Ecology + Design

Native Plant Landscaping Trends for 2023

Native plants have experienced a PR glow up in the last few years, graduating from their “weedy” classification to pillars of the ecological landscaping movement. Grassroots organizations have been pivotal in changing the narrative around plant selection. Thanks to groups like National Audubon Society, the National Wildlife Fund, Pollinator Pathways, and Doug Tallamy’s Homegrown National Park, there is greater public appreciation for native plants and the wildlife they support. With that in mind, we’ve rounded up some landscape design trends for 2023 that accentuate native plant landscaping.

1. Designate No Mow or Low Mow Areas on Your Property

We’ve said it before, and we’ve said it again: reducing your lawn area is one of the most impactful steps you can make toward making your landscape more ecological and friendly to wildlife. This simple adage often draws questions and doubts: will my maintenance go up or down? Will I know how to maintain this new, non-monoculture zone? Will it look good? Not to worry, there are different approaches to lawn reduction that can be customized to your needs.

Landscape design plan for converting a lawn area into a seeded woodland wildflower zone.

The simplest option is to convert traditional turf to a Low Mow Lawn. Low Mow Lawns typically consist of fine fescues, which have a similar appearance to turf but grow much slower. They can be mowed once a growing season instead of every week! They are not quite as tolerant to foot traffic, however, so we suggest implementing garden paths to navigate through Low Mow lawn areas.

The second option is to design shrub islands within the lawn. We love this technique because it breaks up the visual monotony of a lawn, and if planted with native shrubs, contributes far more to wildlife and ecosystem services than turf grass ever could. Native shrubs contribute architectural interest in the winter, and when planted in groups, create nesting and feeding habitat for birds. Native plantings are naturally low maintenance – only requiring occasional pruning and feeding a few times a growing season. When clustered as shrub islands within a lawn, they can easily be mowed around, without disrupting your existing maintenance routine.

2. Include Native Edibles

Home vegetable gardens have exploded in popularity alongside native plant gardens as people realize the value of toxin-free, off-the-vine-fresh produce. However, most of our cultivated vegetables and fruits are non-native annuals. There is no shame in annual veggies, but there is an untapped potential to utilize edible perennials and native edible shrubs, that contribute more to soil health, ecosystem services and habitat creation.  A classic example is blueberry – a native, edible shrub that can support a human diet while also contributing pollen for bees and other pollinators. If you primarily want to be the one eating the blueberries, we suggest an exclusion fence or netting. Our friends at Homefront Farmers make custom berry box gardens that are beatufiul and functional!

Some of our other favorite native edibles include chokeberry (Aronia), beach rose (Rosa rugosa) and chokecherry (Prunus virginiana).  These overlooked berries can be harvested and made into jams, jellies, compotes or syrups. If that sounds like too much work, not to worry, the birds will enjoy the feast too!

A client marks the location of Common Milkweed, an edible native perennial.

For a native, perennial edible, consider milkweed (asclepias)! Milkweeds gained national recognition as a host plant for monarchs, but the unopened flower buds, the flowers, and the flower stems are edible! They taste somewhat like asparagus.  You can easily harvest some buds and stems without knocking out the entire plant. We encourage you to harvest overtime, and always keep some flowers for the pollinators!

Finally, don’t sleep on edible ferns! Fiddleheads (curled ends of young fern fronds) from native ostrich ferns, lady ferns and royal ferns are edible! The window for harvesting is often only a week or two in spring, and identification is critical as not all ferns are edible. If you design a fern planting with the intention of eating some of it, you will have to wait a few years for the planting to be mature enough to harvest. When cutting fiddleheads, take no more than half of the stalk, otherwise you will kill the fern.

3. Create a Woodland Fairy Garden

Shady areas of a property are often overlooked for design potential. While deep does limit what plants will thrive, woodland edges with dappled sunlight can support a variety of native plants! We like to design these edge habitats with a mix of woodland perennials, sedges, ferns, and shrubs. Use this edge planting as a border for a woodland path; winding through mature trees, it creates an immersive naturalistic experience.

If you have young children, its especially fun to sprinkle in garden surprises. One of our clients purchased fairy doll houses and tucked them into the planting along the woodland trail. This whimsical addition make a simple woodchip path a magical world to explore. The more we can encourage our families to get closer to nature, to breath fresh air and touch healthy soil, the greater impact on our mental and physical health.

Ground cover creeps between a flagstone path, softening the hardscape, preventing soil erosion and reducing weed pressure.

4. Use Native Ground Cover to Reduce Erosion

Many of our clients have expressed a desire to reduce their yearly mulch needs. Traditionally, the landscape industry has heavily mulched all plantings, from under planted parking lot ‘hell strips’ to ‘volcano mulch’ around tree trunks. While mulch does have its benefits – retaining soil moisture, protecting soil from erosion, reducing weed growth – it is a product of trees (bark and roots). Trees contribute so much ecologically – they produce oxygen, support hundreds of species of wildlife, absorb water, create shade and cooling, sequester carbon dioxide – lowest on this list of contributions is grinding up their bark to use as mulch in garden beds.

To reduce your mulch use, but still achieve the benefits of mulch, we suggest planting more native ground covers. Ground covers are short perennials or shrubs that have a spreading growth habit, often through rhizomes, that creates a layer of “green mulch” above the soil.

A good native ground cover will spread quickly, covering bare soil, without being too aggressive as to choke out emerging perennials. For shady areas, we love sedges (carex), wood asters, coral bells (Heuchera), foam flower (Tiarella), and Green and Gold (Chrysogonum).  For sunnier sites, try Meehan’s mint (Meehania), Evening primorose (Oenothera), and creeping phlox (phlox).

Don’t think of your green mulch as a green blanket, but rather, play with different textures, flowering times and foliage colors to maximize your native landscape design.

5. Design Native Mini Meadows

A designed faux-meadow next to an established wet meadow in Greenwich, CT.

Meadows have also been having a moment lately, and it’s no wonder why! With their flowy, feathery textures, evolving color palettes, and fall/winter architectural interest, meadows are naturally stunning and incredibly biodiverse. However, creating a meadow is a lot of work. In order to prevent uncontrollable weed growth, it’s imperative to start with a blank canvas or what is often referred to as “scorched earth.” You need to remove the existing plant material without disturbing the weed seed bank in the soil. This can be a tall order for a large area, and some landscapers resort to chemical vegetation removal.  Using synthetic chemicals goes against Our Promise as Landscape Ecologists, so we tend to design smaller “faux meadows.”

The advantage of working at a smaller scale with meadows is that the site development is much more simplified. For small, flat areas, we use sod cutters to remove turf grass. We avoid disturbing the soil further (ie through tilling) because this can bring weed seeds to the surface.

Magnificent growth in just one season from this faux-meadow front yard in Putnam Valley, NY.

We plant our mini meadows densely, sometimes using a mix of one- and two-gallon plants, alongside smaller landscape plugs. Planting densely reduces weed pressure in the first season, while landscape plugs help cut costs.

Mini meadows are a great way to reduce your lawn area, drastically increase biodiversity, and reduce your maintenance to mowing or burning once a season (when established). Learn more about native wildflower meadow maintenance here.

We hope you enjoyed these native plant landscaping trends! We incorporate these strategies into most of our designs, site conditions permitting. Let us know in the comments if you try any of these landscape design trends! To work with us, schedule a consultation or free 15-minute discovery call!

Green Jay Landscape Design

Where Design Meets Ecology



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