Unlawning fundamentals

pink flower field

You’ve heard about the benefits of natural landscaping, and you’re ready to turn your lawn into garden or habitat. While unlawning is a straightforward process, it can be intimidating to get started. Learn the fundamentals of unlawning to make natural landscaping easy, cheap, and effective!

Work with nature

Unlawning is all about transforming your traditional landscaping into a low maintenance landscape that benefits the environment. The easiest way to create this kind of landscape is to work with the natural characteristics of your land. What does this mean?

1. Choose native plants

Plants that are native to your area are the most likely to survive dry summers, long winters, or other climate conditions that your area may experience. Native plants also attract beneficial insects and local birds. Source your plants from local nurseries that specialize in native plants. To find native plants, check with local garden groups and organizations like wild ones.

native plants adorn a stairway
Landscaping with native plants saves water and mowing time, and benefits pollinators more than ornamental grasses and flowers

2. Pay attention to soil

Your soil pH and particle size (clay, sand, or loam) will have a large impact on which native plants will thrive in your lawn habitat. You can perform soil tests at home to find out more about your soil and how it may affect your plant choices. A healthy natural landscape begins with healthy soil! Some plants are able to improve your overall soil health. And reducing mowing will prevent soil compaction that impairs plant growth.

3. Natural aesthetic

Your natural landscape design should reflect the character of your land. For example, if your property is near a floodplain or stream, water features and wetland species make a lot of sense! Conversely, on a hilltop with lots of natural stone, native grasses mixed with a few shrubs will work better than tall trees with deep growing root systems. Your natural surroundings are often the best indicator of what kinds of landscape will work in your lawn.

A rain garden in Virginia planted with native wetland species
A rain garden can help with stormwater runoff and is a good example of natural landscaping

Start Small

While you may have grand ambitions of a pristine wildlife habitat in your backyard, it can take some time for your native perennials to get established. While it can be exciting to create as much habitat as possible in your lawn, keep in mind that the first year of your native species life they will require more water. Once they are established, your natural plant communities should be able to thrive in your yard without much help from you.

A beautiful landscape over time

When you start small by unlawning one or two areas of your yard at a time, you reduce the amount of time you’ll spend installing native plants. Frequently, these native species will spread on their own after a year or two.

One of the best ways to start unlawning is to plant a pollinator garden in your yard. Over time you can expand this garden. This will help you cut back on mowing without totally eliminating your grasses, and lets you introduce species native to the area a few at a time. By slowly converting your yard into a natural landscape, you can learn about gardening at your own pace while native wildlife starts to enjoy the benefits right away.

Consider water in the natural landscape

In the wild, plants survive on rainwater and groundwater. Rainwater is seasonal in most places, and many lawns do not have enough access to groundwater to stay green during a drought. Lawns also tend to flood during heavy rain. With careful plant selection and placement, you can alleviate both of these extreme water situations.

Landscaping for seasonal rainwater

In dry or steep areas of your lawn, stormwater runoff is likely to cause erosion, but not flooding. To preserve your soil and prevent water pollution, those areas need drought tolerant ground cover. Native grasses can be a good alternative to turf, and pair well with flowering perennials. A meadow like this can be maintained with minimal mowing – once or twice a year.

pocket prairie in Champagne, Illinois
Meadows are easy to establish and attract amazing wildlife! Truly the epitome of natural landscaping. Photo by Jeff Bryant on Flikr https://flickr.com/photos/jeff-m-bryant/

Landscaping for more water

Where your lawn tends to get muddy and is flatter, flooding is more of a concern than erosion, but drought can still strike. Trees and native shrubs with deep growing root systems tend to be the most resilient to these extremes. Because they provide shade, they can slow down evaporation during the hottest and driest times of year. And with their deep roots, they can help stormwater to infiltrate the ground. Once water is under the soil, the likelihood of both water pollution and surface flooding is greatly decreased.

