Our backyards are part of the surrounding ecosystem. As such, they deserve our careful consideration when making landscaping choices. Patty Love, Founder and Program Director of the Rochester Permaculture Center, believes our choices must go beyond the “how many and where” approach to restore—and even improve—our slice of nature.
“People typically choose plants based on creating an attractive display,” explained Love, a consultant and researcher, and Certified permaculture designer and teacher based in the Genesee River Valley. “A Permaculture design approach brings in plants which fill those same functions of beauty but also feed wildlife, pollinators, people, or all three.” Permaculture is a design system that harmoniously integrates people and landscape to meet the human needs while cultivating natural ecosystems which are diverse, stable, resilient, and regenerative. Put simply, it can be applied to landscaping to create beauty while living in beneficial harmony with the animals and natural environments around us. First, we must identify our natural environment. “We live in a humid temperate forest biome,” said Love. “That is the 4th most productive environment in the world in terms of converting sunlight into biomass. Since our own native climate is already so productive, why not recreate it as we landscape to take advantage of that potential? You can create your ideal look with edible plants which create a safer environment for your children while teaching them about nutrition, food origins and positive relationships between plants, animals, beneficial insects and other wildlife.”
Make your yard an environmentally friendly oasis. Try some of Patty Love’s top 10 tips
Find natural alternatives to pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Our properties and waterways are all connected. What we put on our lawns typically finds its way into Lake Ontario, where nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers contributes to algal bloom. Other lawn chemicals can damage the water quality and disrupt food chains.
Set the goals for your natural space; then select a design that works. If one of your goals is added privacy, for example, choose shrubs or trees that provide that. The Monroe County Soil and Water Conservation District offers many affordable varieties at its annual plant sale.
Swap out favorite colorful landscaping plants, like the “burning bush” shrub, with beneficial native plants such as the blueberry bush. Its leaves also turn bright red in the fall, and meanwhile, it provides flowers for pollinators and berries for humans and animals. Plant it with beautiful nodding wild onions whose scent can deter deer and larval pests of blueberry plants.
Keep author Dave Jacke’s 7 F’s in mind: Plants should provide at least some of these benefits: Food, Fiber, Fun, “Farmaceuticals” (plants with medicinal properties), Fuel, Fertilizer, and Fodder. Make sure the plants you choose are filling at least three of these functions!
Think in layers. Natural environments consist of 8 layers: overstory (or canopy), understory, shrub, herbaceous, ground covers, roots, vines, and fungi. Select plants from more than one layer when planning an area. Using this pattern from nature allows for a tremendous amount of diversity while creating successful ecosystems for plants and animals.
Build better lawns. Get the look of a short, green lawn beyond the monocrop that is grass. Dutch White Clover, thyme and chamomile are all low growing green plants that will fill out your lawn, add edible elements, and reduce the need for mowing.
Let the dandelions grow. Dandelions are one of the earliest and most important food sources for pollinators, and every part of the dandelion is edible. They are even medicinal!
Choose a fruitful hedge. Rather than using an invasive shrub like Japanese barberry to create a hedge, go with a bountiful fruit producer like currant bushes. Raspberry and blackberry bushes also create a bramble border while producing many delicious berries. Aronia, a flowering shrub, are very easy to care for and produce a beautiful, edible black fruit which is high in antioxidants. Elderberries are also phenomenal because they are so versatile, growing nearly anywhere.
Think of the bees! Bee Balm is an excellent option as bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and other beneficial pollinators are very attracted to it, and you can eat the petals and leaves! For vegetables, consider perennial Sea Kale or Turkish rocket, a perennial broccoli-like plant.
Start small. Outline a designated space, even a square yard, and select a small community of plants for that environment. Let it be natural and see what happens!