A New Vocabulary for Gardening: The Natural Habitat Garden

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“…enlarge Earth’s diminished domain by growing native plant gardens modeled on nature’s original communities.”

Ken Druse, from The Natural Habitat Garden 1994

Are you as conflicted as I, when choosing new plants for your garden? Do you, also, spend winter hours dreaming over nursery catalogs? Maybe we share a proclivity to grow enamored of certain beautiful and interesting plants,  while not considering the ‘bigger picture.’

What bigger picture is that, you wonder?

Why, our planet and its diminishing species, of course. While I’ve never been an ardent native plant enthusiast, living and working in this forest garden continues nudging me in that direction.51JXBNCTQ7L._SX355_BO1,204,203,200_

I’m reading Ken Druse and Margaret Roach’s beautiful book, now more than a dozen years old, called The Natural Habitat Garden.   Building on his earlier The Natural Garden and The Natural Shade Garden, Druse invites us to not only create a beautiful garden for ourselves, but also to restore the appropriate plant community for our site by taking into consideration what would grow here naturally were it still undisturbed.

By restoring the natural habitat in at least some part of our garden, we ‘welcome the entire food chain’ and help to offset the alarming loss of habit, across the planet, destroyed by population growth and development.

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Naturalist and garden writer Ken Druse’s vision for creating gardens is so much more comprehensive than most of us stop to consider. We are deciding what color of Petunia to plant in our baskets this spring. He is hoping to enlist back yard gardeners to help save the planet through the ecosystems they construct.

In the first few pages he advises, “Enlarge Earth’s diminished domain by growing native plant gardens modeled on nature’s original communities.” Then goes on to observe, “Assembling plants from all corners of the world does not create a self-sufficient ecologically appropriate community.”

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Berries have formed on 'The Devil's Walking Stick,' Aralia spinosa

Berries have formed on ‘The Devil’s Walking Stick,’ Aralia spinosa, which is multiplying now in our garden.

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His concern extends not only to native plants and the many species of animals they support, but also to the resources required to support plants in our garden. As water for irrigation becomes more scarce, Druse reminds us that indigenous vegetation won’t require supplemental watering.

When a plant grows in its native soil, the nutrients it needs are already present. He reminds us that most of the fertilizers and insecticides many gardeners use are based in petro-chemicals. They poison our gardens, and the very fragile life of our planet as they accumulate in soil, water, and biomass.

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The cardinals love sitting in this hazelnut tree.

The cardinals love sitting in this hazelnut tree, which grows prolifically with no special care.

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I have no argument with Druse’s reasoning. And the gorgeous photos which illustrate the habitat gardens he visits certainly demonstrate the profound beauty possible in such settings. Sections of the book explore various habitats including woodlands, wetlands, grass lands, and ‘drylands.’ His photographs feature hundreds of native plant species.

A new vocabulary shapes this wider perception of gardening. Traditional perennial beds and non-native trees and shrubs are ‘Plant Collections’ and ‘Collector Plants’. We are reminded that most of these are relatively sterile and do little to attract, shelter, or feed wildlife.

Habitat gardens are ‘Re-wilded spots,’ “ essential to the planet’s future.” He encourages us to surround our properties with a “Biohedge” of mixed native species.

I like that term, and will remember to throw it into conversations with my gardening friends and neighbors! We already have a dense ‘biohedge’ around all sides of our garden. The birds love it, too.

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We have a mix of native and non-native shrubs in our 'bio-hedges.' Here, Asian Camellias grow alongside native Dogwood.

We have a mix of native and non-native shrubs in our ‘bio-hedges.’ Here, Asian Camellias grow alongside native Dogwood.  Native hardwood trees form the canopy of the garden.

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Druse makes clear that many of the plants we may find already growing near our home aren’t natives. Invasive species, like  autumn olive, kudzu and mimosa  were brought here at some point in the past. And because they aren’t native flora, they edge out other species and take over. After making an inventory of the plants already in the garden, he advises cutting out and digging out invasive ‘thugs.’

