with structure, too: plant short and tall, deciduous and evergreen, trees and shrubs, grasses and ground covers. 

Country landscape
In city or country settings, add varied species at the edges of a natural garden or open space.

4. Diversify your portfolio

We all have “stock” in planetary fate. One of the primary lessons we can take from ecology is that homogeneous monocultures result in a reduction of species and a less resilient ecosystem. That backyard with grass and one row of flowering shrubs could instead be a native meadow with a dozen native species of varying heights and growth patterns that also feed pollinators and birds. If some environmental event places stress on this new and diversified backyard ecosystem, it may affect some of the species, but because there are additional species present, there is an opportunity for it to spring back.

plant diversity in a landscape, Building a Natural Garden
The more plant diversity in a landscape, the healthier it is.

5. Go with the flow

Natural spaces work better when we acknowledge cycles. By thinking about ecology in terms of cycles possessing flow between components, we can work on different points in the cycle while we think about connectivity. Picture the hydrological cycle, for example: rain falling from the sky, running over surfaces, percolating though soils, evaporating through plants, forming clouds and then repeating the cycle. At what point are you affecting the cycle, and is there a way to maintain or improve the quality of the resource? The same can be said for nutrient cycling in gardens. Does the removal of decaying vegetation serve as a benefit or hindrance to local ecologies? 

water flow and decomposition, Building a Natural Garden
Work with nature’s cycles, including water flow and decomposition.

6. Do nothing or little

When the solution is doing less or nothing, how can one not be on board? That weedy area could be left alone, if you keep one eye on its species composition. Or augment it with natives. Have “no mow” areas or an entire lawn left alone to reduce labour, provide ecological benefits and save money. Those branches you just cut down? Pile them in some way that pleases you and watch the wrens and sparrows delight in their complexity. Be aware that neighbours might not like the tousled bed-head look, and municipalities often enforce property standards that dictate lawn heights via bylaws.

Pile of tree brunches. Building a Natural Garden
Sometimes less is more when creating a thriving garden.

Discover more about natural garden designs and ecological consulting at DANDOESDESIGN.COM

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