Tennessee Smart Yards Native Plants

A comprehensive database of Tennessee native plants

Some Observations and Puzzling Questions about Landscaping with Native Plants



After over 10 years of converting roughly one-half acre of lawn to native plants, I still struggle with how to conceive of my planting process and goals. I like to imagine that I am creating a native plant meadow that will eventually become a natural, dynamic community that takes care of itself. However, the huge amount of unending work involved makes my first thought seem naive, and I have moments when I think what I am trying to do is impossible. I have simply undertaken an out-of-control gardening project that exceeds my ability to handle it.

I recently came across two books that seem very relevant to these two perspectives. The first one is The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka. He was a Japanese farmer/philosopher from Shikoku Island who lived from 1913-2008 and was an articulate advocate of farming in harmony with nature. The other is Planting in a Post-Wild World by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West. These two authors offer a new modern perspective on sustainable landscaping with native plants.

Fukuoka believed that nature, being far more complex than we can comprehend, provides all that is needed for successful farming. He was appalled by the growing use of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, large farming equipment that scours the earth, and rigid farming techniques. He believed that man’s improved techniques badly upset the natural balance of nature and made the land dependent on them. Seeking alternatives, he carefully observed and experimented for many years on his own farm, always asking himself whether he really needed to take a specific action in order to farm successfully. He believed that nature already provides all that we need to grow plants, and he learned how to farm in accordance with nature’s guidelines. As a result of his work, he developed 4 principles, which he found comply with the natural order and lead to a replenishment of nature’s richness:

1. No cultivation, no plowing or turning of the soil
2. No chemical fertilizer or prepared compost
3. No weeding by tillage or herbicides
4. No dependence on chemicals

To outsiders, his farm appeared somewhat wild and unkept. However, following these 4 principals, he was able to produce volumes of rice, wheat and oranges per acre on his land that matched or exceeded that of the commercial farm industry, and he did it with fewer hours of work.

After reading his book, I am encouraged to ask myself the same question—what can I not do? For example, I can cut back on weeding and follow his guideline –“Weeds play their part in building soil fertility and in balancing the biological community. As a fundamental principle, weeds should be controlled, not eliminated.” If I work in harmony with nature, maybe I can succeed at creating a natural, self-sustaining plant community and eventually my workload will decline.

On the other hand, when I read Rainer and West’s book I am not so sure of my potential success. In the introduction, Claudia West talks about nature as it was before we tamed the landscape. The paradise of native plant species in the wilderness of our ancestors is completely gone, and invasive species and climate change have drastically altered our landscape. She argues that even though there are some success stories of sites being restored to a “more so-called native state,” these sites require years of heavy labor or herbicides to remove invasive species, and even once removed, the sites must be covered with new native plants to keep the invasives at bay. “To turn back the clock to the landscapes of 1600 is no longer possible. There is no going back.”

Although I have no illusions that I am re-creating an original intact native plant meadow in my yard, this assessment leaves me feeling pessimistic about my potential success at creating a natural, ungroomed, functioning plant community on my half-acre. In their book, Rainer and West go on to describe how to use native plants to design gardens that function like naturally occurring plant communities and provide the natural beauty that we have lost. Although they offer wonderful ideas for a more ecologically connected landscape, the work and process involved sounds an awful lot like traditional gardening and definitely not a landscape left to its own dynamic process. Maybe there is no going back.

So I seem to have come full circle and still don’t know how best to assess my yard. For now, I lean toward following Fukuoka as much as I can and see what happens. There is a great phrase used to describe his farm—“the unkept exuberance of natural growth.” I can continue to learn to see the beauty in that unkept exuberance and enjoy the mobs of bees, butterflies and birds that thrive on it. And hopefully, the amount of work will decline!

6 responses to “Some Observations and Puzzling Questions about Landscaping with Native Plants

  1. Layle January 20, 2018 at 3:33 pm

    Your space looks joyful. Thanks for sharing

  2. Happy Gardener February 1, 2018 at 8:45 pm

    It’s beautiful, but if you live in the city, those darn city rules and regulations won’t be too friendly to unmanaged wildflowers gone wild.

    • joystewart February 5, 2018 at 7:52 pm

      Fortunately the rules and regulations are starting to change. There are so many respected organizations that now promote this kind of planting that cities are being forced to recognize it as a good thing. I am not sure where you live so I can’t offer any info about rules that might apply to you. I do agree that this type of yard is definitely in the minority, and I can feel negative pressure from some of my neighbors based on the comments they make. I had one neighbor refer to my yard as a bunch of weeds that should all be cut down. I try to tune it out as much as I can and remind myself that this is an educational process.

  3. Jane P Jansen van Rensburg February 7, 2018 at 9:27 pm

    My husband and I live on 10 acres that are mostly large farm fields. We are looking for ways to incorporate native plants to give it more color. Cone flowers will make a bright spot on our pond bank.

  4. Shannon Mikus March 28, 2018 at 1:55 am

    Joy, I love what you have accomplished in your yard!! Rainer and West is a great place to start if you have a background in systems thinking, but most people are not familiar with the idea of treating landscape as a system. Indeed, all of nature (pre or post 1600s) is a set of systems within systems taking a chaotic variety of inputs through a dynamic set of processes and creating variable products. I have found that it is easier to decide what to do (that is, how to put energy into the system to change its outputs) in the landscape if one first decides what the long-term goals are. Once this is decided, one can then realistically visualize the inputs it will take to achive this end goal through intermediate steps and interventions. After carefully examining these actions (and their “cost” in time and $$ and effort) one can again consider whether that original goal is realistically attainable or if it needs to be adjusted. Also, one’s aesthetic has much to do with how the landscape is percieved to begin with. For example, our region is not prone to naturally produce Piet Oudolph-inspired swaths of colorful flowers, so attempts to achieve that aesthetic will require constant inputs. Achieving that in small bunches (like Jane P, above) is much easier. To make gardeining easier, one can consider utilizing a “light” touch. A light touch means making little changes and giving the rest of the system time to adjust to what has happened before doing something else. Assume that natural systems are already acting on the area and any human interventions will have unforseen costs that can alter goals and change required inputs, again. To reduce the amount of work I suggest examining some very old and established places where very little input is needed, and adopting that aesthetic. Also, mimicing the processes that occur in similar spaces (an open yard is somewhat like an opening in a forest where a huge tree has fallen and left a space in the canopy) can make achieving the goals easier by accelerating those processes. Thank you for the inspiration!

    • joystewart April 4, 2018 at 3:27 pm

      Thank you for such a detailed, informative comment! I have read it several times and plan to read it a few more! It does help to try to think in terms of systems.

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