Conservation Landscaping

by Katherine Reshetiloff, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Reprinted from The Bay Journal, April 2004

Conservation Landscaping: How Saving the Bay Can Save You Time and Money

The goal of conservation landscaping is to reduce pollution and improve the local environment. In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, this style of landscaping is sometimes called BayScaping.

Conservation landscaping provides habitat for local and migratory animals, conserves native plants and improves water quality. Landowners benefit by reducing the time and expense of mowing, watering, fertilizing and treating lawn and garden areas. Conservation landscaping can also be used to address problems such as erosion, poor soils, steep slopes or poor drainage.

Many landscapes typically receive high inputs of chemicals, fertilizers, water and time. They require a lot of energy (human as well as gas-powered) to maintain. These inputs can be reduced through the application of organic alternatives, decreasing the area requiring gas-powered tools and using native plants that can be sustained with little watering and care.

Woodland garden and hummingbird feeder
A woodland garden provides privacy and a shady resting place for people and for wildlife. Layers of trees, shrubs and perennials offer habitat and yearlong food for wild visitors.
Butterfly feeding at a pinxter flower, a native azalea
A butterfly feeds on nectar from a pinxter flower, one of Virginia's native azaleas.

One of the simplest ways to begin is by replacing lawn areas with locally native trees, shrubs and perennial plants. The structure, leaves, flowers, seeds, berries and other fruits of these plants provide food and shelter for a variety of birds and other wildlife. The roots of these larger plants are also deeper than those of typical lawn grass, and thus are better at holding soil and capturing rainwater.

Native plants naturally occur in the region in which they evolved. Because native plants are adapted to local soils and climate conditions, they generally require less water and fertilizer than nonnatives. Natives can be more resistant to insects and disease, and thus are less likely to need pesticides.

Wildlife have evolved with native plants and are able to use them for food, cover and to rear young. Using native plants helps to preserve the balance and beauty of natural ecosystems.

If gardens are to have the greatest ecological value for wildlife, it is necessary to mimic natural plant groups and incorporate features that provide as many habitat features as possible.

Plants are one of the most important features of an animal's habitat because they often provide most, or even all of an animal's habitat needs. Animals in turn help plants to reproduce through the dispersal of pollen, fruits or seeds. Consequently, plants and animals are interdependent and certain plants and animals are often found together.

Each plant prefers or tolerates a range of soil, sunlight, moisture, temperature and other conditions. Plants sharing similar requirements are likely to be found together in communities that make up different habitats like wetlands, meadows and forests. Matching plants with similar soil, sunlight, moisture and other requirements, and planting them according to existing site conditions will not only do a good job of approximating a natural habitat, but will also increase a plant's chance of survival.

For a few dollars, the Virginia Tech Soil Testing Laboratory can analyze a soil sample sent them. Soil sample boxes and forms are available from the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District, at all Fairfax County Public Libraries, or at the local Virginia Cooperative Extension office. The results will include soil type (sand, clay, loam, etc.), pH and fertility status and recommendations for amending the soil to make it into "average garden soil." By selecting native species that thrive in the existing conditions, it won't be necessary to add soil, fertilizer, lime or compost. If you do alter soil conditions, then select plants suited to the new conditions.

Instead of isolated plantings, such as a tree in the middle of lawn, group trees, shrubs and perennials to create layers of vegetation. These layers provide the structure and variety needed for shelter, breeding or nesting for a diversity of wildlife.

To provide food and cover for wildlife year-round, include a variety of plants that produce seeds, nuts, berries or other fruits, or nectar. Use evergreens as well as deciduous plants. Allow stems and seed heads of flowers and grasses to remain standing throughout the fall and winter.

Once you begin to explore and experiment with native plants, you'll soon discover that many of these plants go beyond just replacing worn out selections in your yard. Native plants will eventually reduce your labor and maintenance costs, provide habitat for wildlife and create a sense of place.

Most nurseries carry some native plants, and some nurseries specialize in and carry a greater selection. As the demand for native plants has grown, so has the supply at nurseries.

A list of some of the many retail and wholesale nurseries in the Chesapeake Bay region is available from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Chesapeake Bay Field Office. Details on more than 400 native plants are included in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Chesapeake Bay Field Office publication Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping.

Pinxter flower photo courtesy of Chris Bright.

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