Sometimes the best gardening happens when we remove inappropriate plants, and keep plant communities in balance through mowing, pruning, dividing, and in some cases, even burning.

The last few pages of the book are devoted to the idea of  ‘conservation through propagation.’   He asks that we remain mindful of volunteer seedlings of native plants as we move through our gardens.  We are encouraged to propagate desirable native plants to increase their numbers.

Collecting and propagating seed, buying from native plant sales, and even taking cuttings of native plants help preserve these precious native species and increase their presence in our gardens.

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Native Wax Myrtle self-seeds easily in our garden.

Native Wax Myrtle self-seeds easily in our garden.

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“Don’t fight the site,” is another principle Druse emphasizes again and again. Our approach from the beginning, with this garden, has largely been in harmony with this principle. Fighting this site proves both expensive and frustrating.

One of the things we love most about our very wild forest garden is the wildlife. A spring fed pond lies at the bottom of our hill.  Its clean water attracts many species of ducks, geese, hawks, owls, turtles, frogs, toads, probably snakes, small mammals, and of course many many different song birds. We have such a diverse collection of berries and seeds growing in the yard that there is plenty of food for birds to forage year round.

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October 17, 2014 light 026

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That doesn’t mean I’ve lost interest in my English roses, Begonias, herbs,  Caladiums and other non-native plants. Only that I’ve felt the paradigm shift in my own awareness of what plants we should grow here, and what we should not purchase and plant.

And I’ve honed an awareness of what can be grown near the house, largely in pots; and what is best to plant in the wilder areas away from the house. I’m also looking more closely not only at what is native to North America, but also at what is indigenous to coastal Virginia.

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Native Mountain Laurel in our garden

Native Mountain Laurel in our garden, grows along the banks of rivers and creeks, and in  Virginia forests.

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Druse is correct in observing that plant selection should be based on more considerations than simply hardiness zones. Creating a beautiful garden is only one of a garden steward’s goals. We can also help to restore the ecosystem, providing safe haven for many species of both plants and animals.

Knowing that we are not alone in our efforts; that thousands of other gardeners have also awakened to this more enlightened style of gardening, allows us to join our efforts with theirs to have a meaningful impact on our community.

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Sarracenia flava, propagated by our local nursery.

Sarracenia flava, propagated by Forest Lane Botanicals in York County.

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This aesthetic of habitat creation and management through gardening spreads from person to person, garden to garden. Together, we can work to heal our beautiful planet, and in doing so perhaps also heal ourselves.

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Woodland Gnome 2016

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About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

20 responses to “A New Vocabulary for Gardening: The Natural Habitat Garden

  1. Laurin Lindsey

    Excellent post! I now design gardens for the clients that are mindful of the birds and bees…

    • Great news to hear! Always good as more individuals develop an awareness of their role in preserving the rich life of our planet. Have you read any of Ken Druse’s books? I’m looking forward to reading his “The New Shade Garden” soon… Thank you for visiting, Laurin

  2. I love this post, WG. I’m drawn to the the concept of “re-wilding.” So much habitat has been fragmented through human interpretation of how landscapes should look. It seems to me re-wilding is a compromise…I’m curious about the effect it could have on increasing the healing of habitat spaces.

    I’m ordering the book today 🐝🌳🌼🐿

    • Jane, I hope you ordered through Amazon, where the book is extremely reasonably available. Your observation is Druse’s point exactly: if each of us gave only 1/10 of an acre to habitat renewal, the combined effect still would be enormous. Yes, we each interpret how a landscape ‘should’ look…. and so many people conform to the lawn/ shrub/ hardscape model which is easy to maintain, but so sterile. We are everywhere tempted with the newest brightest hybrid ‘proven winner’ so that getting the native species sometimes feels like settling for less. We have to re-frame how we think about our home landscapes and the purposes they serve. We have to think beyond our own ego, in other words… 😉 Thank you for visiting and sharing your thoughts, Jane ❤ ❤ ❤

  3. Our garden is very much a work in progress and I’m sure we’ll never see it looking “finished”. A dilemma for us is planting native shrubs to create understory for little birds etc increases our risk of a catastrophe if there is a bushfire. We live in a bushy pocket but we are advised by the council to clear lower branches of trees and minimize shrubby growth.