Plan for native species of all kinds

While plant selection is the primary aspect of your natural landscaping under your control, you should spare some thought for the insects and wildlife that may take advantage of those plants. Flowers are good for attracting butterflies and bees, but the best pollinator habitats also include trees, shrubs, and water sources. Pollinator larvae (e.g. caterpillars) get their food from leaves. Oak and cherry trees can support hundreds of native species of pollinators, as well as the birds that eat them.

Animals in the garden

While it may seem counterintuitive to encourage predators and pollinators at the same time, the complex interactions of these communities are critical for a healthy natural landscape. If the butterflies in your garden had no natural predators, their larvae would decimate your plants!

So, encourage the birds in addition to bees. You can tailor your habitat to encourage or discourage all kinds of wildlife, including woodpeckers, raptors and ground dwelling animals. If you allow nature to take full advantage of your native landscaping, you will be rewarded with incredible photo opportunities, unique experiences, and plenty of other benefits.

close up photo of blue bird perched on branch
This gentleman may chow down on some of your caterpillars, but isn’t he cute? Photo by Andrew Mckie on Pexels.com

Incorporate layers

When you start installing native plants, you’ll be thinking in terms of square footage and placement. But your trees and shrubs will quickly reach much higher than your herbaceous plants. And if you have vines, they will happily spread horizontally and vertically. Traditional landscaping incorporates vertical elements to highlight or disguise certain areas. With natural landscaping, the same can be done – but those layers of vegetation can also serve a higher purpose.

Natural layers

The natural landscape contains an overstory, mid-story, understory, ground level, and a subterranean layer. By selecting a wide variety of local plants that includes trees, shrubs, and vines in addition to flowers, you’ll create an opportunity for a natural habitat to emerge in your yard. This is one area where unlawning differs from gardening. By mimicking nature, unlawning supports native wildlife including bees, butterflies, and birds.

Share your unlawning success with neighbors

One of the most overlooked aspects of natural landscaping is the way it benefits your entire neighborhood. Your neighbors may notice the increase in local birds, but they may not know all the ways that native habitats and natural landscaping can improve their lives.

Be sure to fill your neighbors in on how your native plants helps promote clean air and water. Stormwater runoff impacts everyone, and natural landscapes are one of the cheapest ways to mitigate floods.

A native landscape is a beautiful landscape

An easy way to promote your natural landscaping to your neighbors is to incorporate a small share garden. Everyone loves food! And by supplying free organic produce like tomatoes, peppers, and herbs, you can help your neighbors to associate your natural landscaping less with wild animals and more with food. Maybe they’ll come around and establish a native plant garden of their own!

a butterfly and bee check for nectar on a native flowering plant
Colorful native plants easily match and surpass the beauty of exotic species.

Choosing colorful native plants helps promote the beauty of nature and wild places. As you find out which native plants work for your landscape, you can share your knowledge and wisdom with neighbors and friends. You can teach others how to find native plants and how to design their natural landscaping to look intentional and beautiful.

Ask for help

Unlawning can be intimidating, no matter how much research you do. Luckily, the number of native gardening experts is on the rise. Unlawn.org offers planning services for natural landscapes. We can help you to select colorful native plants, map out your native landscaping plans, and provide technical advice on installing native plants.

an unlawning plan prepared by unlawn.org showing soil types and the forested wetland surrounding a property
An unlawning plan showing soil types on a property

Other groups around the country like wild ones, the national wildlife federation, and homegrown national park also offer technical advice, certifications, and signage.

Natural landscaping brings nature home

a monarch butterfly enjoys nectar while a dog watches from the porch
Natural landscaping gives you unique opportunities to see species like the monarch butterfly in your front or back yard.

One of the biggest benefits of natural landscaping is the connection to nature that it fosters. You will suddenly find yourself swapping knowledge with neighbors, paying extra attention to the seasons and weather, and thinking about your land’s role in the ecosystem.

As your native plants mature, you’ll find yourself with extras you can give away to friends. It’s an incredible feeling to help others connect to nature!