Native Plants Garden
Northeast Region

Naturescaping Basics

Naturescaping (or nature scaping) is a term that refers to a method of landscaping that allows people and nature to coexist. By incorporating certain plants, especially native ones, into ones yard, one can attract beneficial insects, birds, and other creatures, and help keep our rivers and streams healthy. (Source: Wikipedia)

10 Steps to Naturescaping What is a watershed? What is a rain garden?

10 Steps to Naturescaping

1. Analyze your site

It is critical to observe and analyze existing conditions before making any changes to your site. This involves taking soil tests, paying attention to light and shade conditions (microclimates), taking an inventory of existing plants, assessing their health and noting any other important site considerations. Any land care program that is conducted without this basic information is essentially one that can easily waste many resources as well as drastically harm the environment.

Information on getting your soil tested can be found on the University of Massachusetts, Amherst website.

Winterberry. Credit: Pride's Corner
Winterberry. Credit: Pride's Corner

2. Eliminate chemicals and synthetics

Every choice we make in land care can have a positive or negative impact on the environment. Because chemical and synthetic materials generally leach into the soil and then into the water supply or atmosphere, they can be toxic to fish and other animals, and can pose risks to human health.  Naturescaping does not use any formulated chemicals or synthetic materials. 

3. Focus on healthy soil.

Nature teaches us that healthy soil has a natural way of feeding plants so that is where we begin. A healthy forest ecosystem, as an example, requires no fertilizing and has no waste because of the natural processes that occur. Healthy soil is made up of 5% organic matter, 45% minerals, 25% air and 25% water. This soil is good for plants, holds moisture, minimizes erosion and gets air to the roots of a plant. Healthy soil has an abundance of microorganisms - bacteria, fungi and nematodes to name a few – which, through their life processes,  release nutrients including nitrogen, phosphorous, magnesium and calcium for plants to use.

Use compost

Compost is the fertilizer of choice for naturescaping.  It helps to stabilize PH, supplies nutrients to plants, and increases the organic matter in your soil, helping to retain moisture.

4. Manage invasive plants.

Before any work is done in your yard, you will need to identify which plants are invasive and find out about the best management practices to eliminate them.  Gardens cannot thrive if they are outcompeted with invasive plants, so this is an issue that needs to be addressed before any new plantings are done.

5. Plant native plants and plant for diversity.

Native plants have adapted to our native climate and soil conditions, have evolved to combat insects and pests over a long period of time, and are important to our native wildlife.

Plant diversity (using a variety of types of plants) helps ensure the health of your garden. Monocultures, where one plant dominates, are more susceptible to disease and pests than a diverse landscape. Biodiversity in the landscape is a healthier approach long term and is more sustainable and lower maintenance.

Naturescapes match plants to specific conditions so that they have the best chance of thriving. Various soil types, light and moisture levels dictate different plants for different conditions. Matching plants to habitat helps reduce the amount of maintenance needed because you are working with the natural conditions and not against them.   

6. Reduce your lawn.

A lawn uses a lot of resources for little environmental benefit.  What lawn you have should be mown high.  Leave the clippings on it because those will feed the lawn up to 50% of the nitrogen that it needs, overseed it in the fall to fight weeds, fertilize it with compost and  aerate it to reduce compaction.

7. Properly maintain the garden.

Gardens may be low maintenance but they are never NO maintenance.  Regularly weed your garden so plants you put in can establish themselves and not compete for nutrients.  Prune trees and shrubs annually in order to properly to ensure good health and ensure that they do not outgrow their space. 

8. Water properly & responsibly

The rule of thumb is that most plants require 1” of water per week.  You can use a tuna can to monitor this and ensure that the plants, especially newly established ones, get the water they need.  Deep watering, not frequent watering, is the right way to do this because the water is then able to get to the plant roots.  New plantings need more water when they first get installed but once established, you can wean new plants off water dependence.  If you have an irrigation system, don't overwater since this leads to shallow roots and can stress the plants tremendously.  Alternatively, watch for drought periods in new plantings because this is also a severe stress.

9. Manage pests organically.

If you have healthy soil and biodiversity in the garden, your pest issue is greatly minimized.  However, if you do encounter a pest in the garden, there are a many organic products you can use that are effective without being toxic.  Garlic sprays, insecticidal soaps, horticultural oil, vinegar and hot pepper spray to name a few.  Many insects are beneficial--your county extension agent can help identify pests and recommend what action, if any, should be taken.

10. Get outside and become stewards of the environment.

Nothing replaces being preemptive by monitoring your plants and trees regularly for early warning signs before something gets out of hand. The earlier you catch problems the easier it is to solve them. 

Naturescaping means becoming a steward of the environment. All decisions you make in your yards and every action you take have an impact.  By being informed and thinking about the consequences, it is easy to become better stewards of the environment in the process.

Visit to find native plants appropriate to your conditions.

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What is a watershed?

A watershed is the total area that drains directly across the land and indirectly through the groundwater to a specific stream, river, pond, reservoir or ocean.  Precipitation that falls anywhere within that watershed will eventually end up in that body of water.

‘Running Tapestry’ Foamflower. Credit: North Creek Nurseries, Inc.
‘Running Tapestry’ Foamflower. Credit: North Creek Nurseries, Inc.

Ecological issues

Construction of buildings and roads in a watershed can lead to major environmental problems. Paved surfaces, sewers and storm water collection systems change how water moves through the watershed. Without open ground to filter and clean runoff water, pollution from fertilizers, road residue, and other sources runs into streams and rivers. These changes have resulted in dwindling groundwater supplies, altered flows in rivers and streams, degraded aquatic habitat and vanishing river fish.

Clean water supplies are tight in Massachusetts even though we have adequate rainfall. Water is a vital resource and in the past its availability was taken for granted. Water availability is now a serious issue. The amount of groundwater being withdrawn has increased dramatically to support the needs of the growing population. In some communities water use more than doubles during the summer, primarily due to lawn watering. Water contamination by bacteria and toxic chemicals also is a serious issue that can affect the health of humans, fish and wildlife. These problems can be reduced by allowing stormwater to filter through the ground before entering a stream or river – a challenge in highly urbanized areas. One way to help with this is by installing a rain garden.

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What is a rain garden?

Rain gardens are a special type of garden that helps capture runoff from impervious surfaces such as roofs, roads, patios and driveways. These gardens are planted depressions that can hold the runoff while allowing the water to percolate through as native plants naturally filter the pollutants. These gardens mimic the natural movement of water.

Rain gardens improve water quality, help replenish aquifers, and help reduce flooding. They also look beautiful and attract butterflies and hummingbirds. Rain gardens help reduce the amount of water entering community storm sewer systems, resulting in less expense for municipalities.  Building a rain garden is not any more difficult than an ordinary garden but it comes with tremendous benefit.

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Last updated: June 4, 2010
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