Maximize Your Garden’s Potential By Designing In Layers

By David Salman, Chief Horticulturist

Learning From Nature

The best way to create habitat for insect pollinators, songbirds and other beneficial creatures is to study the natural landscape. Here we can understand how the creatures that live there interact with the plants that make up the different ecosystems. While each ecosystem has its primary plant and animal inhabitants, the richest and most diverse habitats occur when different ecosystems intersect.  On a large scale, when the plains meet foothills and mountains, or a river runs through arid plains or desert, the number of plant and animal species will be greater than the numbers found in the separate ecosystems. On a smaller scale, when a forest meets a meadow or a marsh, a marked increase in animal and plant diversity is the result. To create a habitat friendly landscape, gardeners and landscapers can mimic these natural intersections seen in nature.

Unfortunately, many residential and commercial landscapes are ecological wastelands, especially when a large lawn is the centerpiece of the design. One of the basics of good habitat creation is provide shelter for its animal and insect residents so they can hide from predators, build nests, and find protection from the weather. A big, wide open, mowed lawn with a single flowering tree in the middle is the antithesis of protective habitat; there is no place to hide from overhead or ground predators, or shelter from cold winter winds and driving rains. And unfortunately, traditionally maintained lawns are a dumping ground for toxic insecticides, fungicides, herbicides (“weed n’ feed” fertilizers) and chemical fertilizers, which are harmful to insects and wildlife, detrimental to the surrounding surface and ground waters, and harmful to humans as well.

We’re here to help you create a beautiful and beneficial landscape that offers visual appeal all year round. Below, we’ll outline how to maximize your garden’s potential by designing in layers.

Rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus) + Muhly Grass + Agastache illustrate layering shrubs, ornamental grass, and herbaceous perennials in garden design.Rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus) + Muhly Grass + Agastache illustrate layering shrubs, ornamental grass, and herbaceous perennials in garden design.
Rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus) + Muhly Grass + Agastache illustrate layering shrubs, ornamental grass, and herbaceous perennials in garden design.
Deciduous and evergreen trees, shrubs, flowering plants, and groundcovers perfectly illustrate a habitat-friendly garden with major curb appeal.Deciduous and evergreen trees, shrubs, flowering plants, and groundcovers perfectly illustrate a habitat-friendly garden with major curb appeal.
Deciduous and evergreen trees, shrubs, flowering plants, and groundcovers perfectly illustrate a habitat-friendly garden with major curb appeal.

Designing In Layers: Trees & Shrubs

Trees, shrubs and evergreen trees create the forest canopy that creates a diversity of heights that songbirds require. A variety of bird species occupy different parts of the canopy. So, by having well placed tall shade and coniferous tree(s), next to small-to-medium sized flowering tree(s), edged with or surrounded by shrubs and dwarf conifers of various heights, even a small yard can have a functional canopy that birds and beneficial insects require.

 

Designing In Layers: Herbaceous Plants

Working our way down, the next layer is the beautiful variety of herbaceous plants. For many, this is the most enjoyable, showy aspect of the garden or landscape. Some gardeners and landscapers have the misconception that a habitat-friendly landscape means a wild and unkempt space that will cause conflict with the HOA or neighbors. On the contrary, it is easy to create a well-designed, attractive habitat-friendly yard! Many of our best strategies for creating a professional-looking garden or landscape design will also help to create a habitat-friendly landscape.

 

Designing In Layers: Groundcovers & Lawns

Next, let’s take a look at the ground level. If you choose carefully, you can enjoy the benefits of lush green lawn while supporting a sustainable landscape. If a lawn is to be part of your habitat-friendly landscape, limit its size to just what is needed. Use low water, low care native grasses, such a Legacy® Buffalo grass, Blue Grama Grass, or Dog Tuff™ grass.  These grasses are good for the soil with their deep growing roots, and require much less energy input (mowing) and water than conventional high-maintenance Kentucky Bluegrass lawns. Use groundcovers in shaded areas where grass struggles from a lack of sun – flowering groundcovers will also help to nourish pollinators. Be sure that your perennial beds surround the lawn area to create a habitat-friendly interface.

