Thursday, April 7, 2011

Creating a NW Native Landscape: Part Two - The Plan

In Part One of this series, we talked about all the benefits of creating a native landscape, or naturescape.  This time, let's jump right in to the planning!

I guess there are two basic methods for naturescaping, you can either rip out all the existing landscaping and start with a clean slate, or you can slowly convert your existing landscape into native species - plant by plant, and bed by bed.  Because I was starting with minimal existing landscaping - none of which looked very good - I opted to start fresh.  So the descriptions of my process will reflect that clean slate method.  That may not be what you choose to do.  It's certainly more intensive than creating a naturescape over time.

Either method you use, though - you need to spend a lot of time just thinking about your plan.  Think about your goals (water saving, creating a patio, shading a window, etc.), and think about your site (existing light/moisture conditions, will you be modifying the elevation or slope in any areas?).

When you're just starting out, you don't really need to be familiar with all the different native plant species.  Just think in terms of what size plants you would like in each location (large tree, small tree, shrub, flower, groundcover).  Then start by sketching a basic layout of your current yard.  You'll want to show the location and relative size of any plants that are staying.  Because I was ripping everything out, I just drew the building outline and hardscapes like the fences and sidewalks.  Once I had that on paper, I made lots of copies so I could play around with the design without having to re-draw the basics every time. 

One of my many sketches
Read on for things to think about as you develop your design...
  • Existing conditions - What areas are dry, shady, wet, sloped, etc.?  My yard was almost completely flat, with the typical SE Portland dirt with a fair amount of gravel.  The yard gets full sun because the corner lot faces south and west.  Really no shade to speak of.
  • Structural and usage goals - Do you want to create a patio?  Do you want to disconnect your downspouts?  Is there a natural low spot that would make a good rain garden/swale?  Do you want to retain some existing lawn for kids/pets/picnics?  Do you want to screen an unsightly object or create some privacy?  I wanted to create a gravel patio (possibly flagstone it in the future) where there had been only lawn before.  I was going to create a lot of planting areas, build a small block retaining wall along one sidewalk, disconnect my downspouts and funnel one under the patio and into a rain catchment (no room for a full-blown rain garden/swale). 
  • Obstacles/Utilities - Always know where any power/gas/sewer/water lines are located. I had buried power, water and sewer to contend with.
  • Appropriate plant sizes for each location - Don't plant too close to buildings/foundations.  Think about layering plants as they naturally occur in the wild (tall trees, understory, shrubs, groundcovers and flowers).  Shorter plants in front, taller plants behind.
  • Ground preparation - Will you be removing grass?  Changing slope to create interest/drainage?  Do you want to use a weed-preventing groundcloth, or go with a greener option like recycled newspaper under your mulch?  What kind of mulch?  I wanted to use some of the sod I removed to create a small berm in one corner - just to add a little interest.  I decided to use a white weed cloth I found at Costco, with medium hemlock bark dust (hemlock doesn't have the splintery bits that fir has).
  • Shape of beds/lawn interface - Wildlife prefer curvy interfaces between planting beds and lawn, and it looks more natural, but maybe your house or preferences dictate a more straight-edged, formal shape.  I opted for gentle curves inside the fenced area, with straight lines along the front - just because the building and sidewalk in the front were already straight, and didn't leave a lot of room for curves.
After I had a design that was something close to final, with general "large shrub", "small tree", "groundcover" type labels where I wanted them, I did a lot of reading online about specific native plants.  I considered the fact that my yard was full sun, and that I did not want to water in the summer (after the plants were established).  I read about the plants growing habits (how tall, how wide when mature, clumping, spreading, etc.).  I visited a couple nurseries, to see what native plants they offered.  Then I was able to start putting some plant names in the generic placements on my sketch.

When I had decided on some of the plants, I used MS Paint to cut out plant images I found online, and paste them over a photograph of the house to create a crude digital sketch-up.  It gave me some idea of what my finished yard would look like.  I even drew in the custom trellis we planned to have made, and the awnings we were considering over the windows.

Digital sketch-up using MS Paint
So that was the plan... time to execute!

In the next post in this series, we'll look at removing the old lawn and landscaping, as well as preparing the site for the new naturescaping (Again, probably not the very next post, but coming soon.)

Until then, here are some resources for helping you choose your native plants, and some information about naturescaping for wildlife...

Native Plant/Naturescaping Information:
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