    • That is quite a dilemma. Have you found a ‘middle way’ to create habitat while also minimizing the possibility of wildfire? It seems there are nearly always competing agendas to balance when planning one’s garden…. and often times outsiders telling you what you should or shouldn’t do with your land. Thank you for visiting today ❤ ❤ ❤

      • We’re still struggling with what to do, we try to keep the grass cut short and get rid of the feral Olives. Although Ash Tees are like a weed here and not native we’re now letting some grow.They seem to be less volatile than the Eucalypts. I’m trying to keep shrubs at a distance from the house but have made a few mistakes with that. 🙂

        • What a challenging environment for gardening! Would a hardscape path encircling your home create a meaningful firebreak? Here ‘Autumn Olive Elaeagnus umbellata is considered an invasive alien thug. Yet, they are fast growing, hardy evergreen shrubs which produce early flowers and abundant fruit loved by the birds. We’ve had them begin to colonize in our garden. They don’t take ‘No’ for an answer! I’m sure you will see what is best to do for your garden as it evolve. You might also find inspiration in Druse’s book. His section on gardening in dry climates is stunning. ❤ ❤ ❤

          • We live on a “hammerhead” block which means our driveway comes down between 2 neighbours and the house is below both. We also have a steep drop down from the house to a gully and then steep up the other side so we can’t put any kind of workable firebreak in. We just have to do the best we can keepig the grasses down and on critical days leave home and hope for the best. At the moment the weather is lovely and the trees are full of Rainbow Lorikeets feeding on the blossom so it’s a great place to be.

  4. I couldn’t agree more. Unwittingly taking responsibility for a small fragment of ancient English woodland has changed my outlook completely. As an enthusiastic gardener the challenge for me will be combining the two.

    • And a huge challenge it is! I am and have always been a ‘plant collector.’ I enjoy growing the unusual and beautiful, and finding a ‘spot’ for them usually an after the purchase consideration. Druse challenges me to look at gardening from a very different perspective…. All of us who have the responsibility for protecting woodlands must take the long view of things and preserve them, manage them, cultivate them, and make sure they are survive for the generations to come. This is more than ‘gardening.’ This is coming to understand and respect the sentience of all life, and working in partnership with nature. Cheers! Thank you for visiting today ❤ ❤ ❤

  5. So you said the book is a dozen years – but if it is the one you introduced – which says 1994 – well that is almost two dozen? Ha!
    And love this post – when I went for local plants I loved the more hands off and less coddling for sure! I still grow a couple fun things in pots if I want – but really see the many perks of an indigenous selection and now see even more to it! 🌾🌾🍃🍃🌹

    • So you can tell I didn’t teach math? I don’t want to think the book is more than 20 years old…. 94 feels like last week to me! Yes, there are many more perks to the native plants, and they are beautiful. The garden certainly feels more alive when it is filled with hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, and all the other small creatures who inhabit a rich environment. Thank you for visiting ❤ WG

      • Well trust me that I am right there with you with feeling like 94 was not too long ago- on one hand I feel it – but for the most part is was not too long ago – ha! And the only reason I asked was cos a few titles were mentioned and wasn’t sure ! 😎❤️
        But one thing is that in the 90s I barely knew how to transplant store bought flowers but in the late 2000’s I learned about soil, compost, seeds and then a bit about native plants and the ease of a perennial garden! Hmmmm

  6. Loved this post! I really hope gardeners all over will create a Green Wave by choosing native plants, and consider reducing their lawns to plant more natives to support wildlife. We can make a huge difference one garden plot at a time!

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