 

Designing In Layers: Healthy Soils

Finally, the foundation on which all this beauty and functionality can grow, is a healthy living soil. Organic or natural soil care is the most important element of healthy habitat for animals, insects and people. What is so often forgotten is that the soil is an underground ecosystem that supports the plants that grow in it. Banish chemical fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides and fungicides from your garden shed! Replace them with quality composts, Yum Yum Mix natural fertilizer, Plant Success mycorrhizal root inoculant and -- only when needed -- organic pest controls.  The soil is a complex underground ecology filled with billions of fungi, beneficial bacteria, insects, arachnids and earthworms that work symbiotically with plant roots to recycle organic materials (leaves, dead insects and animals) and lock-up carbon in the form of humus.  A chemically killed soil is unable to sequester carbon, and grows disease and insect-damage prone plants that struggle and never reach a state of low-care vigor and health. Healthy, living soil is the key to a thriving, healthy landscape.

Deciduous trees, evergreen shrubs, and large groupings of flowering plants (including Columbine, Nepeta, and Centranthus), surround small areas of grass lawn, offering plenty of food and habitat for pollinators. Deciduous trees, evergreen shrubs, and large groupings of flowering plants (including Columbine, Nepeta, and Centranthus), surround small areas of grass lawn, offering plenty of food and habitat for pollinators.
Deciduous trees, evergreen shrubs, and large groupings of flowering plants (including Columbine, Nepeta, and Centranthus), surround small areas of grass lawn, offering plenty of food and habitat for pollinators.
In this Habitat Hero-Certified Garden, a water feature is bordered by trees, ornamental grasses, and large groupings of colorful pollinator-friendly flowers, including Centranthus, Prince's Plume, Salvia, Bee Balm, and more. In this Habitat Hero-Certified Garden, a water feature is bordered by trees, ornamental grasses, and large groupings of colorful pollinator-friendly flowers, including Centranthus, Prince's Plume, Salvia, Bee Balm, and more.
In this Habitat Hero-Certified Garden, a water feature is bordered by trees, ornamental grasses, and large groupings of colorful pollinator-friendly flowers, including Centranthus, Prince's Plume, Salvia, Bee Balm, and more.

Beautiful And Beneficial Landscapes

When you plant a wide variety of plant types, including trees, conifers, shrubs, annuals, perennials, ornamental grasses and fruiting plants, and plant species from each category that flower during early to mid-spring, spring, summer and fall, a highly functioning, habitat-rich landscape is created. Be sure to plant individual flowering perennials and annuals, groundcovers, and succulents in groups of 3 or more to enhance their attractiveness to pollinators and birds. The more flowers of a single plant species that a pollinating insect or hummingbird can feed upon, without having to expend energy flying all around the yard, the better.

Make sure that the mixes of plants used in your yard include a majority of native plants, especially trees, shrubs, conifers and vines. Native plants provide essential food for moth and butterfly caterpillars upon which

songbirds depend on to feed their chicks. Native plants also provide nectar-rich flowers for native insect pollinators and foliage upon which their larvae (immature or baby insects) need to feed.  Old World plants

(brought to North America from Europe, Asia, South Africa) are essential for feeding honeybees, which are also native to the Old World. Old World plants, when not an invasive species, also provide essential fruit and seeds for songbirds and other animals and insects to feed, and feed native pollinating insects and hummingbirds. We recommend a mix of 20-30% Old World Plants and 70-80% native plants for an ideal habitat-friendly landscape.

We have designed the High Country Gardens website to provide a wealth of information about the plants we offer.  When shopping for plants, use the shopping filters to help to identify bloom times, so a progression of plants can be planted to provide pollen and natural nectar from early spring to fall. Plants can also be filtered by mature height, soil preference, cold hardiness, as well as pollinator preference and resistance to being eaten by damaging rabbits and deer.

Additional Resources From High Country Gardens

There are many resources to access and help plan a habitat friendly landscape. Look to the National Wildlife Federation's Garden For Wildlife resources, The Audubon Rockies Habitat Hero Program and The Xerces Society for information, advice, and garden design resources. Both the National Wildlife Federation and The Audubon Society offer certification programs to encourage homeowners and commercial property owners to make habitat-friendly designs and plant choices for their properties.

Learn More: Audubon Rockies: How To Plant A Garden That Helps Birds

Learn More: Providing Habitat for Bumblebees: Gardening with A Big Buzz

Learn More: Gardening To Attract Birds

Learn More: Transforming Your Garden Into a Healing Place For Yourself and the Planet